A shot from the song “O Yaara Dil Lagaana” from Agnisakshi. This hit song functioned as the promotional material for the film and was popular on television shows like Superhit Muqabla.

Item number: objectification of the female body.

Agnisakshi. The camera also gives the view of the audience from the back of the stage so that Shubhangi is in the foreground and Suraj is in the background, watching her ...

... Then the camera cuts to zoom in to his face, depicting his gaze which is directed at her.

The metaphor of fire plays out crucially in this scene immediately after Shubhangi’s performance. Fire isn’t just a witness (agnisakshi) but also a test of their love/union (agnipareeksha).

Hair and class: Julia Roberts at the end of Pretty Woman. Her hair is tamed, same as it is at the end of Sleeping with the Enemy, symbolizing both her classed body and patriarchal control over it.

Sleeping with the Enemy. Hair and class: Julia Roberts after her transformation in Iowa.

Hair and class: Julia Roberts as a poor prostitute at the beginning of Pretty Woman.

Hair and Class: Julia Roberts after her transformation in Iowa.


Genre and Sleeping with the Enemy:
thriller or woman’s film

Sleeping with the Enemy uses the generic elements of the thriller but imposes them on a melodrama of “patriarchy gone wild:” it has

  • a “victim” in the abused wife;
  • a “monster” in the obsessive controlling husband;
  • the “suspense” in the thrilling narrative of her escape and his chasing after her; and
  • the penultimate climactic scene where the victim wife kills off the monstrous husband.

Through these elements, it becomes, in effect, a horror story about patriarchy. Laura’s husband, Martin, is a psychopath whose fault seems to be his obsessive love for her. But the ways in which his love manifests itself is by making her behave like a proper wife. He wants his house organized and ordered; he wants food ready on time and perfectly arranged on the table; and her body must be constantly at his disposal. If she does not behave according to his decrees, she is punished physically by being beaten or raped. Moreover, similar to many abusive relationships in which women stay with their abusers, Martin often follows his punishment of Laura with an effusion of gifts and apologies in the form of clothes and flowers. Such switches in the abuser’s behavior more generally ensure that women continue in such relationships. Therefore, Martin’s monstrosity is just the obvious, extreme manifestation of patriarchal control. In fact, the Second Wave roots of the title, “sleeping with the enemy,” locate the man/husband as the enemy, the instrument of patriarchal control over women. Logically then, heterosexual marriage can be seen as oppressive and abusive to women.

Sleeping with the Enemy renders bare the ways in which patriarchy allows for domestic abuse and encourages it as a way to control women, but its politics are impacted by the same ideologies that it contests. The generic elements of the thriller make it a story about an anomaly—a man who has gone berserk and becomes a monster. Here, and in all Bollywood remakes of the film, there is another man to replace this abnormal man—the nice guy or the modern patriarch, whose characteristics are eerily similar to, although tamer than, the psychopath’s. At one level, all men are not seen as evil in these films. But at another level, in a more sinister way, patriarchal oppression inherent in romantic codes relating to men is still valorized. The domestic abuse in the thriller then runs the risk of being a mere plot point—an individual crime with an individual solution instead of an example of systemic oppression which cannot be resolved so simply as doling justice out to an abuser. To take this larger view would mean to undermine interpreting the film as a critique of patriarchy or of domestic abuse. In fact, the films may also validate the concerns of post-feminism where women are never understood as victims—instead, they always have the power of choice, and freedom is theirs for the taking if only they choose.

Certainly, Laura has access to certain race and class privileges which provide the possibility of an individual solution—bringing the film closer to a post-feminist sensibility. Laura comes from a seemingly unspecified background. Her mother is in a nursing home and Laura is dependent on her husband for everything. However, she manages to get hold of money to transfer her mother to a different nursing home and to pay her mother’s monthly bill. Moreover, later, Laura is able to get a job at the university library without having to prove her identity, an unremarked-upon fact that very well might indicate her white privilege. Yet her privilege does not protect her from her husband—her body is subject to marital rape and even torture. She might have agency because she had enough privilege to escape her husband and become a survivor instead of a victim, but she still has to suffer first. The film shows that class and race do not protect women from domestic abuse.

The genre of woman’s film/melodrama, then, incorporates thriller elements within it and enables the film’s critique of patriarchy as well as post-feminism. Critics like Helen Hanson have coined different names for this hybrid genre to comment on its progressive potential. Hanson calls it the “neo-gothic genre” for its revision of 1940s gothic films, also gothic/thriller/woman’s film hybrids. Tania Modleski refers to the films of this 1940s genre as “gaslight films,” Mary Ann Doane uses the term “paranoid woman’s films,” and Sabrina Barton calls it an example of “woman’s psychothriller.” Hanson discerns a male dynastic structure in Sleeping with the Enemy and argues that such a patriarchal structure suggests that Second Wave feminist questions about the politics of domestic labor and about domestic violence and sexual abuse can still have significant purchase in the 1990s (185).

