Fantastical Elements in “Top Girls”

Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls, which appeared in 1982, depicts key themes such as feminism and oppression throughout history. Through the main character, Marlene, we are able to see aspects of individualism, as Marlene abandons her own daughter, Angie, due to her own career aspirations. In addition, we, the audience are able to see how Marlene becomes alienated; thus, she befriends fictional and historical characters in Act One and introduces the fantasy elements of this play. By all means, this technique does help Churchill to portray the oppression of women; however, it seems that imaginative elements are also introduced to underline other key themes.

The fantasy element of Top Girls can be seen as essential, as it illustrates a distinct contrast between the characters presented. Some characters are submissive to male dominance, whereas others stand up to it. An example taken from the submissive characters is Joan, as she says; “I thought God would speak to me directly. But of course he knew I was a woman.” The noun ‘woman’ demonstrates that she acknowledges the gender inequality and division that was present in 13th century Christianity. Joan has clearly been presented to have a strong Christian faith; indeed, she believes that God is omniscient, as demonstrated by the fact that she says ‘he knew.’ As a result of both this statement and other factors, we are able to see how women were relegated to a second-class citizenship even in a religious context. This in turn helps emphasize Churchill’s point about feminism. Joan has gone through a plethora of hardships, yet even though she endeavored for education and reached an elevated position she was inhibited, and eventually undermined, by her gender.

Another fantasy character who leaves an impression is Nijo, a woman who demonstrates a sharp contrast to the stereotypical submissive female. Nijo is the emperor’s concubine, but she is still a dominant character, as her speech indicates: “And I hit him with a stick. Yes, I hit him …” The use of the aggressive verb ‘hit’ emphasizes that Nijo does understand the fundamental ideas of feminism, in the sense that she acknowledges that there was cruel and unfair treatment towards the female gender. Yet, the use of the exclamation ‘yes’ portrays the disbelief and shock that she could take violent physical action. There is a sociological explanation for such disbelief: males were seen to be higher than women in the social hierarchy and Nijo was a concubine. Thus, for her to hit the emperor meant that she was disobeying the person who ‘owns’ her. As a result of these characters, who are brought in due to the fantasy element, we, the audience are able to see how women have been segregated throughout history.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the fantasy elements help to illustrate the struggles of the female gender, struggles clearly presented through Marlene. Marlene does not have a large amount of dialogue compared to other characters, yet the simple statements she delivers create an impact. For example: “Don’t you get angry? I get angry.” The repetition of the adjective ‘angry’ demonstrates that Marlene is infuriated by the treatment that the other women have gone through. Marlene, however, thinks that she lives in a society in which women can excel as much as men can, but this is not the case; after all, there is still female inequality today. Although Marlene is able to see that the other women have suffered due to their gender, she refuses to let that fact stop her from gaining financial independence, and this is where we are able to see the corrosive effects of hyper-professionalism. Then, later on, we find out that she has abandoned her own child. The use of personal pronouns ‘you’ and ‘I’ highlights how Marlene is attempting to draw out similarities between herself and the fantasy characters, suggesting how alienated she has become. Hence, the fantasy elements are essential but do not play a key role comparable to Marlene’s, since Marlene embodies the destructiveness of hyper-professionalism and self-inflicted alienation.

Therefore, the fantasy elements are essential to Top Girls. Still, such elements are manipulated by Churchill in order to construct a larger image; the audience can view these characters figures within a microcosm of the society that was present in 1980’s England.

