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.
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