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.
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