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What It Takes To Be Successful In Today’s Society

The stories of different women in Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” shows the sacrifices that are made for voices to be heard.

Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash

Many of women’s stories have been erased from history. As the feminist movement has been growing in recent times, and with women gaining more power in society, we now know the importance for women’s voices to be heard.

All women’s stories deserve to be told, though a lot of effort and sacrifice has been made to get our voices heard. Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls reflects the struggles women face in a patriarchal society—from as far back as the 13th century, all the way up to modern times. In general, women are in a much better position now than before, but it doesn’t mean that the ingrained patriarchy is still not affecting the lives of—not only women but—everyone.

Women’s Stories In A Man’s World

Top Girls was published in 1982, which was also during the time when Margret Thatcher was serving as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She was the first female British prime minister and is an example of a woman with authoritative power.

Given this context, it’s clear that women are capable of having the same successes and hold the same positions as men—and Churchill wants to show that.

“Top Girls” paperback cover. (Source: Amazon)

In the play, Marlene is a career and success-driven woman in London who has been promoted to become the managing director at the Top Girls Employment Agency. In the first scene, she celebrates her promotion by gathering with other women for dinner. These women, however, are either historical figures in real-life (for instance the 19th century explorer Isabella Bird) or characters from historical works (such as Dull Gret from a Brueghel painting). Obviously, these interactions are all part of Marlene’s imagination—nevertheless, they give us a good look into her inner thoughts.

These women drink together and share their own stories from their life. They talk about their experiences and the effects that patriarchy had on their lives. Lady Nijo was a concubine to the Emperor Go-Fukakusa of Japan, before she later became a Buddhist nun, and enjoyed her role in court—despite being under the control of the emperor and other men around her. To have the same opportunities as men, Joan disguised herself as a man and moved to Italy, and she later became a pope. A lot of these women had to change parts of themselves in order to fit in — Nijo would present herself as soft and cheerful for her to be perceived more pleasantly by men, and Joan literally hides her identity as a woman.

The brutal treatment that women faced is also seen from how these women lose their children—Nijo’s daughter was brought up in servitude, and Joan was stoned to death after becoming pregnant and was revealed to be a woman. Griselda also had her children taken away from her by the Marquis, since she promised to obey him when they got married.

Just from the first scene alone, we take a deep dive into women’s lives throughout different periods in history and how a patriarchal society has influenced their livelihoods and choices. As history has been largely told from a male perspective, it’s even more important that women’s stories are told. And from hearing about each of these women’s experiences, we begin to see how women have been confined to their gender roles and are stripped of not only the ability to make many of their own decisions, but also the freedom to be their true selves.

To Give Up One’s Life For A Successful Career

The hardships that women have faced throughout history also demonstrate the challenges that come with becoming “successful” as a female. Due to the systems entrenched in society, women tend to have to work harder than men— and face a lot of judgement—as they strive to prosper in their careers.

To pursue her professional endeavors, Marlene neglects her family and leaves them behind in her middle-class hometown. She also viewed motherhood as a burden that will drag her behind in her career, so she gave her daughter away to her sister, Joyce. She was willing to sacrifice her family and motherhood in exchange for being able to compete with both men and other women in her career.

Marlene, and the other women working in the Top Girls agency, also present themselves as assertive and fearless, whose decisions are unaffected by other’s emotions. It seems to them that being caring and soft-spoken are qualities that will not lead to success, and only by giving up the “feminine” parts of themselves can they be “successful.” By sacrificing the qualities that many associate with femininity—sensitivity, empathy, being nurturing, etc.—Marlene has become her definition of what it means to be “successful” by being promoted to a job position that is usually given to a man.

But with Marlene’s “success” also comes with a lot of challenges placed on those around her who are impacted by her self-centered decisions. For instance, Joyce experienced a miscarriage due to the stresses of taking care of Angie, Marlene’s biological daughter. Joyce is also responsible for taking care of their parents. She is basically stuck in an unhappy marriage while having to spend most of her life taking care of others—a life that is opposite of Marlene’s. Joyce takes on the responsibilities that are traditionally assigned to women, and it’s very difficult for her to ever be able to have the same opportunities as men.

Of course, this is not to say that men are not being affected by the gender roles and unequal standards in society. It has always been expected of men to find careers and take on the roles with higher authoritative and financial powers, even if that means not spending much time at home or taking care of their family. But as a result, it seems that a lot of women also need to conform to a more “masculine” presence in society if they want to succeed in their careers and be on the same level as men.

What both “successful” men and women have in common is that many of them adopt an individualist approach to living. Individualism is “the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant,” as well as favoring of the “freedom of action for individuals” (Stevenson and Lindberg).

Marlene seeks success from her career and feels empowered by it—her career is her priority in life. If we look at her from an individualist perspective, Marlene focuses on her desires and goals in life and thus makes decisions that will best help her achieve those goals. This means that she will disregard the feelings of others—even her own family—for the purpose of making advancements in her professional life. Perhaps others around her are hurt from her actions, but Marlene doesn’t really care—she just wants to focus on her career goals.

But what does it mean to be “successful”? Is it really to give up everything else in your life—family, relationships, hobbies, health—for your career? Is one’s career the defining factor of their success in life?

What It Means To Be Successful

With men historically being the one’s who have had the most authority—holding the most powerful positions by focusing their life on their professions—it seems that it is those that are successful in their careers who are also the ones that have the most say in society. Those who have the most accomplishments in their careers are the ones who we assume to be “successful” because they are the ones who have more power and whose voices are heard.

But this doesn’t have to be the only definition of success, nor is it—in my opinion—a healthy way to define it. Everyone’s priorities are different, and what we each want in life will differ from each other as well. One person will be more satisfied by their career achievements, another will feel more fulfilled by spending time with their family and loved ones, another will enjoy focusing on their hobbies and personal health—and some will prioritize all of those. And if they are able to attend to those priorities in each of their lives, they could very well consider themselves as being successful in life.

What it means to be “successful” is different for every person. And none of these successes makes any person less or more respectable than another. Each person deserves for their voices to be heard, regardless of what they decide to do with their lives.

The challenge now comes with how we can balance our priorities, to live a successful and healthy life—and to create an environment where we can live a life, not based on the pressures of society, but one that is true to ourselves.

Works Cited:

  • Churchill, Caryl. Top Girls. 1982. Methuen, 1994.
  • Stevenson, Angus, and Christine A. Lindberg, editors. New Oxford American Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Hello there! I’m A.X. — a theatre student who is sharing her thoughts about the plays she’s reading in theatre stuff. Interested in more? Here’s what I had to say about Murder in the Cathedral:

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