Caryl Churchill’s "Top Girls" - feminism vs. culture

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7







1. Introduction

Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls, particularly its first act, centers on various women from history, fiction, art and mythology who gather in a restaurant to celebrate the promotion of Marlene, the protagonist of the play. Above all, this dinner scene is marked by a lack of understanding between the characters and the unability of each one to change into the others’ perspective. The juxtaposition of the figures finally ends up in a collaps of the conversation and a monologisation of their dialogues.

This lack of understanding is based on the different cultural backgrounds of each character. Everyone is part of a different society that is based on different norms and values which eliminates the possibility of a change of the character’s perspective. The question, my term paper is based on, is how far feminist criticism is valid regarding the tension between culture and feminism. In this respect, it is necessary to examine the cultural backgrounds and the respective existence of a feminist’s movement in the cultures of the characters.

A valid feministic judgement on the characters can only be given when they are analysed in the light of their culture and afterwards opposed to each other. Therefore, the literature I took into account focuses on historical information of the characters’ cultures, especially women’s cultural history. Furthermore, I analysed literature on Caryl Churchill as well as women dramatists in Britain and the feministic movement.

I examined how far each woman of the dinner scene can be valuated as a feminist or as having a feministic attitude and often, this feministic attitude is not a general characteristic but rather a characteristic which is connected to a certain domain of their culture. Hence, I extracted three areas in which this tension between the characters’ cultures and their feministic attitude are surfaced: their relation to men, their family and domestic life and their working life. Yet, instead of examining each character in each category, I concentrated on those characters that stood out in their behaviour and opposed them to each other.

2. Feminism vs. Culture: possible areas of tension

The first act of Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls presents a dinner scene which juxtaposes different women from history, mythology, art and literature. They differ in regard of nationality, race, education and historical moment, from the ninth to the twentieth century, and build up a kaleidoscope of female types connected by their experiences in life, especially the oppression of patriarchy that stood in the way of each character’s self-fulfillment. All characters are connected through the oppression of men which is the main topic of the dinner discussion. The conversation turns around each one’s life under a male world order and their experiences with the various forms of oppression they had to deal with.

The women Churchill chose to be part of the dinner scene are Isabella Bird, a Scottish lady of Victorian times who extensively travelled the world, Lady Nijo, a concubine of the Japanese Emperor and later Buddhist nun of the Kamakuran period, Dull Griet, a character of Brueghel’s painting “Dulle Griet” in which she leads a crowd of women through the gates of hell to fight against satan, the mythological figure of Pope Joan, who is supposed to have been pope between 854 to 856 until her male disguise was revealed, Griselda, a literary figure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales characterized by blind obedience towards her father and her husband, and Top Girl ’s protagonist and host of the evening, Marlene, a London businesswoman celebrating her promotion in the ´Top Girls` employment agency.

Allthough, the characters’ lives strongly differ regarding that they lived in different centuries, different countries, different classes and with different educational backgrounds, all are connected through extraordinary experiences of oppression, suffering and having to make certain compromises and most of all did not live a fulfilled and happy life. Nonetheless, their whole lives are defined by a tension between heteronomy and the wish of self-determination.1 At the begining of the first act, this common connection of the women suggests that they may be regarded as some kind of feministic role models, yet in the course of the dinner scene “they are also shown as self-centred and unable to communicate well with the others, something Churchill demonstrates through her often-used theatrical technique of overlapping speeches [...] ” .2 They start to interrupt and ignore each other until the dialogue of the characters turns into a monologue of each person.

However, despite all similarities, the women still differ in various ways from each other, ranging from complete denial to unreflected affirmation of female stereotypes that are imposed on them by men. In the following, I will pick up the similarities and differences and oppose them in relation to each woman’s cultural background with the intention to identify, how far feminist criticism is valid in regard of the tension between feminism and culture.

