Secretaries On Screen: Secretly The Most Important Person In The Office | Trope Explained

She keeps the company running, knows everything about everyone, and is often severely underappreciated: she’s the secretary.

“He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time, they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress.” Mad Men

Nowadays, there are a number of different positions that fall into this trope – secretaries, personal assistants, receptionists, executive assistants, and beyond – but they all share some important qualities, and have to suffer through many of the same problems. Though these jobs are integral to keeping their companies running, they very seldom get much recognition for all of the work they do. So let’s take a deeper look at the various representations of the secretary on screen, what she really represents, and why she deserves respect.

“Hello, what do you want? You can’t have it, goodbye.” Veep


On screen, secretary characters usually fall into some identifiable categories:

The “Sexy Secretary” – The most classic version of the trope, she was more of a fantasy than a real character. She didn’t really do much work, but the boss kept her around for other reasons… This version of the trope, especially in its earlier iterations, was often very demeaning, with the character being a total airhead whose only purpose was to be the office eye candy. This type of framing fed into the idea that women working as secretaries were really only looking for husbands and weren’t really interested in work, and fostered the harassment that women still face from colleagues and bosses – no matter what they look like or how they dress – who see secretaries as only being there for their enjoyment. Thankfully, more recent iterations of the Sexy Secretary have begun to unpack the harsh realities of how damaging this kind of mindset can be. She does important work, and wants to be respected for it, but so often people can’t see past her looks.

“I can’t wait until next year when all of you are in Vietnam. You will be pining for the day when someone was trying to make your life easier.” Mad Men

The Plucky Secretary – Clever and always up to the task, this version of the trope doesn’t stand out for her looks… or, usually, for anything at all. She’s so efficient that sometimes she almost fades into the background – she’s so integral to the running of the workplace that sometimes her coworkers forget that she is in fact a whole human being with thoughts and feelings.

“There’s nothing better than a beautiful day at the beach, filled with sun, surf, and… uh, diligent note-taking.” “Pam! You’re missing things!” The Office

She often wants more out of life – she has big dreams, but just hasn’t yet figured out quite how to go for them; and the grind of her job only makes plotting out her future even more difficult.

“It’s just like, I worked so hard at being this great assistant and making sure she was happy that… I don’t know, feels like I might have lost any writing skill I ever had.” Set It Up

Even though she might not look or dress “classically sexy” by Hollywood standards, that definitely doesn’t mean she escapes being sexualized to some degree.

“Please stop staring at me like that, undressing me with your eyes.” “I’m adding more clothes, Mike.” Veep

The Ditz – This version of the trope sometimes overlaps with the ‘Sexy Secretary’, but doesn’t always. The Ditz usually tries to do her best, but just can’t ever quite figure out what is going on – maybe she’s just a little space-y or maybe she just doesn’t care because her dad owns the company and she doesn’t really need the job. This version of the character usually appears to provide a bit of levity in the larger story. It can be pretty easy for this version of the trope to start feeling like it’s punching down and falling into the same ‘secretarial work is easy and unimportant’ – but it is also often used as a good opportunity to subvert expectations and show that the secretary actually has a lot of useful skills, even if no one else notices.

On occasion, we see the Male Secretary – Pretty much always played for laughs, the male secretary is more often not a himbo who is pretty much totally incapable of doing anything but look hot. While this is usually an attempt to flip the original version of the trope for satire, it can sometimes begin to feel less like the subversion of the trope and more like upholding it, as in “hahah, look how easy and silly this work is. Can you imagine if a man really had to do any of this in real life?” The scarcity of male secretaries on screen aligns with the lack of them in real life – according to the United States Census Bureau, approximately 94% are women. And the continued mockery of administrative work as “less than” and unimportant only adds to the inequality (which we’ll unpack more in a moment.)

And then there’s the Long-Term Loyal Secretary – She’s been around longer than everyone, she knows more than everyone, and she’s not afraid to make sure everyone knows it.

“Maybe after the ceremony you can get one the fourth graders to come in and show you how to use the intercom.” The West Wing

She’s usually very loyal to her boss or the company – she sees them as a part of her. It’s her mission to make sure everyone has their ducks in a row and that everything continues to run smoothly. She suffers no fools and has no problem calling people out.

