This is an extended version of an essay commissioned by the British Library this year.
Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls premiered in 1982 at The Royal Court and instantly became a classic with its sly reflection of the nascent Reagan-Thatcher era of yuppie individualism, its coruscating take on class, sex and inequality and its interrogation of the hollowness of the capitalist dream and the hidden costs of women’s historical renown, personal ambition and financial success.
The play starts on a spectacular note, with a fantasy dinner party hosted by Marlene, one character who is a constant throughout the play. Marlene is an executive at the Top Girls recruitment agency, and to celebrate her success she has assembled a group of historical women whom she clearly considers to be her symbolic peers. The setting is a restaurant – a public place, formerly the preserve of male executives, in which Marlene can order stereotypically masculine far like rare steak, wine and brandy, commanding the waitress (who does not speak) to bring extra rounds of food and drink as the party progresses. Here, early on, we see the incisiveness of Churchill’s take on sex and class: Marlene’s success and apparent liberation has ‘enabled’ her to behave towards the anonymous and silent female serving staff exactly as a pompous and dominating man. The host of the party, Marlene, remains largely private, unknowable, self-controlled and in control – a driven, ambitious 20th century self-creation – until the raw final scene of the play.
At the opening dinner part, as the women get to know each other, tell their life-stories, preen and bond. Marlene’s guests have all achieved a certain iconic status in history or myth and are all, on the surface of it, from radically different times and cultures: the 19th century Scottish world traveller, Isabella Bird; Lady Nijo, a13th century Japanese courtesan who was forced to become a nun after losing her master’s favour and who then travelled all over Japan; and the 9th century Roman Pope, Joan, who disguised herself as a man and attained the highest ecclesiastical rank in the Empire.
There are also two very different fictional characters, both brought to life by male writers and artists: Griselda, the archetypal medieval good wife, written about approvingly by Chaucer, Boccaccio and Petrarch, whose husband Walter subjects her to all kinds of tests including forced marriage, banishment and separation from her children; and Dull Gret, a heroic folk figure painted by the Flemish artist Breughel as a woman who leads other peasant women to the mouth of hell to fight demons (symbolically resisting the constant wars and invasions in 16th century Holland) armed with pots and pans from the home.
It becomes immediately clear that the obstacles, oppressions and challenges all the women have encountered are remarkably similar despite their differences of language, culture, country and century. So too is their range of response: some of the women, like Pope Joan and Isabella Bird, are determined from the outset to break beyond the limitations and expectations of sex and gender; others, like Lady Nijo and Griselda work unquestioningly within the rules of their societies; others, like Dull Gret, fight for survival in the absence of all other options. Both Lady Nijo, from Imperial Japan, and Griselda, from feudal Europe, have internalised their submissiveness to male power. They make excuses for the men who abuse them and believe what they are told: that women need protection and definition by men and are nothing without them. All of the women, except Isabella (whose story is not coincidentally the happiest, most uncomplicated and laudatory), are mothers whose children have been given up or taken away from them or whose babies have died. All the women suffer because of the same things: structural inequality caused by the lack of education and rewarding employment for women; male violence; the expectation of conformity to femininity (even Marlene says that she doesn’t wear trousers in the office); female disempowerment and the absence of women’s right to shape their own destiny and that of their children.
Yet despite these similarities, each woman has a different personality and interprets her life’s events and her own cultural context differently. For Isabella Bird, travel is a chosen escape, a source of inspiration and adventure; for Lady Nijo, it is the result of exile, banishment from the court and emotional desolation. Restless Isabella never felt at home in Scotland, even as a privileged and independent lady doing good works in society, while Lady Nijo felt settled at the Imperial court, enjoying her status and perks even though she was nothing more than men’s sexual plaything. Lady Nijo (and Griselda) put their faith in male father-husband-protectors and patriarchal systems, which ultimately used, humiliated and betrayed them, while Isabella answered to no-one but herself and consequently did better, assisted by her class privileges. Isabella regards ladies’ dressing-up as daft and time-wasting while Lady Nijo adores beauty and aesthetics and Griselda allows herself to be dressed in finery as her husband’s trophy.
