Thursday, August 23, 2012

Secretaries Are Not Magic (No Matter What Suits Tells You)

Before becoming a full time writer, I was an assistant for a couple of years. In Hollywood it’s something you do so that you can go on to do something you enjoy more, generally, and I really tried to make it work. It just so happens, though, that I’m a terrible assistant (smart does not equal good at running someone else’s life), and knowing that about myself has led to some pretty cool self-discovery.

It has also led to a really weird pop culture discovery. Since this isn’t share and care hour, we’re gonna focus on the latter.

Secretaries are the new wives.

When you watch a show or movie these days that’s set in an office environment, chances are at least one character will have an assistant. That’s a pretty accurate representation of reality, too, as from what I can tell, they’re everywhere. Assistants are the ones who (usually) make sure the photocopies get made, the calendar is set, and the emails go off to the right people. They answer phones, take messages, schedule meetings, do basic background work, and generally run the executives professional life.

In pop culture, assistants are seen two different ways. On the one hand you have the terrible assistant, constantly getting things wrong and acting as a hilarious foil for the awesome boss character (see Suri on 30 Rock, etc), and on the other hand you have the awesome assistant who is amazing at everything, secretly speaks Chinese, and already got those files you wanted ten minutes ago (see Pepper in Iron Man, etc).

Now, I’m not going to insult your intelligence and suggest that neither one of those archetypes exists (I should know, I was the first one), but I am going to say that there’s something a little hinky going on with those perfect assistants.

Namely, they’re pretty much impossible.

We had a saying at work: “Secretaries aren’t magic.” In order for an assistant to do something for you, they first have to have some idea that it needs doing. Now, a very good assistant will anticipate your needs and do the thing before you ask. An amazing assistant will do the thing before you even realize you need it. But an impossible assistant will do the thing even though no one on the planet would have realized it was ever going to be a thing that needed doing.

Except, in movies, this happens all the time. It’s a tradition that harkens back to really old sitcoms, though especially to M*A*S*H, where Radar always knew exactly what everyone wanted before they were done saying it thus driving people nuts. It was used as a joke about how executives are stupid and their assistants do all of the real work. Assistants keep the lights on, make sure everything goes smoothly, and are inhumanly amazing at doing so.

Which is, again, kind of true. Where it’s not true is where this becomes a character device.

You see, perfect assistants in movies and television are rarely given the chance to be actual characters. More often, they’re funny and preternaturally efficient plot devices, there to smooth everything along and squeeze out a few laughs on the way. They don’t get their own stories, they often don’t get last names. They are there solely to support and honor their boss. Who is usually a man.

Let’s take Donna, for example, from the USA show Suits. It’s a cute show, nothing very noteworthy in it, except for Donna, one of the lead character’s assistant.

Donna is cool. She is awesome. I want to be her friend. But Donna is sadly impossible.

Donna comes into the show already knowing what her boss wants better than he does. When he wants a file, she has it and it’s totally filled out. When he wants a table at a restaurant, she’s already made the call and his reservation is at 8, the car will pick him up at 7:30, and there’s a lint roller next to his coffee just in case he needs to freshen up.

Like I said, Donna’s pretty cool.

But the problem with these characters is that someone as ridiculously skilled and efficient as Donna, if she did ever exist, wouldn’t be an assistant. It seems mean to say it, but it’s true. Donna is an assistant because the show says she is. But in her character, she’s a better executive than Harvey is.

And that’s the real problem with magical secretaries. The way the characters are written, it makes absolutely no sense for them to be assistants in the first place. There was actually a nice nod to this in Iron Man 2, when Tony made Pepper the CEO. He realized that she was so freakishly competent that she would be a better CEO than he was. And she was.

So why would Donna, who is amazing and ambitious and crazy smart, stay assistant to one man for nearly a decade?

She wouldn’t.

Magical secretaries, gender neutral though they officially are, are a throwback to the classic female roles of the past. They are supportive, through and through. They are great at their jobs, but not in a way that will overshadow our heroes. They are there only to serve.

Also blandly supportive. Much less cool.
This may make for expedited drama, but it doesn’t really make for interesting characters. The magical secretaries are plot devices that allow our heroes to have a woman fawn over him and support his every move without the writer creating wives or girlfriends. A poorly written girlfriend character, one who is devoted to every move her boyfriend makes and has no life of her own, would be a terrible addition to most shows and would garner instant criticism. But a loving and skilled assistant who happens to dote on the male lead? That’s fine. It’s close enough to real life for no one to raise an eyebrow.