“Can mice levitate, Mike? Can they levitate and fire lasers out of their mice eyes?” “No?” “Then we have both asked each other equally ridiculous questions.” Veep

Unlike the other types, everyone does respect the long-term loyal secretary; they know if they have any chance of succeeding, they need her on their side.

While these versions of the trope might at first feel quite different, in the end they all come up against many of the same obstacles. So let’s take a moment to unpack the challenges the secretary faces and how she holds the entire workplace together.


First, let’s wind back the clock for a second to figure out where these tropes sprang from. Historically, many of the things that fall under administrative work today were actually seen as work for men – these positions were usually very close to power, and so seen as roles that women shouldn’t, or even couldn’t, hold. In the late 19th and early 20th century, more and more people began moving into cities, and as companies began to grow rapidly, they needed a larger pool of workers. Young, educated women began filling these secretarial positions, and in the public consciousness administrative work quickly began to become synonymous with “women’s work.” And the view of how these jobs fit into the larger corporate structure changed, too. History Professor Leon Fink told the Chicago Tribune that when the role was more male dominated, “[c]lerks often went on to become managers,” but as it shifted to being seen as a ‘woman’s job’, it became “more of a permanent subordinate position.” This also directly led to the position being seen as lowly or less respectable.

“No matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary, and you’re another humorless b*tch.” Mad Men

Because secretarial work was one of the major ways for women to find gainful employment and support themselves, they often felt like they had to put up with the men’s bad behavior because they couldn’t afford not to. The objectification of secretaries has been a through-line of the trope from the beginning, and by the 80s stories began to dig deeper and unpack how damaging that treatment was instead of just accepting it as an unavoidable ‘quirk’ of office life.

“Look, I’ve been straight with you since the first day I got here. And I’ve put up will all your groping and ogling and hollow apologies and chasing me around the desk, because I need this job. BUT THIS IS THE LAST STRAW!” 9 to 5

Though safeguards have been put in place and society at large has begun to change its mindset, we still continue to see the effects of this stereotyping and treatment today. And beyond just the issue of objectification, there’s also the issue of women – regardless of their actual role – being made to take on administrative tasks at the office because of the assumption that it’s just ‘what women do.’ It also ties into what Amy Diehl and Leanne M. Dzubinski in the Harvard Business Review dubbed ‘role incredulity’, that is “a form of gender bias where women are mistakenly assumed to be in a support or stereotypically female role — secretary, administrative assistant, court reporter, nurse, wife, girlfriend — rather than a leadership or stereotypically male role, such as CEO, professor, lawyer, doctor, or engineer.” So in the end, stereotyping affects all women in the workplace in some way or another: women who are in administrative roles aren’t seen as worthy of respect and it’s automatically assumed that no woman could possibly be anything other than a secretary.

In recent years, we’ve begun to see more stories exploring the true experiences of the secretary and giving her a full, well-rounded characterization beyond the old-school confines of the trope…


The secretary is usually the one point of calm in the chaos of the office, which is surprising given that she’s often having to take on everyone else’s stress to help them stay afloat. All of the minutiae that keeps the office running – getting prints, keeping files organized, setting meetings, buying supplies, organizing calendars, and more – falls to her. When things are going smoothly, everyone else almost forgets she’s even there. But if even one thing starts to slip, she’s the one that’s going to get flack. Her central position also means that she’s close to all of the power players and often pulled into their drama without anyone ever really making considerations for her life and problems.

“Uh, he says, in that case, he’s going to grind your bones to make his bread.” Succession

And while all of this is very draining and dispiriting, in recent films and shows we’ve begun to see the secretary fight back against this treatment, following in the footsteps of 80s icons like Working Girl and 9 to 5.

“You know what? It’s the seventh of kiss my ass, and tomorrow is the eighth of set your own goddamn meetings.” Suits

On Mad Men, Joan and Peggy’s arcs analyzed the difficulty of the role back in the 1960s and the immense difficulty it took to break out of the stereotypes and get the respect you deserve. At first, Joan bought into ‘playing by the rules’, because she saw it as the only way a woman could get ahead. Peggy more immediately balks at the treatment she receives, and also has bigger dreams of staking out her place as an equal. Though they had to take very different paths to success, in the end both were able to carve out lives for themselves where they were respected and in control.

