Top Girls at the Shaw Festival, part 1: 1982 and all that

This year’s Shaw Festival, the big summer theatre event that takes place each year in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, features a new production of Caryl Churchill’s landmark feminist play from the Thatcher era, Top Girls, and I’m proud to say that I have written the program note for it. The play is a personal favourite of mine – I teach it most years, and I have seen several productions of it in the UK and in Canada. It’s also weirdly still topical: though it was written in 1982, near the beginning of what we might call late-modern neoliberal capitalism in Britain, it resonates even more loudly today because, well, neoliberalism is alive and kicking more of us in the ass than ever before. That’s what my program note is about, in fact: how Churchill’s “ball-busting” post/feminist icon, Marlene, seems as familiar as ever in 2015, and what we can and should learn from her today.

With kind permission of the Festival (and with big thanks to its dramaturg, Joanna Falck, who commissioned my essay) I’m reproducing the program note here; I’ll also do a review of the production (and the opening night dinner and party!) shortly after I see it later this month. Stay tuned.

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Top Girl Power

By Kim Solga

When I began teaching contemporary theatre to university students just over ten years ago, I put Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls on my syllabus even though I was certain that choice would prove to be a disaster. Churchill is one of the most important British playwrights living today, one of the most influential political playwrights in British history, and she is arguably the most significant British woman playwright of any generation; for students of the genre, her work is not to be missed. Top Girls, however, is a tricky play. Written in 1982, during the first wave of Margaret Thatcher’s power and influence, Top Girls is a child of its moment, steeped in Churchill’s strong brand of socialism and littered (like so many of Churchill’s major works of socialist realism, including Serious Money, first performed in 1987 and produced at the Shaw Festival in 2010) with topical references that can easily prove confusing for contemporary audiences. These things make the play a major historical drama, of course – no different from all of the other historical dramas we ask our students to read all the time – but that is not all this play is. It is also a work of ardent, forceful feminism, and in its unflinching representation of women’s lives on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum it explores the unsavory possibility that feminism could not then, in 1982, and should not now, in 2015, be declared “over”, because too many women are still being left behind.

Top Girls snapshots a few days in the life of Marlene, a high-flying corporate executive who has just been promoted to Managing Director of the employment agency that shares the play’s name. In the famous first act, Marlene presides over a lavish dinner party celebrating her good fortune – a party to which she has invited a variety of notable female figures from history, mythology, art and literature. This set-up makes for one of the funniest, most memorable openings in modern theatre (pay attention to what each woman orders for dinner or dessert!), but as the evening progresses and everyone becomes more and more drunk, fault lines open up. Here, audiences may catch a first glimpse of Churchill’s larger dramaturgical strategy: sharp, dialectical irony. Marlene’s famous guests have been remembered by history for their female exceptionalism – Gret is a warrior; Joan outsmarts the smartest men in Europe; Isabella is an unstoppable adventurer – but it is precisely this specialness that makes them hilariously unsuitable for everything from small talk to political debate with other women. Each guest brings to Marlene’s table a unique and valuable perspective on what it means to live a woman’s life in different places and times, but things finally fall apart because not one of them is able to imagine what it’s really like to be anyone else in the room (least of all their waitress). These remarkable women, it turns out, are all remarkably self-important, and with the possible exception of Gret, the least articulate member of the group, they seem to have absolutely no idea what it means to be part of a female community.

Many of Caryl Churchill’s most celebrated plays were written over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, when she was playwright in residence at the Royal Court Theatre (1974-5) and when she collaborated regularly with the Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment collectives, the latter an expressly feminist theatre group. Churchill has always openly declared her feminist affinities, but her plays combine feminist concerns for social and political equality with other forms of political commitment, making her work rich, multi-faceted, and broadly resonant for a range of viewers. Recent Churchill plays have explored issues as varied as ecological crisis (The Skriker, 1994; Far Away, 2000), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Seven Jewish Children, 2009), and human connectivity (or the lack thereof) in a fully digitized world (Love and Information, 2012). The work she was producing in the hot-house Thatcher years, however, focused primarily on the complicated relationship between gender and economic rights – on how, for example, women’s limited (but much celebrated) social, political, and economic gains through the 1980s were marching in lock-step with the radical shifts remaking postwar Britain in the image of neoliberalism. This is the model of government in which corporate rights and business interests are protected by the state above all, in the belief that private, for-profit firms will “trickle down” their wealth to employees and help achieve social equality more quickly and efficiently than any form of government could do.