A Chorus of Issues

Although the characters’ distinctive individual stories are told in Act I of Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls, the overall effect is a cumulative chorus of women’s issues. The dinner scene in Act I establishes thematic foundations upon which numerous women’s issues can be raised. Despite each character’s clamor of self-absorbed monologue and consequential disinterest or lack of sympathy for the others’ narratives, the women of Act I are fundamentally united through common feminist concepts. Effective use of several literary techniques, stage directions, and contextual parameters essentially serves to emphasize the ultimate chorus of women’s issues.The predominant issue raised in Act I is that of social confines and identity as expressed through the common premise of clothing. Several characters debate the implications of dress and its suggestions with regard to conventional societal conceptions. A disagreement between Isabella and Joan surfaces over the idea of dressing, whereby Joan’s assumed masculinity as conveyed through her clothing does not concur with Isabella’s notions of femininity; tension and undertones of disapproval are implied in Isabella’s direction to Joan on the topic of dress: “I repudiated strongly any suggestion in the press that I was other than feminine.” Furthermore, Nijo introduces concepts of clothing with respect to social confines as paralleled by her contextual significance. The cultural principles of thirteenth-century Japan are illustrated through Nijo’s glorified elaboration of clothing as an indication of social status: “When I was chosen to give sake to His Majesty’s brother (…) I wore raw silk pleated trousers and a seven layered gown in shades of red.” Dress is a significant theme upon which issues of female identity are expressed, as achieved through contradictory views.Female position in relation to men is also explored as portrayed through conflicting beliefs. Marlene’s belief in the universal unacceptability of rape contrasts with Nijo’s recognition and acceptance of her own objectification before the Emperor. Nijo’s understanding is a result of her own cultural upbringing: she states after Marlene expresses concerns about rape: “No, of course not, Marlene, I belonged to him.” Such views of diminutive relations to men can be compared to the story of Griselda, who sacrificed her own children to comfort the misguided, troubled mind of her husband, Walter, who in turn believed that Griselda did not have the capacity to “always obey him” and thus forced her to “prove” her love and loyalty to him. The surrendering of her children based on Walter’s disturbed suspicions is an undeniable indication of Griselda’s understood submissiveness to men. The themes of objectification and powerlessness are thoroughly considered throughout Act I, and that theme inextricably links all of the women even though they disagree; Marlene, for example, must physically remove herself from the dining table upon hearing Griselda’s story: “I can’t stand this. I’m going for a pee.”Maternal protection is a central feminist theme considered in Act I. Gret’s hideously nightmarish monologue of horrifying rage is a consequence of the suffering through loss of her child: “My baby, a soldier run her through with a sword (…) I was mad, I hate the bastards.” The maternal grief that Gret experiences can be equated with that portrayed in the other stories of women who had also lost their children. Nijo and Griselda suffered similar tragedies in losing their children. Nijo surrendered her children as did Griselda, who was asked to prove her loyalty to her husband by agreeing to their murder. Griselda is the only maternal character to have had her children returned to her; her presence is potentially Marlene’s subconscious manifestation of yearning to regain her children. Joan also experienced the barbaric loss of her child after a public childbirth: “They took me by the feet and dragged me out of town and stoned me to death.” The women who bear the loss of children are quintessentially united through maternal suffering.Motifs of travel in Act I signify the essential women’s issue of change, endeavor, and the search of new horizons. Isabella’s escape to Morocco is a consequence of her detest for domesticity, whereby issues of gender roles are raised. The idea of wanting to “get away” is illustrated through Nijo’s twenty years of traveling and Isabella’s longing to escape when at home in Scotland: “I couldn’t stay in Scotland, I loathed the constant murk.” Even Marlene introduces a need to escape: “I’d like to go somewhere exotic like you but I can’t get away.” The notion of change is a perpetuating theme in Top Girls and conveys a common matter amongst the women of Act I.Another important fundamental theme throughout the entire play is that of the equality and unity of women. The common support for that idea among the women is questioned through the continual and somewhat hectic interruption and overlapping of speech. Stage direction is cleverly utilized to convey a sense of equivocation concerning the supposed female unity. As the waitress “starts to bring the main course,” for example, Marlene ironically queries, “And nobody noticed anything?” The juxtaposition of stage direction and contextually ambiguous dialogue effectively deflates the supposed grandiose female alliance that is seemingly suggested throughout Act I. The waitress completes the anachronistic spectrum of women: her silence dismantles the notions of universal female comradeship. This incongruity is further expressed as Gret recounts the terrifying details of her story; the drunken women continue to voice their own sufferings despite Gret’s recollections of female alliance. Joan is lost in her isolating soliloquy of Latin gibberish whilst Isabella persists on telling her tale. It seems that all women struggle to be heard, yet do very little to listen. Stage directions dictate the chaotic digression of the ending of Act I:NIJO is laughing and crying. / JOAN gets up and is sick in a corner. MARLENE is drinking ISABELLA’S brandy.The disordered nature of the ending moments of Act I primarily reflect the conflicting, chaotic nature of the women and their individual stories and beliefs.The individual stories of Act I, however conflicting, nonetheless point to a universal female experience of oppression. Gender roles, maternalism, equality, social confines, and identity are all themes directed toward expectation. The repetition of the statement, “There was nothing in my life,” by several women epitomizes the suffering for their endeavors and the psychological entrapment within their own eternal conflicts; although varying and contradictory in nature, the themes raised therein ultimately unify the women of Act I.

