Top Girls – 2014 audience and the context of feminism


Task: to write a paragraph focussing on one particular character / occurrence in Act One and to explore it in terms of the feminist context in 1980s as well as the feminist context of a 2014 audience. Please post your work below.

You will need to research context for 2014 and 1980s (you have already been set a homework on this – see lesson 3 on the blog for the link).

Deadline: Monday 14th July

Wider reading suggestions:

An example response demonstrating top band AO4:

Churchill presents Lady Nijo as a victim of abuse in her role as an Emperor’s courtesan; we learn that after she has been with the Emperor, she ‘did nothing but cry’ and that the gowns were ‘badly ripped’ inferring violation and violence. Churchill was writing in the mid-eighties and was possibly influenced by radical feminist Andrea Dworkin who was protesting against the institutionalised sexual objectification of women such as found in pornography and prostitution. Through Nijo’s story, Churchill also raises questions about culturally accepted sexual abuse and the vulnerability of those caught in its system. The tragedy and relevance of Nijo’s story would also not be missed by an audience in 2014 where many African countries are yet to criminalise marital rape meaning that large numbers of women today are also subject to the sexual abuse experienced by Nijo. When Marlene asks ‘Are you saying he raped you?’ she is representing the voice of modern Britain and Churchill who seeks to challenge corrupt patriarchal systems.

Deadline: Monday 14th July.



According to Caryl Churchill, every woman should have the….
  1. Example from the play?
  2. ( include a page ref)
  3. Is this right ever threatened in 2014?
  4. How could a 2014 audience respond to the play in light of this?
Right to be safe from physical harm and to control her own body and off spring
Right to an education, a career, to pursue her own adventure
Right to choose a partner and to feel an equal within that marriage



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2 Responses to Top Girls – 2014 audience and the context of feminism

  1. Florence Fry says:

    Caryl Churchill succeeds in giving each character in Act One a significant part in presenting the role and expectations on women in different cultural circumstances throughout different periods of history. A particular character that I find connotes Churchill’s feminist undertones, that are fundamental to the play, is the character of Pope Joan. Joan disguises herself as the Pope, one of the most influential male figures in the world. The fact she has to disguise herself is in itself significant, evoking the idea that certain titles and places within society were exclusive to men only; Joan only succeeds in gaining prestige and status by impersonating a male.

    Page 17 holds a line that mirrors the circumstance of some women in the 1980s – ‘They took me by the feet and dragged me out of the town and stoned me to death’. The brutality of how Joan was treated after society found out she was a woman reflects the scenario taking place in Afghanistan in the 1980s when Caryl Churchill was writing. Churchill wrote Top Girls in the 80s, the period, which saw the Taliban take control of much territory in Afghanistan. They imposed obscene sexist laws and regulations, publicly executing women, decapitating and torturing them if they ever stood up against the barbaric social expectations. The burqa was one of their strictest dress codes, forcing women to cover their flesh from head to toe as it was widely credited and explained by a Taliban spokesman that ‘the face of a woman is a source of corruption’. The concept of abusing women is mirrored in the quote above, the word ‘dragged’ illustrating the force with which Joan was taken and killed.

    Churchill shines light not only on the contemporary context in which she was writing, but she also gives insight into how a more modern audience would react. Like the rest of the characters, the reader is taken aback by the abrupt turn of conversation in this scene – ‘They stop laughing’. Like the other women, we are speechless in response to how Joan was treated. Marlene responds with the line ‘Joan, how horrible’. This acts as a mouthpiece for the reader, however, it does not, in my opinion, do justice to the anger and disgust I feel about how society responded to a female being killed for disguising herself as a male. In this line Marlene challenges the belief that it is acceptable for these things to happen and she takes responsibility for voicing a more modern response and reaction.

  2. Issie Buckley says:

    Griselda’s Introduction
    Something I found interesting about the play as a whole is the all-female cast – everything, including the title, is dominated by women. Characters are shown exclusively through their dialogue with other women, and in this way, Griselda’s personality is, almost comically, contrasted with some of the other characters. Griselda’s traditional and functional marital views are exposed in statements such as: “but of course a wife must obey her husband” and are followed up by her unquestioned obedience to the Marquis, due to his high status; “of course I must obey the Marquis”, “I’d rather obey the Marquis than a boy from the village.” Griselda embodies the previously assumed view, which would have been slightly more relatable to a 1980s audience, that women should aspire to marriage for protection, stability and status. Griselda seems satisfied in her obedience where marriage and men are concerned, and epitomises the dutiful, submissive wife and mother – qualities which may have still been expected by some members of an audience in 1982. However, the 1960s and 70s saw many changes in attitude and in law, such as the 1967 Abortion Act, the 1969 Divorce Reform Act and the 1979 Equal Pay Act, each providing women with increased freedom and independence; so the majority of an 80s audience would react to Griselda’s character in light of these changes. For example, especially in more modern times, Griselda’s sumbmissiveness and obedience would be considered negative traits, conveying a sense of weakness and naivity, which Churchill highlights in order to challenge the omnipresent, engrained patriarchal system.

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