On the day when Britain’s second female Prime Minister takes office, it seems like a good time to talk about ‘Top Girls’.
I’m referring to the play by Caryl Churchill, which I was lucky enough to see a production of last week, by the talented performers of Leeds Arts Centre at the Carriageworks Theatre (the second of their plays I’ve seen this year: you can read about the other one here). Written in 1982, it tells the story of the ambitious Marlene and the sacrifices she has made to succeed in a man’s world.
Although I knew roughly what the play was about, and that it had an all-female cast, it still surprised me (in a good way) that the entire play was all about women. In our society we’re so used to seeing men as the default and women as the supporting cast – in art and real life – that it was really refreshing to hear a story all about women, told by women, from their point of view.
The play opens with a long and slightly surreal scene in a wine bar, where Marlene has invited famous women from history, literature and art to help celebrate her new job. Isabella Bird, the Victorian traveller, the 9th century Pope Joan and Lady Nijo the 13th century Japanese Emperor’s concubine are joined by Dull Gret, the subject of the Breugel painting, and Patient Griselda of the Canterbury Tales. Churchill brilliantly captures the conversation of a group of women who don’t know each other that well, as they slowly get drunk together. As they interrupt and talk over each other, they alternate between trying to outdo one another and being supportive and understanding. Despite the different times and cultures they’ve come from, there is a common thread running through the experiences which they recount of oppression and self-sacrifice.
In the remainder of the play, we see that 1980’s women face similar oppression and discrimination. Marlene has left her illegitimate daughter Angie to be brought up by her (Marlene’s) sister while she pursues her career. Bringing up Angie has left her sister, Joyce, downtrodden and resentful. Marlene’s clients at the recruitment agency are equally trapped; they may be better at their jobs than male colleagues, but despite all their efforts, never achieve promotion. Or they may wish to combine a career and marriage, but face the realisation that starting a family will effectively make them unemployable.
Of course, Top Girls was written 34 years ago, and some might say that it’s out of date, that women now enjoy far greater equality and rights in the work place. It’s probably true that for middle-class educated western women, combining a career and a family is more achievable now. But all over the world, women who don’t have the advantages of education, social class or white skin still find it impossible to have fulfilling work and a family, like Marlene and Joyce, and are still oppressed and exploited like Nijo. And even with the advantages of maternity leave and childcare enjoyed by the few, most women are still hampered by a society that judges us far more harshly than men. Take the comments Andrea Leadsom recently made about Theresa May’s childlessness – and imagine how outlandish it would would sound to hear a male politician saying such things about another man. The plethora of articles in the press about our new Prime Minister’s clothes and shoes would be bordering on the ridiculous – if it wasn’t for the fact that tabloid writers obsessing about a middle aged woman’s “daringly low-cut necklines and trademark kitten heels” is actually downright creepy.
I’m no fan of the Conservative Party’s policies in general or Theresa May in particular -but then again, how much of my dislike of her is skewed by my own subconscious gender-stereotyping, casting male politicians as ‘tough’ and ‘strong’ while the same behaviours in female politicians are labelled ‘power-grabbing’ and ‘heartless’? Like Marlene in Top Girls, she may come across as individualistic and uncaring – but is that because we’re conditioned to think that women should be naturally compassionate?
So despite disagreeing with much of what Theresa May stands for, in a way I do welcome her becoming Prime Minister. Unlike the female perspective of ‘Top Girls’, the storyline of her leadership will be told by a male dominated media, from a male perspective – but just for a change, it’s a good thing that it’s a woman playing the starring role.