Femininity Interrupted: Churchill’s Negative Critique of Powerful Women

In the play Top Girls, Churchill presents women with power as cynical as it is portrayed that they have abandoned their feminine attributes and womanhood to reach success through the use of male qualities. This idea is particularly evident in the main character of Marlene, as she gives up her daughter and motherhood to pursue a career and power. However, in the play Churchill also integrates characters with little power, such as Kit, to juxtapose the attitude and character type of those who possess power.

The pivotal character of the entire play, Marlene, is presented negatively yet she holds a lot of power in her workplace. She is shown to give away her child and the chance to be a mother to pursue a career. She seems cold and selfish as a character and shut off from any instinct of need for a family or love. This is particularly evident when Marlene is interviewing Jeanine in act two, as she advises Jeanine to stray from mentioning a family or wearing a ring in her interview, encouraging her you abandon traits that are common in women’s lives, as she sees that people will believe she cannot balance both. ‘Marlene: So you won’t tell them you’re getting married? / Jeanine: Had I better not? / Marlene: It would probably help’. This dismissive and negative attitude to marriage Marlene holds is cynical as she only views it as a barrier to a career. A feminist would argue that men are able to openly be married and be fathers and still be successful in their careers, so women should be able to also, therefore by Marlene encouraging the attitude that it is a barrier, is wrong. However, it is arguable that Marlene is only logical to advise Jeanine in this area as at the time the play is set women only held 30% of ‘management’ jobs and the pay gap, particularly under Thatcher was growing.

Another aspect of Marlene’s character that is presented in a cynical and negative way is how she takes on male attributes to reach success. In many ways, such as her conversation type or her relationships with other people, she ignores her female gender, as if it’s only a barrier. For example, when Angie enters Marlene’s work place, she hardly reacts and continues her firm and professional attitude. When she is speaking to Angie the quantity of what she is saying is still bare, with short replies such as ‘Yes I am’ and ‘Well we’ll see’, as if she would rather stay professional than be kind and motherly around her own daughter, presenting how her career is more important. This creates a truly cynical and closed off portrayal of Marlene. She continues this attitude towards Angie when she criticizes her and believes she will only make it as a ‘packer in Tesco’, putting down her own daughter, very much reflecting the bourgeois feminist that she is. This attitude of a woman in power is reflective of the prime minister of the time Margaret Thatcher. Marlene feels the need to present herself as firm and tough to compete with men in the workplace which is also exemplified when win says ‘Tough birds like us’, as if it is a badge of honour to be a ‘tough’ woman, the word ‘tough’ particularly mirroring a characteristic associated with men being significant here also. The way Thatcher was viewed as the ‘iron lady’ and Marlene’s cold, selfish attitude particularly mirror each other, as it is clear that at the time many women saw it necessary to create a masculine exterior through the way they dress, converse and treat others, to succeed. Furthermore, it is interesting that by Marlene gaining a bigger role in the agency it would be thought that this would be a landmark for other women to start gaining more equal treatment within their jobs compared to men, however by Marlene filling this job it is clear that is more of a barrier for other women to reach roles of importance as it can be seen that as long as they have a woman in those roles, they do not need any more to create an equal image of the agency, this is displayed in act two when Win and Nell says, ‘There’s not a lot of room upward’ ‘Marlene’s filled it up’. This is also evident in Thatcher’s time in power as many saw her, as the first female British Prime Minister, to be a leader for feminism, however her time in power was uneventful for women’s rights, and there is evidence to show that the pay gap actually increased. Therefore, it is clear that women in power are presented as negative in the play, as they are portrayed to deny their own gender and do whatever it takes to reach the top.

