Yes, that’s right: it’s another angry young lady writing about Top Girls. We must all be getting bored of hanging all our feminist theatrical aspirations on the same peg by now, surely? The political circumstances, with a Conservative government shafting women disproportionately by disregarding us completely, are almost identical. So where’s the modern-day play to deliver a similar-sized wallop for womankind like Top Girls did? Long after Thatcher was booted from office and within a risk-adverse climate, could such a play even be produced?
Marlene, Top Girls’ central character, deigns to align herself with women of history who have endured terrible suffering at the hands of their respective patriarchal societies, believing herself somehow a similar ambassador for change. Yet she fails to comprehend that, through her systematic pigeonholing of ‘candidates’ in the exact manner she rejects for herself, ultimately she benefits from others’ suffering. That pigeonholing still exists today; it’s just that as women’s career options have broadened, so has the net defining women as an exception within their chosen career. I recently heard about a glass-making friend of a friend, told on public transport that she “shouldn’t be taking a man’s job” based on appearance alone. Oddly, I’m not aware of any plays about female handymen, a profession easily as male-dominated as big business. So does equality only mean bagging the corner office? Is being a dab hand with a screwdriver not a legitimate career choice? Or is it just not good theatre?
Given its strong focus on Thatcherism, it’s easy to miss the shadow of the punk movement, in its prime in 1982, hanging over the play. There’s a similar determination to buck against the established norms, to avoid turning the other cheek too often lest the women’s movement get a razor blade through its cheek. In Churchill’s world, the ‘established norms’ result in Lady Nijo, so bound by society’s expectations of women that she can’t acknowledge her own prostitution. Marlene and her ‘girls’, meanwhile, have succeeded by scrapping their femininity altogether. Like God Save The Queen’s anti-establishment bombast, there’s little subtle about Churchill’s neofeminism horror story. Punk made it possible that art could, in fact, change the world. Maybe now we’re just more weary, knowing both the horror of John Lydon advertising butter and the fact that not much has changed at all.
The web 2.0 influence also looms large: it’s difficult to be genuinely outraged by art, when we are outraged daily by international news. We use social networking to protest against women being stoned in Iran. We go on ‘slutwalks’ to assert our right to not be raped, and livetweet while we’re doing it. Yet while talking about ‘immigrants hogging UK taxpayers’ money’, we rarely bring ourselves to talk about the “no recourse to public funds” rule: a rule that leaves many of our country’s most vulnerable women – those who’ve come here looking for a better life, often from places like Iran – shut out of the rape counselling, domestic abuse support and employment services they often desperately need.. Where’s the play about that… or would acknowledging that particular truth upset Middle England too much?
There’s plenty for women to protest about, get angry about and yes, make theatre about. The environment is ripe to produce another jolt to the feminist movement like Top Girls; so do we just sit and wait for the headlines? Or, worse – has it already happened, and 30 years has so dulled our belief in anything changing that we’ve just stopped listening for it?