We still live, today more than ever, with a bad neoliberal hangover, and the dangers neoliberal ideology holds for women in particular emerge subtly but skillfully in the middle act of Top Girls. The morning after the night before, Marlene arrives at work to a steady stream of women who would like to change their lives by changing their jobs. One by one she cuts them down; her appetite to raise other women up with her newfound power and influence proves much less ravenous than the one that devoured her steak at supper. Churchill skewers Marlene’s shortsightedness in her careful juxtaposition of scenes, a technique she adapts from the mid-century Marxist theatre director Bertolt Brecht, but Marlene is not ultimately an unlikeable character. As a political writer Churchill is far more interested in supporting debate than in scoring points, and by the play’s final act Marlene emerges as a profoundly flawed human being with a strong survival instinct and a reasoned, if not especially inclusive, political perspective. Those of us who sat through first her drunken dinner and then her bad day at work might be surprised to find we’re supporting Marlene as she fights back against her sister Joyce’s bitter clinging to old ways and an ugly martyrdom. And in many ways our support for Marlene, despite not really liking her very much, is Churchill’s point: political action requires us to hang together so that someday we can all reap the benefit, however different our ambitions may be.

I expected a lot of resistance to Top Girls’ feminism from my first students, both men and women, but they proved me wrong. Instead of complaining that Churchill’s politics are dated and polemical, they showed me how, like all good political drama, Top Girls is carefully rooted in a single place and time but is ultimately about so much more than that one place and time. After reading the play they wanted to talk about the word “feminism” and what it meant to them, and for them, in Canada in 2005. They wanted to talk about the claims made by “post-feminism”, and about the several other ways in which the death of feminist politics was being marketed daily to a generation of skeptical young people. They wanted to talk about the ongoing disparity in pay between men and women, especially in the professions, and they wanted to talk about how neither Marlene nor Joyce seems to have won any feminist battle, though neither seems able to offer the other any real empathy over their shared loss.

When my students and I read Top Girls today, ten years on, we talk about Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project (http://everydaysexism.com), about the play’s politics in light of increased discussion online and in the media around violence against women, and about feminism’s newfound popularity (cynical? sincere?) among certain Hollywood and pop music celebrities. We talk about Angie, Marlene’s young niece; she is left behind, written off, as many of my students, in this economy, fear they may be, too. We talk about the Occupy movement, about Idle No More, and about the various ways in which resistance to social and economic status quos is being spearheaded today by energized, organized young people who refuse to take systemic sexual abuse, racial profiling, or poor economic prospects lying down. These young men and women insist that a better world will be built through strength in numbers and a faith in common bonds; for them, Top Girls is far from historically dated and ideologically irrelevant. It is our contemporary, and its politics are smart, funny, and urgent.

Enjoy the show!

Kim

On “everyday feminism”

I’ve been a feminist for a very long time. I’ve self identified this way to students and in my research for my entire career so far. But when time came to name this blog, I hesitated about putting the word in the title. This wasn’t about being cagey; you can read about my feminist ethos on the “about” page, you can guess it from the title of my first solo-authored book (Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance: Invisible Acts), and you can read my regular contributions to Fit is a Feminist Issue, which I always cross-post in this space. So my hesitation about labelling my blog “feminist” wasn’t about minimising or denying my feminist habitus. Rather, it was based in an anxiety about securing readership: I didn’t want the word to somehow limit the scope of the blog, for readers and, maybe, also for me. But what are the stakes of making such a choice? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, largely because a confluence of recent, auspicious events has encouraged me to reflect anew on how I practice my feminism, and indeed about what contemporary feminist practice looks – or might look – like. (For more on “practice” used in this way, click here.)