The way Kit is portrayed in the play juxtaposes the women in the who possess power, as she holds such optimism and has true aspirations to have a career that is seen as hard to reach and male dominated, yet she doesn’t hold doubt that her gender will hold her back. When Kit and Joyce are speaking in act two, Kit explains how she would like to be a ‘Nuclear Physicist’, yet her reply from Joyce is very much dismissive as she says ‘whatever for?’ yet Kit’s reply displays how she slightly suppresses this optimism, as she says ‘I could’. The word ‘could’ truly presents how people in society are already oppressing her desires to pursue a profession that is seen as ‘hard to reach’ for women in the 80s. At this point Kit hasn’t let society stunt her aspirations, which is why, even though she’s a character who holds little power, she is presented as the antithesis to many other women in the play as she doesn’t give in to societies views at the time that women shouldn’t desire such high up jobs, an attitude that is particularly obtained by Joyce.

Churchill creates a range of characters in the play to present, in a nutshell, the different types of attitudes people would hold to women in society in the 80s and even throughout history. She creates a negative image of women who have abandoned their feminine attributes as they feel it will hold them back from big careers, but also creates a negative image of women who have accepted the possible barriers their gender has created and have given in to societies beliefs that they cannot be truly women and successful. The way Churchill hasn’t casted one male actor in the whole play echoes this message as it shows that women can make it without having to relate, compare or compete with men. Therefore, overall the message that women in the play that have power are negative and cynical that Churchill creates reflects on the issues facing society in the 80s and critiques women much like Joyce or Marlene that see their gender as a barrier.

Aspects of Second-wave Feminism in Top Girls

Second-wave feminism was incredibly significant in shaping women’s rights. Women were fighting for their right to be equals with men, as they were sick of being stuck in the house, being made to raise a family; while their husbands got to have jobs and be the sole breadwinners in the family. For once, women were openly talking about and trying to understand the core of their oppression, so that they could do something about it (Osborne). In Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls, she attempted to touch on some of the bigger issues that women faced during this time. She used a double and sometimes triple casting strategy in her play to represent that these issues had not only been a problem for women in the modern world, but for most women throughout history. Some of the most significant problems for women during second-wave feminism that Churchill described were: reproductive rights, women not supporting women, and the constant battle between the “traditional” woman and the “progressive” woman.

Reproductive rights were one of the most pressing issues of second-wave feminism, which was made very apparent by Churchill in this play. Many of the characters faced problems based around reproductive rights. As a general example, several of the characters from different points in history mentioned their experiences with reproductive rights during Act I Scene I. Both Nijo and Pope Joan were characterized as having not been entirely maternal women, as would have been expected of them during their lives. Nijo was forced to have children, forced to give up a child, and had trouble bonding with the children that she was allowed to keep and raise. Pope Joan became pregnant with a child that she was not particularly interested in having, and when she gave birth to it, she was stoned to death for doing so (Churchill 1149). To cite a more specific example, the main character Marlene was faced with a similar situation. She became pregnant with a daughter she did not want and chose to give her to her sister Joyce to raise. As the play drew to a close, the plot revealed that Joyce had always resented Marlene for making this decision, even though it was the only way she could have a child. She felt that she had shirked off her duties as a woman by giving up her daughter and felt jealous because she was unable to have her own child (Churchill 1186). Marlene knew that she was making the best decision at the time for her child, because she knew that she wanted to have a more career-oriented lifestyle than a family-oriented one.

In keeping with her character, Marlene also revealed that she had two abortions after giving birth to her daughter Angie, which was one of the major reproductive rights that second-wave feminism was fighting for: “the legalisation of abortion was a major issue for the feminist movement. Many…campaigned for abortion on demand both as a means of eradicating the often tragic results of back street abortions and to give women the right to choose what happened to their bodies” (Osborne). People maintained that women should never want to give up their children, let alone abort one, but Marlene’s character fought against all these expectations, in keeping with the second-wave feminist movement. This was her right to choose; but such a choice came with a cost, as Marlene was cast out by those close to her. She was a woman, and based on this fact alone, she should have wanted to keep her child no matter what. However, being a woman herself, and knowing the difficulties Marlene had to face because of her choices, Joyce should have tried to be more supportive of her sister’s decision.

