Pink. Good in the garden. Stereotyping in girls.
Friday night at the National Theatre to see the female written, directed and acted Top Girls. Sunday lunch successfully introducing the joys of roast beetroot to my cousin’s 4 year old daughter.
The daughter – let’s call her Cerise – adores everything pink. Not her parents choosing but a tidal wave of cultural influences that are already working at a conscious and subconscious level to define her as ‘girl’.
The play written and set in 1982 Thatcherite Britain explores, I think, how society then typecast women and how some fought against the patriarchal influences at that time. It’s weird – the opening act set in a restaurant imagining a dinner involving historically strong women has them talking over each other, making often confusing and contradictory statements and in the case of Pope Joan ranting in Latin before vomiting copiously behind a banquette. As you did in smart restaurants in the years of excess at the beginning of the 80s.
Cerise had one previous experience of beetroot; a slice of the over vinegared shite that despoiled many a childhood salad. She, like her older brother channelled her spitting image as her face began just so much crumpled latex. There was no way she would try that.
The play went from the so surreal I wondered if I’d come back after the interval to the dreary humdrum of two surly teens trying to out boast each other. In so far it took the plot forward it was only to tread it in sticky dog crap. All a bit unnecessary.
‘Look at my Tongue. It’s gone pink.’ Cerise’s interest is now piqued. ‘Can you do your lips?’
Act three took place in the imaginary recruitment agency where the heroine worked her way up the corporate ladder by being as hard as a stereotypical corporate man. There were little vignettes here, representations of woman held back in careers by societal expectations, men, lack of educational opportunities and, er did I mention men? I suspect for 1982 it seemed powerful, messagy, eviscerating. It took Thatcherism in the raw and held it up to the sun. It all seemed so terribly dated, rather than historically fascinating.
‘Can you do my lips?’ It wasn’t much of a stretch for Cerise to eat the beetroot and enjoy it, asking for more. We even blagged in some kale because it had soaked in beetroot juice. Her brother remained steadfast in his opposition to vegetables as symbols of oppression.
The last act where we learn of the link between the go getter, her apparently down trodden sister a victim of the system and her niece, one of the tens of act two. It is the best bit, acted well and opening up some of the political contradictions of the feminist tropes circa 1982. Just a shame there wasn’t more of it.
Like the beetroot it ran out too soon.
The thing about Top Girls, I think, if you ignore act one which, frankly is all very well as a set text at school but is pretty much a waste of space in the theatre, is so many of the problems that are identified – the failure to properly deal with how we support working women, the need for women to compete, at some level, as if they were men, the whole undermining of women by so many small prejudices that support men – are there today but we deal with them as if they should be history and the fact they are not is a cause for frustration as much as anger. It think it drags, especially in the agency scene, is because it feels like a lecture on the ways of subtle oppression when, today that’s well known and we want something more than the key stage two syllabus on the role of women in work. This is the ‘What’ – Look, it says, this is what needs changing. We know that. What we want today is the ‘How’ – how are we going to get this right now and in the future.
So it is with vegetables. Breaking through a four year’s resistance to root vegetables is meritorious but what should be concerning us here is the how. There must be a better way than by pandering to a culturally appropriated colour