2.1 Relation to men

2.1.1 Role of the father

All women in the group are very much affected by the relation to their fathers by some means or other. Looking at Lady Nijo, it is obvious, that she has been raised with the indoctrination of men being the superior beings whom a woman needs to obey. After all, it was her father who defined her whole path of life. He established the connection to the Emperor, made her being his concubine and even on his deathbed, he ordered her, that when she should fall out of the Emperor’s favour, she should become a nun: “Nijo: [...] Just before he died he said to me, ´ Serve his Majesty, be respectful, if you lose his favour enter holy orders. ´” 3

Regarding the culture of the Kamakura period in Japan, this education of women was a quite familiar practice. Notwithstanding, Nijo obeyed her father’s wishes, she also tried to concede room for herself as to her own wishes. For instance, she is asked if her father had not meant her to stay in a convent after having fallen out of the Emperor’s favour instead of wandering the country. She denies the question, yet she reveals that this way of “entering holy orders” was more common to priests than to nuns: “ Nijo: Priest were often vagrants, so why not a nun? You think I shouldn ’ t?/ I still did what my father wanted. ” 4 Even though she did not rebel against the circumstances she lived in, this quote points out, that she at least tried to expand the patriarchical borders of her life. So, comparing feminism and culture of the Kamakura period, Nijo can very well be regarded as an emancipated woman, allthough she may not be a feminist.

The education of Nijo and Griselda seems to be quite alike. Griselda also lived in a culture which is known for the oppression of women and a patriachical system. Furthermore, most of the women in the dinner scene are getting upset about Griselda’s story, only Lady Nijo is able to relate to her behaviour, yet their cultures are quite similar. The major difference between Nijo and Griselda is that they belong to different classes. While Nijo was part of the upper middle class, Griselda was born as a peasant girl. Besides, it is questionable, if Griselda was raised by her father in the conciousness that her only meaning in life is to obey men. Griselda was given the opportunity to decline the proposal of the Marquis: “Griselda: My father could hardly speak. The Marquis said it wasn ’ t an order. I could say no, but if I said yes I must always obey him in everything. ” 5 Nijo on the contrary, would never have been able to dissmiss the Emperor. This makes clear, that even though Griselda had more opportunities than Nijo, she refused to take advantage of them, which makes her a much less emancipated woman than Nijo.

Opposed to that, Isabella Bird is not as supressed as Griselda or Nijo, yet she still lives within the rules and norms of a male system, to which she has to adapt. Being born in Victorian times England as the daughter of a clergyman, she is concious of what is being expected of her and her role as a woman. She tried her whole life to adapt to these norms of behaviour. As a Victorian lady, Isabella Bird is well aware of good manners and she tri]ed to pursuit the way that her father wanted her to go: “Isabella: I tried to do what my father wanted. [...] I tried to be a clergyman ’ s daughter. Needlework, music, charitable schemes. ” 6 However, considering the culture and class, which Isabella lived in, she propably would have been able to rebel against the patriachical system without being completely repudiated from society. Yet she never actively tried to change the circumstances of her life. Conclusively, she cannot be regarded as an emancipated woman.


1 Abdollahzadeh, Jale. Das zeitgenössische englische Frauendrama zwischen politischem Engagement undästhetischer Reflexion: eine Studie ausgewählter Dramentexte. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1997: 37.

2 Reinelt, Janelle. Caryl Churchill and the politics of style. In: Aston, Elaine and Reinelt, Janelle, eds. The Cambridge companion to Modern British Women Playwrights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000: 180.

3 Churchill, Caryl. Top Girls. London: Methuen Drama A&C Black Publishers Ltd, 1991: 3.

4 Churchill. Top Girls: 3.

5 Churchill. Top Girls: 21.

6 Churchill. Top Girls: 3.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Caryl Churchill’s "Top Girls" - feminism vs. culture
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
From Page to Stage
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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460 KB
caryl, churchill’s, girls, feminism, gender, top girls, caryl churchil, british theatre, theatre, british plays, working women, sexuality, women and work, thacherism, margret thatcher, 1980ties
Quote paper
M. A. Alisa Westermann (Author), 2010, Caryl Churchill’s "Top Girls" - feminism vs. culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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