Thursday, September 23, 2021

My hero / Caryl Churchill by Sadie Jones


With Top Girls Caryl Churchill presented us with a female global humanity.
Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

My hero: 

Caryl Churchill by Sadie Jones

I was 15 when I went to see Top Girls. Churchill filled in a great chunk of what it is, and has always been, to be a woman – and I am grateful to her


irls growing up in the 1980s were not given heroes. We were to be the new generation but lacked what men have in abundance, the rich mythology of the past. It felt as if there were no baseline to being female, no background. We learned about the women's suffrage movement at school and that we owed them everything, but being able to vote was old news, and so basic as to be pretty unimpressive.

Popular culture showed us The Victim and The Ball-breaker, insidiously personified in Dynasty's wimpy wife Krystle and scary-ex Alexis. We knew about feminism, of course, and that women ought not be objectified, that Wonder Woman did not count as a heroine because she was too sexy and nice, and that, mystifyingly, our first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, had somehow "set us back 30 years".

It was 1983 and I was 15 when I went to the Royal Court with my parents and sister to see Caryl Churchill's Top Girls. We were told it was a play "about being a modern woman", and at first it delivered something like the story I was anticipating, opening with Marlene, a businesswoman, celebrating her success with a dinner party. But then, dazzling and surreal, the stage filled up with the female past: Pope Joan; a medieval Japanese courtesan; Isabella Bird, a multitude of stories, historical or fictional – leaders, victims, fighters, liars, lovers. For the first time I was presented with a female global humanity. When the narrative returned to Marlene's story, she was contextualised by that breathtaking pageant.

I could not have anticipated what Churchill did with Top Girls, not just telling unpalatable truths about Thatcher's women, but filling in a great chunk of what it is, and has always been, to be a woman. She is a hero, and I am grateful to her.


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