The first of these auspicious events is a contract: I’ve just signed with Palgrave, my regular academic publisher, to write a book called Theatre& Feminism. Theatre& is a respected book series edited by my friends and colleagues Dan Rebellato and Jen Harvie; its volumes are short, accessible, and written with a student audience in mind. As I’ve begun preparing to write Theatre& Feminism, then, I’ve been reading as much as I can about what the term “feminism” might look and sound like to such an audience: I’ve been investigating blogs of all kinds, listening to interviews with women in the mainstream who call themselves (or not!) feminists, and reading books such as the superb Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates. (I really like and respect this book; I’ll do a full review of it on the blog when I’m finished with it. Meanwhile, visit the Everyday Sexism project here.)

Exploring feminism via the contemporary mainstream has been enormously eye-opening for me as an academic feminist; I’ve realized that as much as Western, Anglophone culture is still anxious about the term and its polemical, bra-burning connotations, we also seem to be undergoing a kind of feminist resurgence right now, especially among young, politically aware men and women. This is heartening and inspiring for me, but it’s also, I’m cautious to note, not a simple given. (Phew! It’s 2014 and we finally all “get” feminism. Um, sadly, no.) As I’ve learned from my students when I bring up this topic, not all the women (or men!) who engage with stuff like Everyday Sexism are interested in calling themselves feminists: there’s still something uncomfortably sticky about the word, and about what it might say about you if you were openly to wear the label.

I’d just got stuck into Everyday Sexism when I was invited to appear on a public roundtable a couple of weeks ago as part of Queen Mary’s “Peopling the Palaces” festival. Curated by Lois Weaver, the roundtable was intended to explore the place of feminism alongside Live Art today; somehow, though, in the moment it turned into a debate about what the term “feminism” means now. This wasn’t unexpected or even unusual; as Lois noted to the audience, whenever she has hosted events like this in the past – and she’s been hosting them a good long while! – audience members and contributors alike always seem to circle back onto the problem of language. And then we, too, get stuck.

Luckily, however, on this occasion we managed to get unstuck – thanks largely to my colleague Caoimhe McAvinchey. Prompted by my description of what it was like for me, as a feminist scholar, to read Bates’ common-sense book, Caoimhe suggested that what we perhaps need most of all, feminist scholars and “mainstream” feminists alike, is a project that chronicles gestures of “everyday feminism”: the things we do, both men and women, each day that constitute the promotion of sex and gender equality, both in public and in private.

Caoimhe’s words were a revelation to me. Feminism as a practice of everyday life! Why had I not considered this before? Provoked to think about feminism in this way – as a kind of doing that does not always need a fixed label, but that should nevertheless demand attention be paid – I started seeing “everyday” feminism everywhere. Including in event number three: my reading of a terrific new article by the performance scholar and blogger Jessica Pabón about the feminist labour of female graffiti crews in Brazil and Chile. Pabon’s field research turned up a group of intelligent and talented young women who are working, right now, in a non-traditional field, supporting one another in that work, collaborating on its making, and even helping one another to raise their children “at the wall”, in the tradition of the graffitera – yet staunchly refusing to call themselves feminists. Why? For these women, Pabón explains, feminism has connotations of public activism in which they do not see themselves engaging. It reads to them as ideological and as polemical, and as such it registers as outside the reality they choose to inhabit as working female artists.

So far so ignorant! – or so an academic feminist (myself included) might say. But Pabón helpfully follows another line: what if, she asks, we took these women seriously as working feminists, feminists in their actions, in their doing rather than in their labelling? She writes:

We have lost sight because the power of the word — claiming and naming a self and an act as feminist — trumps the invisible, individual feminist acts happening everyday by a generation of women raised by, or at least privy to, feminist ideals. Instead of seeing the various modes of feminism being performed differently as a hindrance, and instead of seeing the failure of feminism to attract a unilateral following, with the example set by [these graffiteras] we can reinvest these terms with the dynamism of movement. (114)

The notion of feminism not simply as “a movement”, but as movement, strikes me, if not perhaps as revolutionary (Pabón builds here on the ideas of the remarkable Latina feminist and human rights activist Gloria Anzaldua), then as undeniably useful for working through what and how feminism means right now to exactly the kinds of ordinary men and women attracted to things like the Everyday Sexism project and the remarkable example of activists such as Malala Yousafzai. How does doing feminism, rather than “being feminists,” work for this group of people? And how might we recognise and build on that?