This first scene also introduces the constant theme of women’s dress as carrying messages about class or propriety or purpose; the judgement of women by appearances; women’s own preoccupation with the way they come across and women’s attempts to influence others’ perception of them through their choice of clothing. In the 1980s scenes later in the play, clothing is a way for women to advance, to remake themselves, to subtly control their image or to allay others’ suspicions.
At the same time there are interesting echoes across the class divide: the highly educated and erudite Pope Joan is self-possessed, ambitious and tough, and so is Gret, an unlettered and mainly monosyllabic peasant woman. Neither of the two resorts to feminine wiles and fake delicacy or identifies with the performative fragility and modesty of Lady Nijo and Griselda. As Joan says, impatient with Lady Nijo’s tears, “I didn’t live a woman’s life. I don’t understand it.” The working-class character, Gret, does not have the luxury of dressing, beauty or courtly ennui, nor does she glory in service to others, marital or sexual masochism, fashion and social duty the way the privileged characters of Griselda and Lady Nijo do.
Despite not living a woman’s life, Joan is still punished – indeed, brutally murdered – by men for having stepped beyond and defied what is expected of her as a woman. When she gives birth during a Papal procession and it is discovered by her colleagues that she has attained her role by dressing as a man, she is dragged into a sidestreet and stoned to death by them. She is murdered by her peers not just for her deception but for defiling the male role of Pope with her very femaleness. Her determination to go beyond sex barriers, to dedicate her life to study, to be active instead of reactive, ambitious instead of dutiful, intellectual instead of defined by her biology, to be patriarchally powerful instead of patriarchally subjugated, to achieve in the outer world, are undercut by nothing more than her biology – and male judgement. Women want more than mere survival and endurance; but Joan, the one who attempts to climb the highest, is brought down in the most brutal way. Her story horrifies the other guests at the dinner party and unites them in sympathy.
By bitterly perverse contrast, the apparently infantile, dependent, not very bright and grateful-for-anything-that-is-done-to-her Griselda lives out her years as a cherished wife and mother despite everything her husband subjects her to. Yet even female obedience doesn’t guarantee protection: Lady Nijo is cherished in the Imperial court until she falls out of favour with her masters; given that her father is also dead by then, she loses all status and has no home.
As the party progresses and becomes more raucous, alcohol unlocks the women’s rightful pride, valour, hilarity and relish. The ‘ladies’ stop behaving in a ladylike way and begin to speak more frankly. Despite Isabella insisting on her gendered conventionality when sober (“I always travelled as a lady and I repudiated strongly any suggestion…that I was other than feminine”) she suddenly declares “I cannot and will not live the life of a lady” and her most joyful memory is of herself, liberated to wear “full blue trousers and great brass spurs” abroad at seventy. Lady Nijo is obsessed with courtly protocol and fine gradations of class privilege within a suffocating system, yet she schemes with the other courtesans to fight back against male violence within the court and crows, “We beat him with a stick!” Even timid Griselda admits, “I do think – I do wonder – it would have been nicer if Walter hadn’t had to [test me],” despite having been an apologist for his cruelty throughout.
All the women’s potential is compromised by society, across five different countries and eleven centuries (9th century Italy to 20th century England). Instead of finding any fulfilment or outlet, they have to strategise simply to survive; and even then, they don’t always survive. Gret, Joan and Lady Nijo are all subject to overt male violence; Lady Nijo and Griselda are also caught up in wider systems of emotional control and domination, as well as in Lady Nijo’s case sexual exploitation. Historically, the women who adopt patterns of stereotypically male dynamism, male authority, male mannerism and dress and male occupation of space achieve the most. Those who stay clear of personal entanglement (Marlene) or have emotionally undemanding lovers (Marlene, Joan) achieve the most and enjoy themselves the most, and only the 20th century character, Marlene, is openly critical of macho power systems and of specific men.
At the end of the dinner party, after they commiserate with each other and drown their sorrows, the women celebrate their survival and their adventures. They find each other inspiring, particularly when talking about fighting back. Travelling is a “joy” for the privileged Isabella – as it is for the characters in the 1980s-set scenes which follow, offering novelty, experience and opportunity – the closing line of the first scene is a great cry of relish from her: “how marvellous while it lasted”.