The Office’s Pam is another secretary who had to struggle for respect – and not just from others, but also from herself. She continually feels stuck over the course of the show – she doesn’t want to be a receptionist forever, her art career doesn’t pan out, and she doesn’t end up being very good at sales. But in the end she learns that the issue wasn’t with the role itself, in fact she was very good at it, the problem was the lack of appreciation and recognition for everything that she did that ground her down. She finds her happy place by reworking the role to fit her life and demanding more respect from her colleagues.

“That’s me…I’m- I’m the office administrator!” The Office

We also see a great example of a long-suffering executive assistant reaching the end of her rope and realizing that she needs to break free from her toxic job in Succession’s Jess Jordan. Hyper-competent and always ready to deal with whatever wild thing Kendall wanted at any given moment. Jess spent most of the series as his right hand, answering calls at all hours of the day and night, always trying to be one step ahead so that nothing ever fell through the cracks. But in the final season, she reaches her breaking point and decides that no matter how lucrative or ‘good for her career’ her position might be, she can’t – and won’t – do it anymore.

April Ludgate of Parks and Recreation is on the other end of the spectrum – she has no lack of confidence and certainly isn’t afraid to push back against anyone or anything.

“I’ll make sure you don’t have to go to any meetings. If anyone comes to see you, I’ll scare them away.” Parks and Recreation

She goes against pretty much all of the classic secretary tropes: she hates work, isn’t the slightest bit cheery, doesn’t care to bring people together or solve problems, and isn’t generally helpful.

“I want to tell people what to do, then send them far away from me.” Parks and Recreation

But keeping this distance from her job and not letting it affect her own sense of self is how she’s able to manage to keep herself from being beaten down by the pitfalls that trap many other on screen receptionists. And while she certainly grows and changes over the seasons, she never feels the need to hide or change who she is to build the life she wants.

Veep’s Sue is, by all accounts, the most (and perhaps only) competent person working on Selina Meyer’s staff, and everyone knows it.

“It has been said of you that you could organize the D-Day landings and still have time left over for Iwo Jima.” “And, unlike reality, I would have gotten Iwo Jima right.” Veep

She knows everything about everyone and keeps everything in check. She has no problem separating work from the rest of her life – her colleagues don’t even know she got married for a year because they were very much not invited to the wedding – and her ability to shut down anyone that’s causing a problem makes her perfect for her role (while also helping her keep her own sanity intact.)


Now there’s a new player in the game: artificial intelligence. As with seemingly everything else, there are some people that are convinced that AI will totally replace the work of secretaries.

“They have new phone systems now that can ring directly to a salesman, or someone presses “star” and they go to accounting. Basically 95% of my job. [add clapper here] But I’d like to see someone put out candy for everyone… vending machine!” The Office

And it circles right back around to the original shift from men to women doing the work – now women are demanding fair pay and respect in the workplace, and so corporate heads are looking for a new type of secretary that will do whatever they want and not ever think for themselves. Assistant AI already fall into many stereotypes: they essentially always have female voices, and on screen are usually portrayed as desirable and sexy (even if you can’t even see them). Though thankfully there are AI characters who have already pushed back against this reductive framing.

“To Janet! The best robot-” “Not a robot.” “Girl-” “Not a girl.” “And straight up hottie!” “I am attractive, yes.” “Any of us could have asked for.” “Thanks, guys.” The Good Place

But the rise of Assistant AI and Fembots (both on screen and in real life) would take a whole separate video to explore, so do let us know in the comments if you’d be interested in that!

Secretarial work still doesn’t get enough recognition – one day a year to celebrate all that they do to keep the world running definitely isn’t enough. We should all pay more attention to all of the behind the scenes workers that make our lives run more smoothly and are there to help us do our best work – and at times keeping us out of trouble…

“Michael! Michael, hey I just came out to see what you were doing, and maybe stop you!” The Office