The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 2016)

Ladies in Waiting

Becca Rothfeld

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 3)

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
—W.S. Merwin1

In the most memorable scene of the 2002 film Secretary, nothing happens. The protagonist, Lee, sits as still as possible, her hands planted firmly on the desk in front of her. She has been instructed by her lover, who is also her sexually sadistic employer, to hold this position until he returns. For over ten minutes, a period that represents entire days in the movie’s internal timeline, Lee remains faithfully immobile, wetting herself in the process.

Lee offers up her violent passivity as proof of her love, and her physical humiliations are like religious devotions. Hoping to gratify her lover by depriving herself of food, she declines into hunger-induced delirium in which she experiences a hallucinatory vision of her therapist. He explains, “There’s a long history of this in Catholicism. The monks used to wear thorns on their temples, and the nuns wore them sewn inside their clothing.”2 Like centuries of monks, nuns, and mystics before her, Lee transforms her inertia and hunger into an active occupation through the performance of sacrificial pain.

Hunger is a particularly intensified iteration of waiting: acute wanting directed toward a palpably absent object. The literal hunger of mystics like Catherine of Siena, who famously fasted for much of her life, corresponds to a greater hunger, necessarily insatiable, for communion with God. When Lee’s lover comes to her rescue, he resuscitates her with a protein shake, and their relationship adopts the familiar, flagellatory rhythm of feeding and hungering, deprivation and indulgence. Lee’s grand gesture, the gift of her famished waiting, is its origin and its core.

Waiting seems central to the experience and practice of masochistic piety’s messianic successor, romantic love, the force that is supposed to redeem twenty-first-century women as religious salvation once redeemed their forebears. But how exactly does waiting figure into contemporary romance? In his 1977 treatise A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes argues that waiting is constitutive of love:

“Am I in love?—Yes, since I’m waiting.” The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game: whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.3

In Barthes’s view, love is centrally defined by the transfiguration of neutral lack into conspicuous vacancy, of emptiness into absence: Love is waiting, and waiting is love. For Catherine of Siena, perennially ravenous, the absence is God’s. For Lee, delectably paralyzed with submission, it is her boss’s. For the lover, the beloved’s absence is always acute. Distance is not a redistribution of presence but an evasion or a thwarted expectation, like a phantom limb.

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  1. W.S. Merwin, “Separation,” in The Second Four Books of Poems (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1993), 15. Retrieved from Poetry Foundation website:
  2. Steven Shainberg (director), Erin Cressida Wilson (screenwriter), Secretary (motion picture), distributed by Lions Gate Films (2002).
  3. Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, trans. Richard Howard (London, England: Vintage Classics, 2002), 40.

Becca Rothfeld is a doctoral candidate in the department of philosophy at Harvard University.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.3 (Fall 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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