But the question of class is still disturbing and unresolved. Many of the historical characters have centre-stage, sensational stories and have had inspiring adventures. Gret, on the other hand, gains victory and release in fighting the symbolic devils assailing her homeland, but derives no sense of lasting liberation from her actions: “I’d had enough, I was mad, I hate the bastards.” Her actions are undertaken out of desperation, not valour; of being down to her last basic resources, not reaching for victory: “You just keep running on and fighting.” Her abrasive manner and rough attitude – like Marlene’s sister Joyce centuries later – come from dogged survival, from fighting because she is at the bottom of the social ladder and has nothing left to lose.
The early scenes of the play are set Marlene’s favoured territory: the restaurant and the employment agency. Both are public-facing, stage-like, calculatedly designed places where she and other women can impress and exercise power over each other.
The characters we see later in their home settings, like Marlene’s sister Joyce’s garden and kitchen, are trapped, bickering, dreaming, ripping each other apart in their frustration and unhappiness.
Immediately following the grand spectacle of the dinner party, Act 1 Scene 2 is set in the garden of Marlene’s sister Joyce’s house in an anonymous, provincial Northern town with no prospects. Joyce’s daughter Angie is with her friend Kit and is alternately dominating her and trying to impress her. Angie is poor, unhappy, frustrated and desperately claustrophobic, nakedly (yet pathetically) trying to be shocking: “I’m going to kill my mother and you’re going to watch.” The characters’ unhappiness expresses itself in suicidal, homicidal and nihilistic imaginings. Angie is obsessed with war, in between anxiously asking her much younger friend, “Do you like me?”
The young girls have absorbed the language of men’s hatred of women and use it on each other, calling each other “slag”, “silly cunt” and “stupid fucking cow”; Joyce calls Angie, her own daughter, a “fucking rotten little cunt… you make me sick”. Here, the female characters’ world is one of misery, entrapment and fury, not restaurants or inspirational heroes.
Joyce is a tragic character whose frustration and despair lead her to insult and bully her daughter, yet her rage conceals an intelligence, even a kindness, which have nowhere to go. Joyce’s ex-husband bullied her, Joyce bullies her daughter Angie, Angie bullies her much younger friend Kit. Yet Joyce says perceptively of Angie, behind her back, “She’s one of those girls might never leave home…she’s not simple…she’s clever in her own way…she’s always kind to little children.” Both Joyce and Angie have innate good qualities which have been soured by lack of opportunity.
The central section of Top Girls shows the agency’s employees interviewing prospective clients. These perceptive, almost wince-inducingly exact scenes reveal that the women who have gained a position in the ‘new’ office culture of the 1980s have inherited a specific form of sexist power that cleaves narrowly to the macho values and shallow, misogynist judgements that went before. Sexist judgements about women’s marital status, motherhood, appearance and age have been absorbed by and are replicated by the new generation of women who are succeeding in a man’s world by re-enacting men’s prejudices. In the real, hard world of the 1980s the women characters are not free to enjoy spectacularly imagined lives of rebellion and iconic achievement or travel. Life is still a daily grind for survival, in which grand ambitions are subjected to petty reasoning, rigid hierarchies and unjust expectations.
In one of the interview scenes we encounter Janine, who is caught between ambition, tradition, shyness, romanticism and female duty. She states, “I wanted to go to work” and, “I want a change…I do want prospects. I want more money….I’d like to travel.” At the same time she apologises for herself and talks herself down: “I expect it’s silly.” But she is apologising for wanting what many men want: to be married but “now and then” leave London to travel for work and get away from family life.
Just as it was for the historical characters, there is a deep ambivalence about babies and motherhood in the 1980s scenes. There is an unspoken assumption in all the interview scenes that motherhood kills a woman’s career and that women must leave work when they have babies. But, throughout the play, there is also a contemptuous assumption that men, even if they are brutes who hold all the power (all the bosses Top Girls recruits for are male), are themselves babies: “you won’t have to nurse him along” says one Top Girls employee to an interviewee about a prospective boss.