Joyce’s lack of support for her sister and her choices was representative of another big issue faced by second-wave feminists: women not supporting women. There were so many women during this time who thought that they were above the problem of female oppression, but in reality, they were a part of the problem themselves. For example, in Act I Scene II, Marlene has an exchange with a client named Jeanine. She is looking for a new job, but she also hopes to have a family someday. Marlene explains to this woman that if she wants to get a job, she had better not mention that she is getting married or that she may want to have children (Churchill 1157-1158). Since Marlene had been so successful in her career by not having gotten married or having children, she was trying to pass these values off onto her clients, because she felt that was the only way they would be able to have strong careers as well. Just as Marlene did not understand why Jeanine would want to have a career and a family, her sister Joyce did not understand why she would choose a career over having a family. Marlene, also, did not understand why Joyce would rather raise a child than be out there having a career and living her own life.

During Act II Scene II, Marlene and Joyce had an argument about exactly this. They went back and forth with one another about why the other was living their life unfulfilled, and their individual characters really shone through. Joyce could not understand why Marlene would abandon her child and her family just for some job. She was characterized as being much more traditional and less strong willed than Marlene. Marlene got angry with Joyce, and shot back that she could never understand why Joyce would ever stay with a man who she clearly did not love, and wondered why she would be so supportive of their father, who was so suppressive of their mother: “I knew when I was thirteen, out of their house, out of them, never let that happen to me” (Churchill 1189). She saw how unhappy her parents were and knew she did not want to live her life that way, so she decided not to have a family to avoid it. Joyce could never understand this, and the play ended with the two of them still at odds on the issue. According to Victoria Bazin, Churchill did this on purpose, to show the severity of the women not supporting women issue: “Churchill portrays sisterhood as a site of conflict and tension rather than unity and solidarity” (Bazin 119). Churchill was trying to point out that the issue of women not supporting women, or internal misogyny, could affect even the most special relationships. Sisterhood is typically painted as a sacred bond that can never be broken, but the reality is, that even this can be destroyed by patriarchal ideologies.

The issue of women not supporting women was exacerbated by another issue that was addressed during second-wave feminism, which was women being made to choose between being “traditional” or “progressive”. Those who were more traditionally oriented were those who chose to stay home and raise a big family, and those who were more progressive were those who would forgo a big family in order to pursue a career. The more traditional women expected a man to take care of them, while progressive women were able to provide for themselves. In Top Girls, Marlene and her coworker’s wife, Mrs. Kidd, are a prime example of this. This represents a major point of conflict, because Mrs. Kidd was so incredibly traditional, and Marlene was so progressive and forward thinking. Not only did this display a conflict between these two women as individuals, but between all women that identified with either group during the time of second-wave feminism. In the plot of the play at the point where Marlene and Mrs. Kidd met, Marlene had just gotten a management job at her employment agency over Mrs. Kidd’s husband. Even though it was not up to her to change her lifestyle around for this man, that was what Mrs. Kidd expected of Marlene. Because her husband was having such a hard time with this transition of power, and with working underneath a woman, he had been acting depressed and listless at home. Instead of telling her husband to swallow his pride and deal with the situation, she barged into Marlene’s office asking her to step down from the management position. She expected Marlene to change her life around to make her husband feel better about himself: “I put him first every inch of the way. And now what do I get? You women this, you women that. It’s not my fault. You’re going to have to be very careful how you handle him. He’s very hurt” (Churchill 1173). Because her husband was beaten out for a job by a woman, he began blaming all women for his issues, and bellyaching about anything related to women in general. Marlene and Mrs. Kidd had conflicting views on how to handle the situation, because they belonged to different “groups” of women.

Three of the biggest issues that women faced during the time of second-wave feminism were reproductive rights, women not supporting women, and “progressive” women versus “traditional” women. Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls deals with all these issues throughout the entirety of the plot. Marlene, the main character, was the most progressive character in the play, and she faced all three of these issues. Churchill was trying to show that even though women’s rights had come a very long way already, that it still had a very long way to go.

Works Cited

Bazin, Victoria. “‘[Not] Talking ‘Bout My Generation’: Historicizing Feminisms in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.” Studies in the Literary Imagination, vol. 39, no. 2, 2006, p. 115-134. Literature Resource Center, http://jccweb.sunyjefferson.edu:2685/apps/doc/A172906654/GLS?u=sunyjefferson&sid=GLS&xid=7c97f36b. Accessed 10 Apr. 2018. Churchill, Caryl. Top Girls. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English, Third ed., vol. 2, Gilbert, Sandra M, and Susan Gubar. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007, p. 1137-1191 Osborne, Susan. Feminism, Pocket Essentials, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sunyjefferson-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3386012.