At the close of Top Girls one must ask, “Success at what price?” The women in the play have achieved their positions after making irreversible sacrifices. They have cut themselves off from normal relationships with men, women, and children. Knowingly, they have also made choices that require suppression of common human impulses: the desire for intimacy, a trust in family ties, and a concern for others. Moreover, many of them have denied themselves the chance to occupy their own gender: the opportunity to give succor to children, to form real adult friendships with other women, to take pride in presenting themselves as women.
Corrupting the “Top Girls” is their judgment that they must “pass as a man” to be successful. They believe that they must outplay men at their own game. Advancement depends on being more calloused, more manipulative, more dishonest than their male counterparts. Lady Nijo emulates the emperor by taking a lover of her own. Besting her competitor, Marlene outmaneuvers Howard Kidd for a promotion. As one of her colleagues puts it, “Our Marlene’s got far more balls than Howard and that’s that.” Howard commits suicide in despair.
So antiheroic are Caryl Churchill’s characters that critics such as Walter Kerr have created a stir among feminists by asking why she is not more sympathetic to women. Such critics miss the point that these women are subject to the realities of the workplace as soon as they vie for position and affluence. Like any hard-bitten businessman, the career women may be destroyed by personal and economic betrayal. The real villain of the play is not the cold-blooded woman but the bourgeois feminist enterprise, which falsely accepts the notion of competition. These women mistakenly believe that the only viable standard for success is the bourgeois concept of glamour, which is linked to power and wealth. This is especially true of the women in the employment agency, who value shiny Porsches, weekends in luxurious surroundings, and the ability to make more money than they need. Pressured by economic concerns, they become vicious in the marketplace as they turn human beings into capitalist tools and objects for disposal when consumed. It is through economic rivalry that Churchill links her feminist and socialist concerns.
Tradition also conditions the lives of these women, who fly in the face of convention and pay for it. Represented here are women of all ages who break the traditional boundaries set for them. Unflinchingly, they take full responsibility for their decisions to do so. Yet the burden of time’s unwritten laws weighs on them. The most visible effects are the predictable reactions of the men around them, who are threatened by female aggression and innovation. Howard is more humiliated by the prospect of Marlene as his supervisor than he is by the loss of income. Ironically, his wife supports his conventional attitude: “What’s it going to do to him working for a woman? I think if it was a man he’d get over it as something normal.” Marlene fails to argue convincingly that she is not “one of these ballbreakers” but a fair-minded office manager who will treat Howard like any other employee. Marlene’s intentions are suspect, because there is little historical precedent for them and because she has learned not to allow sentiment to intrude on the marketplace.