Another candidate, Louise, is told that her age – only 46 – is “a handicap” and that she should hope that “experience does count for something”. She is not encouraged to attempt to earn more than she already does; she should be happy with her station and not overreach herself. Both she and Janine are subtly pressured over their looks and clothing; the capitalist ‘modern’ world is not a meritocracy after all but a game in which women must look and act the part, strategise as objects in order to win.
Louise finds that even success as a working woman doesn’t offer a sense of balance, joy and stability in life. Capitalist attainment is hollow and not worthwhile: “I’ve given my life really”, “If you are committed to your work you don’t move in many other circles”. Despite being in the workplace and having previously done well, she is encountering the glass ceiling in corporate culture as young men she trained are promoted above her. She is the first of a generation of women feeling the anger of discrimination and finding that they have few options either to express that anger or to gain credit, let alone justice, leading to empty statements like “they will notice me when I go, they will be sorry.” In a cruel, rigged system where there is always more talent than there are jobs, they will not notice her and they will not be sorry.
Top Girls has much to say about women’s own internalisation of womanhatred – which Louise betrays when she refers casually to the typing pool at her company as “the girls”. The play also tracks fine sociological differences in age and class: in her mid-40s, Louise is not one of the new yuppie generation and is less entitled than them. The yuppies are, as she correctly hints, a pleasingly visual marketable brand as well as a psychological type: “new, kind of attractive, well-dressed”, they are confident enough to “take themselves for granted” without feeling insecure; they expect to be successful.
The sexism and ageism Louise is encountering in office culture has no resolution. She feels “it’s now or never” and the answer seems to be never; there will not be a triumphant resolution of success in the final act of Louise’s story. The Top Girls staff tell her she’ll be competing against younger men in any new job she goes for, and push her towards cosmetics companies and “fields that are easier for a woman”, just as they pushed the previous candidate, Janine, towards soft furnishings and knitwear companies, stereotypically female items in traditional retail companies rather than the financial services or computing companies of the future.
Despite Marlene’s personal glamour, life in the Top Girls agency is not spectacular and iconic, like the women Marlene invited to her fantasy dinner party. Act 2 Scene 3 is a conversation between Nell and Win, two of the employees at Top Girls. Win embodies the same message that runs throughout the play: the characters who are the worst off and the most humiliated are men’s women, women who grovel to men or place themselves under men’s power. Win is a mistress who romanticises her lover despite her humiliation (such as having to lie down in his car so as not to be seen by his neighbours when he instals her in his marital home for a dirty weekend). She says defensively “it was funny”, but this rings hollow. Her lover teaches her the names of flowers, pointing out that flowers are often named after women: pretty objects with a limited shelf life, to be named by men.
Nell is the opposite type, similar to Marlene, ambitious – “I’ve never been a staying put lady” – and contemptuous of Win’s deluded romanticism. For both of them, however, the office culture of the early 1980s hardly offers a lot of “room upward”; there is “nothing going on here”. Despite the fact that they are succeeding as women in this environment, the cruelty of the capitalist grind, class divisions, professional competition and internalised misogyny suffuse their outlook and conversation. The world they operate in may be all-female but it is still harshly judgemental. Nell and Win see themselves as “tough birds” and Marlene as a “smashing bird” and think the other women in the office are “top ladies” while their young clients are mere “little girls” over whom they wield some power. Yet they themselves are locked into a frustrating hierarchy in which “the top executive doesn’t come in as early as the poor working girl” – in the broader scheme of things they are indeed poor working girls, not the tough birds they see themselves as.
The Top Girls staff are not exempt from the injustices their clients experience. The vision of seamless success and a rise to the top is not something they themselves have experienced; it is a false image, a fantasy of success, which they are selling. Win is actually overqualified, we discover late in the play – she has a science degree and went into medical research. She shares Marlene’s contempt for men and, unlike the generations of women at the dinner party who did not criticise men or patriarchy directly, says men are “bullshitters” who “make out jobs are harder than they are.” Yet despite her tough exterior, like all the women in the play she is restless and struggling to find her place in the world.