Modleski locates roots of this genre in gothic novels and discusses the woman protagonist’s paranoia, a theme that Doane then takes up. One characteristic that Modleski mentions—that the men/husbands in these films are often not murderers or lunatics—is not the case in Sleeping with the Enemy (53). Doane discusses the paranoia where the wife fears that her husband is going to kill her in films like I Spit on Your Grave, Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock 1941), and Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock 1940). The term ‘paranoia’ used by both Modleski and Doane indicates a certain insanity in the woman, which is further confirmed when their suspicions are proved to be unbased in any facts. As Diane Weldman notes, viewers rejected the sloppy ending of Suspicion because despite all evidence pointing towards the husband, the film suggests that the wife’s suspicions were all wrong and a product of her imagination (33). These films then simultaneously align the audience with the woman as suspense and terror is created because they share her paranoia, but the plots indicate her slight madness because of the ambiguity at the basis of these fears.

At the same time, Doane connects the classic symptom of the paranoid condition (of being watched) with another condition—femininity:

“there is a sense then in which paranoia is only a hyperbolization of the ‘normal’ female function of exhibitionism and its attachment to the affect of fear” (126).

Therefore, male violence in these films is delineated as an effect of the voyeuristic gaze (126). Doane finds in this paranoia the uncanniness of the domestic. Such a view, however, constantly questions the woman’s agency. Barton, in contrast, points to a strength in this genre and argues that these films are distinctive from most movie psychothrillers in “granting a more central and investigative role to the woman in jeopardy” (187). Doane also raises this possibility but quickly denies it. She argues that the female investigator is so threatening that often a male investigator is brought in and the female victim’s agency is sidelined, as is the case in Gaslight (George Cukor 1944) (135).

Sleeping with the Enemy revises the genre by making two changes. First, the plot gets rid of the ambiguity—the audience knows from the beginning of the film that Martin is a psychopathic, obsessive person who subjects Laura to physical and emotional abuse, and that he is willing to commit murder to get her back. This setup establishes the script’s greater relation to the woman’s film than the “paranoid films genre” because the husband is already proven to be a monster. As a result, Laura never seems delusional. On the contrary, the narrative centers her point of view as authentic and true. Secondly, not only does the film refuse to provide a male investigator but by confirming Laura’s suspicions about her husband, it adds to her credibility as a female investigator and therefore invests her character with agency. Therefore, when Laura sees the organized cupboards, her fear is not just a product of mere paranoia, it’s a result of seeing clues and evidence. Her paranoia then is necessary for her safety and survival. Finally, violence remains hidden in the domestic space, which is often why in Doane’s formulations the paranoia seems to be a product of psychic fears about marriage and the husband. But Sleeping with the Enemy and its remakes literalize that violence and therefore articulate the roots of that paranoia by rendering that abuse visible. Thus, despite director Ruben’s intentions to make a thriller, his borrowing and updating of the “paranoid films genre” and the film’s critical reception point to its feminist potential as a woman’s film.

Seen as a woman’s film, Sleeping with the Enemy opens up different interpretive positions for analysis. It indicates something rotten in the ideology of heterosexual romance itself, much celebrated by Hollywood. Scholars have analyzed Ruben’s film as a woman’s film in various ways: It represents the dark side of a romantic comedy, is in line with other films that display anxiety regarding aging empowered women, and reveals the connection between women’s oppression and heteropatriarchy. These approaches therefore indicate the film’s subversive potential as not just a feminine (as opposed to the masculine associations of the thriller genre) but also a feminist text.

Jane Caputi’s article, “Sleeping with the Enemy as Pretty Woman, Part II,” draws attention to the similarities between two films that extend beyond the intertextuality of Julia Roberts’s star text. Seeing the two films as representing one relationship, Caputi argues that the relationship between the couple indicates that the same qualities that are described as desirable and romantic, like possessiveness or jealousy, constitute its opposite and form the basis of abuse (4). Coincidentally, even visually, the two films have mise-en-scene that seems mirrored. Caputi draws attention to similarities between Edward (Richard Gere, Pretty Woman) and Martin, and to the empty rich mansion which functions as a prison. But even Julia Roberts’s representation in the two films serves as a commentary on female sexuality and patriarchy. Vivian’s (Julia Roberts) transformation in Pretty Woman requires clothes that are more restrictive and her hair is tamed, a look that she sports in Martin’s mansion in Sleeping with the Enemy. The change in her hair signifies her class-marked uncontainable working body finally brought under control through marriage. Hair, the riotous curls, becomes a marker of her freedom, her sexual freedom, which she had more control over as a prostitute than as a wife. Similarly, Julia Roberts’s hair at the end of Sleeping with the Enemy resembles that at the beginning of Pretty Woman.

Elaine Roth discerns in the film’s representation of the mother a backlash to Second Wave feminism. Talking about Sleeping with the Enemy along with several other “momophobic” films, she argues that these films render powerful women as enfeebled and disabled. Yet, she claims, the presence of the maternal is also empowering for the daughter:

“This figure of the incapacitated mother…delivers a warning of the dangers of patriarchy to adult daughters, since the utterly marginalized mother represents the teleology of patriarchy for women. Such a compromised figure tacitly encourages the daughter to reject a model of womanhood complicit with dominant ideology and prompts the daughter to escape the replication of her mother’s cultural position” (194).

At the same time, the mother’s vulnerability contributes to Laura’s vulnerability (he finds her by gaining access to the mother) and the film advances two imperatives through the mother-daughter relationship and their location within patriarchy—heterosexuality and female defenselessness (Roth 196). Therefore, not only does the film present the contradictory negotiation with patriarchy that these women are enmeshed in, it also makes explicit the connection between heteropatriarchy and female oppression.

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