Of course, ultimately, language does matter: being able to identity as a feminist and not automatically call to mind unhelpful, stereotypical images of breast-beating barricade-huggers or hairy women’s studies lecturers is a big part of what it means to bring feminism into the mainstream. But maybe that’s not step one; maybe it’s step two. First, I think we need to ask: how do we take the lessons of “everyday feminism” as practiced by, for example, Pabón’s artist subjects and use those lessons to turn the language of feminism into “everyday” discourse?

Enter my final event. Yesterday at the gym I listened to a recent interview with the Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis on the cultural affairs show Q, hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. Davis is the star of the new AMC series Halt and Catch Fire; she is also a graduate of the English and Women’s Studies programs at McGill University in Montreal. And she’s a feminist: out and proud. Recently, Lena Dunham – another out and proud feminist and successful TV actor, writer and producer – shouted out to Davis for her willingness to voice her politics in public (something Dunham also does, and does brilliantly). Unsurprisingly, Ghomeshi picked up on this call-out and queried Davis on what it meant to her to be praised, publicly, for calling herself a feminist. Davis had this to say:

…culturally there’s this weird thing where we vilify the word, and people need to step around it, so I think the best thing is just for us to talk about it and be like ‘oh no, it’s just about human rights! It’s just about civil rights!’ …[Feminism] is a wonderful thing and I studied it, so I … have the luxury of having a more nuanced understanding of it and not just this cultural idea of it being a bad word that we need to stay away from. But I’d like to make it so that you don’t have to be in gender studies, or study it, in order to know that feminism isn’t a bad word.

I was struck not just by the thoughtfulness, honesty, and forthrightness of Davis’ remarks here, but also by her clear-eyed comment on the relationship between “academic” and “mainstream” attitudes toward feminism. She’s lucky, she notes, to have the “luxury” to think about feminism outside of the fear the term sometimes (often) inspires; as a public figure with this privilege, she feels responsible for disseminating how basic, at its core, feminism really is: it’s just about human rights, it’s just about civil rights. It’s not an ideology or a polemic: if we’d just listen carefully, we’d hear that it’s about fairness and equality and treating one another with the spirit of fairness and equality in mind, always.

And so I return to Caoimhe’s “everyday feminism.” What might be an everyday feminist action? It need not itself be ground-swelling; everyday feminist doings may be profoundly small, and even unique to you or me. The point is that they embody the spirit of feminist practice – even, and perhaps especially, if we’ve never considered such things in such a light before. That kind, respectful way you spoke to that strange-looking young man or woman just now? The response you offered to that not especially progressive statement about how you look, or who you’re with? Your refusal to put up with something that might fall into the category of “everyday sexism”? Or your support for that person (man or woman) who might be experiencing a moment of everyday sexism themselves? Yup, all of those things.

Caoimhe and I, along with our terrific feminist peers at QM, are working on ways to turn a collection of everyday feminist gestures into some kind of broader feminist action; meanwhile, I want to encourage you to share yours – with your students, teachers, friends, peers, partners, with a younger person (or older person!) you know, or here in the comments section. I’ll start; here’s mine.

My mom is really ill right now, and my father, who was a “traditional” dad his entire life, has become her full time caregiver. He is struggling with the weight of this work – not because he’s a man, but because it’s just really, incredibly hard work. Knowing as I do that this kind of caregiving labour has historically been “woman’s work”, and thus that my dad probably doesn’t know how to do all of the parts of it, I’ve been trying to support him, and especially to encourage him to get more rest, take good care of himself, and share his hurt and anger with me and others who can help. As an academic feminist I know it’s very hard for some men to admit when they need help – because men of my dad’s generation in Europe were socialised to regard themselves as strong and self-sufficient, the bearers and not the feelers of pain – so I’ve been encouraging him to get as much help as he needs, and I’ve been doing what I can to assist with that.

You might say I’m just being a good daughter. Nope: I’m being a good daughter and a good feminist.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

(Me and dad, Napa Valley, 2010)

Pass it on,

Kim