Marlene’s past and future come together when her niece Angie comes to visit her at Top Girls. Angie is everything Marlene has fled; this flight involves a wilful rejection of her heritage, so much so that Marlene doesn’t recognise Angie at first and speaks contemptuously of her own sister Joyce who is the “same as ever”. The class difference between aunt and niece is already pronounced: Marlene assumes Angie came up on the train (it was actually the bus, which is cheaper) while her casual offer of a day of lunch, shopping and sightseeing is seen by Angie as the height of indulgence. Angie idolises Marlene, but this appreciation is not reciprocated. Marlene’s assessment of Angie is correct but stingingly cruel: behind the young girl’s back, she says Angie is “a bit thick”, destined to work in a supermarket and is “not going to make it”. For Marlene, Angie is tainted with failure and with her own shameful and deprived origins. Marlene’s world is one of hardcore Darwinian survival of the fittest, but, as the play makes clear, there is no natural justice to this fight. Disadvantage and prejudice bedevil the les fortunate characters, while the gains of success are both tawdry and impermanent.
Throughout the play it is the women who are intimately subject to men who suffer the most. The suffering has an agonised, degrading, colluding quality as the women seek to justify their abusers’ actions. Consider the harsh, somewhat cruel characterisation of Mrs Kidd – the only woman in the play who name is her man’s surname, and who has no first name – the wife of Top Girls employee Howard. Like the medieval Griselda she is submissive and apologetic, her world is small and defined by the parameters set by her husband: “I know office work isn’t like housework, which is all interruptions.” She is both pitiful and risible, and is there as an apologist and little defender of her husband, whose job Marlene has been offered. Just like Griselda she over-identifies with her man’s success and suffering, has no feelings or ideas of her own and at once babies and lionises him (“he hasn’t slept…I haven’t slept”, “He’s very proud”, “he’s very hurt”, “He’s in a state of shock”). She is in a terrible predicament: her years of submissiveness towards Howard does not result in him prizing and cherishing her. Instead, she is his emotional punchbag: “it’s me that bears the brunt”. Underlying all this is the threat of male violence, as ever. Mrs Kidd warns, slyly, “You’re going to have to be very careful how you handle him.” Marlene refuses to take on the role of housekeeper to a man’s finer feelings – “he really is a shit” – and gives Mrs Kidd short shrift. Sad as Mrs Kidd’s plight is, she too, like so many of the 1980s women in the play, resorts to crude woman-hating under pressure, calling Marlene a “ballbreaker” who is “miserable and lonely” and “not natural”. She parrots her husband’s hatred and fear of women in the workplace, along with the Classical and medieval prejudice that ambitious women are monstrous in some way.
The play has been moving steadily backwards in time, providing a sort of origins story for Marlene, who gives little of herself away in speech. At the end of the play as we watch it – but in fact about a year or so before the dinner party that opens the play - Marlene goes back to her hometown to visit her sister Joyce and niece Angie, bringing stereotypically feminine gifts of a dress and perfume. While the ambitious female clients at Top Girls are anxious about how to use such things as tools to navigate corporate capitalism, to Angie they are prized in themselves, giving an all-too-rare taste of luxury, beauty and pleasure. Angie’s behaviour in this scene is loving, childishly desperate for approval; Marlene is like a fairy godmothers whose visit is “better than Christmas”. Joyce is resentful of the gifts, telling Angie she’s “a big lump”, stupid and a liar. When Angie wants to try on the dress Joyce says “we don’t want a strip show … you better take it off, you’ll get dirty”, although we know from earlier in the play that Angie will, heart-wrenchingly, continue to wear the dress long after she’s outgrown it.
Marlene’s sister Joyce’s unhappiness and spikiness are painful to witness. A gulf has opened up between the sisters since Marlene left: “I don’t know what you’re like, do I?” says Marlene. Just as in the first scene of Top Girls, alcohol unlocks the truth of women’s lives as Joyce and Marlene have it out long into the night and the early themes are reprised: patriarchal control and domination; gendered expectation and stereotypes; class; motherhood and babies; entrapment and flight; male violence.
At first, Marlene is self-possessed, proud of her success, telling her sister with spiteful faux-modesty, “I’m not clever, just pushy” – the implication being that Joyce’s life is as it is because of a lack of pushiness. Marlene utters the ultimate capitalist, individualist exhortation: “If you’d wanted to you’d have done it.” Like Isabella Bird, Marlene sees herself as a great adventurer going “up up up” and “on on into the sunset”; unlike her sister, “I need adventures more”.