It’s not that I don’t think there are truly skilled assistants out there who are awesome and devoted to their jobs. There are. I know some. But I also know that those people usually want something more. Using the secretary as a crutch for the lead is a low blow, but one that seems to be more common than we think.

It’s really a shame, because if most of these magical secretaries thought they were being used as a crutch they’d probably deal with it themselves.

Now, if you'll excuse her, Donna has a world to brutally conquer.


  1. When I see an impossibly good assistant it always makes me side-eye the writing - because why would this boss keep an obviously awesome person in a menial position when their (let's face it, her) talents could clearly be better used elsewhere? Add in the fact they're usually female, usually serving a man and they only exist to serve that man and..., we are in the world of Unfortunate Implications.

    1. One of the many reasons why I just can't love the movie Secretary. It's just too much.

  2. I was a fan of Donna until they started to imply that she was in love with Harvey (I only watched season one, so I don't know if they ever expanded on that; she at least implied that they were/wanted to be together at one point).

    As Tina Fey says in response to the question of whether Liz and Jack would ever get together: "That's just lazy sitcom writing."

    - Tippi

    1. Yeah. The wifely aspects of her character, combined with the eye-roll inducing backstory really don't do the writers any favors. I would have much preferred it if Donna were just Harvey's super-competent friend who happens to be an assistant while she also writes novels or is a poker champion or somehow pursues her own dreams on the side.

  3. Unfortunately today, secretaries are wives. I say this as somebody who is pretty good at the admin work and eventually dropped out of the market because the job descriptions were just too... girly (if you'll forgive the term).

    Oddly enough, this didn't use to be the case. It's part of a particularly sexist implementation of feminism in the work place. The Secretary of Defense, for instance, is a real secretary, in the original sense. It was a temporary position, an understudy role, while preparing for one's own leadership position. In the army, you were called an aide, and it was basically the same work. Note MacArthur's comment that Eisenhower was "the best aide I ever had." It was flippant, but apparently it was true.

    But when women started entering the marketplace, for some reason the dominated the administrative field and pushed the men out. (There's probably a history paper in there.) Male leaders, suddenly beset with female secretaries, and female workers, suddenly beset with a job as a personal attendant to a male leader, didn't know how to handle the situation professionally without falling in to old male-female stereotypes.

    Strangely, I have known a small number of extremely proficient (almost to the level of impossibility) executive admin assistants. They have all been female, over 50, and possessed of the same steely gray character typical of an old school marm. Which makes sense, since the job is much the same, and it pays better.

    1. The main reason that women dominated the administrative fields had nothing to do with a feminist desire to take men's jobs, and simply was a result of the reluctance of women to leave the cities and give up an independent source of income after WWII. Women in the workplace were pushed into roles that society deemed appropriate. Caregiving roles, like nurse, teacher, and secretary. It took many years before women were able to actually succeed in the higher levels of these jobs, as doctors, professors, and executives.

      And as for the inevitable falling into sex stereotypes in the workplace, it had more to do with application of power than anything else. Now that the job market is becoming more gender equal, there are more gender equal reports of abuse of power. Which makes sense.

    2. But see, that's the thing - being a secretary didn't use to be considered a caregiving role. It became more of a caregiving role as a result of the demographic shift. But I won't call that necessarily abuse. It certainly wasn't for me, and I'm sure that lots of women refused secretarial work for the same reason. But there are plenty of people who are very proficient at their jobs and honestly prefer to play second fiddle.

      I was trying to think of a feminine example of the older kind of understudy-secretary, and the best shot I had was The Devil Wears Prada, which I thought was an awful movie

    3. Hmm, I actually quite liked The Devil Wears Prada (and so does my dad, weirdly enough). But with most movies, your mileage may vary.

      The secretary as caregiver did represent a shift in the understanding of gender dynamics in the workplace, but I think that was actually a function of the changing workforce. And the secretary as understudy was an existing position, as it is today, but there were plenty of secretaries, amanuenses, and valets, who worked primarily in a caregiving manner.

      I can accept that there are some people who genuinely enjoy playing second fiddle--that in no way bothers me. It's the supposition that those people are the characters that we see portrayed as these magical secretaries on TV: that bothers me. Donna (from Suits) is not the kind of person content with just cleaning up after someone, and it seems inconsistent writing to have her in that position for almost a decade. It's certainly a trait some people have. But if you write a character with ambition, you'd better let them follow through on it.

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