The devastating last pages of Top Girls reveal the injustice, cruelty and ruthlessness behind Marlene’s mantra. We learn that Joyce’s husband was resentful, controlling of her attempts to better herself through evening classes, a bad father and unfaithful. Joyce’s life is one of constant work, both physical and emotional. The physical work is underpaid and exhausting – she has four cleaning jobs. The emotional work of visiting their father’s grave and visits their mother once a week is unpaid.
It becomes clear that Marlene’s success has come at Joyce’s expense. First – a nasty surprise but half-expected – is the revelation that Angie is actually Marlene’s daughter, not Joyce’s. Additionally, we learn that Joyce had also been pregnant but lost her baby due to the stress of caring for Angie. The myth Marlene has been creating around her own drive and vision and self-knowledge and bravery and success is not true. It was Marlene, not Joyce, who got pregnant at seventeen; Marlene, not Joyce, who has been cowardly in avoiding facing their mother’s old age or her daughter’s needs.
We learn that Joyce and Marlene’s father was a manual labourer, wifebeater and alcoholic and their mother had a “fucking awful life…fucking waste.” Marlene’s drive goes beyond mere career goals and is fuelled by a vehement trauma (“I still have dreams”, she says – meaning nightmares) and repulsion, an absolute rejection and horror of domestic life, of being turned into “the little woman” as her sister and mother were; she says she will “never let that happen to me.” It is this understandable fear, hatred and anger, not just pushiness, which have propelled her away from her origins and towards an existence in which she chooses life, life doesn’t just happen to her. She is repelled by all weakness, including her own, and calls Joyce’s legitimate grievances “whining”. She loathes where she comes from culturally and also the way it makes her feel emotionally. Marlene hates “beer guts and football vomit and saucy tits” – the worst clichés of northern working class life – “I hate the working class,” says, characterising them as lazy and stupid, although it is obvious that Joyce works far harder than she does. Instead, she says, “I believe in the individual”- in time, determination, monetarism, thinking for oneself.
In a rather nasty way the play actually supports the opinion of its most misogynistic characters: that women who succeed are somehow monstrous, cold, unnatural, grotesquely selfish, pathological and unmotherly. Marlene is disgusted by Joyce’s overt suffering and misery and in denial about the domestic mess she left behind. She calls Joyce’s speculation about babies mere “gynaecology” and “messy talk about blood” as if she has absorbed some Pope Joan-era medieval misogyny regarding the unique rankness and corruption of the female body.
Nonetheless, Top Girls shows that one woman’s success does not elevate the fate of all women; advancement, money and status in the office do not make the world fairer or change the system, lessen women’s emotional, sexual and practical exploitation or ease the demands made on them and the dilemmas they are in. “Nothing’s changed for most people, has it?” says Joyce – and we are reminded that these two sisters are probably equal in intelligence. Joyce correctly says, “How could I have left?” and although Marlene is reduced to tears in this scene, she recovers quickly – because in a capitalist framework, she still ultimately has more power on her side, she has achieved more, she is in a stronger position, she has ‘won’ and Joyce has ‘lost’.
The play has moved from the lavish, the celebratory and the international to the tawdry, the recriminatory, the doggedly local. As Top Girls ends, the battle lines are drawn – and they are lines of class, not just sex; culture, not just economics. Marlene and Joyce are emotionally not sisters, not friends and not ideological allies. The play doesn’t debunk the notion of political sisterhood but shows how sisterhood is complicated by class, by women’s absorption and replication of men’s misogyny, by female masochism and also – most powerfully than anything else – by ingrained injustice, exploitation and lack of opportunity. Marlene’s famous line, “I think the eighties are going to be stupendous”, which always gets a dark laugh, is less affecting now than the lines that follow. Joyce asks, “Who for?” and Marlene says blithely, “For me”. Joyce becomes capitalism’s unseen, uncelebrated collateral damage: still poor despite doing four jobs, with no time to study; bringing up her niece in a town without a future. For Joyce and Angie, there will be no Marlene-like rise into a new age of being “free in a free world.” Quite the opposite: when Angie is older, says Joyce presciently, “her children will say what a wasted life she had.”