Getting to the Top: The Split of Identity in Capitalistic Society

Identity is defined as the sense of self, providing sameness and continuity in personality over time and sometimes disturbed in mental illnesses, as schizophrenia. What the dictionary doesn’t say is that it can be disturbed by more than just mental illnesses— it can be destroyed by the society that surrounds it. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, written in 1982, represents her comments of the difference between the feminist movements in the U.S. and Britain during the 1980s. David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross was written close to the same time in 1984. Both playwrights answer the same question of what it takes for one to get to the top in a capitalistic culture. By examining the language used as each scene progresses in Top Girls and studying the dialogue between Roma/Lingk and Roma/Aaronow in Glengarry Glen Ross, it can be interpreted that the characters struggle with an underlying alternate identity which is surfacing and competing with their current one. This struggle for balance explains their hypocrisy and confusion throughout the plays.

Throughout the first scene of Top Girls, Churchill gives examples of sacrifices that women have made to be successful in a capitalistic culture, which eventually leads Marlene to confusion about her own personal values. Marlene is dining with a group of women who have all took on masculine positions in order to overcome hardships. Marlene sees herself as part of this continuation of history. Marlene and the waitress are the only contemporary characters in the first scene while the others are historical. Each woman has a remarkable story that seems to confirm her position as a “top girl,” yet as their stories are told, we come to see that they “have made obvious and often extreme concessions to their various patriarchies, against which they utter no word of condemnation or complaint” (Bazin 121). Each woman has suffered a great deal to be at the “top.” For example, Lady Nijo believes that it was normal for the Emperor to have raped her when she was fourteen because, as she explains, “I belonged to him, it was what I was brought up for from a baby” (Jacobus 1425). When Marlene questioned Griselda about her emotional torture when married to Walter, the Marquis, Griselda defends him: “Marlene, you’re always so critical of him. Of course he was normal, he was very kind.” Marlene responded, “But Griselda, come on, he took your baby.” However, Griselda insisted, “Walter found it hard to believe I loved him. He couldn’t believe I would always obey him. He had to prove it . . . . I’m sure he loved me” (Churchill 1431-1432). These women both made excuses for the men who had treated them badly because they were convinced that this was normal and acceptable behavior for a man. Their excuses shadow Marlene’s promotion. Because it was the cultural norm for her to have been oppressed in capitalistic culture as a female, she made excuses for acting cold and uncaring as she became a more masculine female in the workplace. Harry Lane notes, “Marlene’s celebration is based on mystification of the facts: that Marlene’s promotion is in some way the end result of a unified historical process of which all women have been part” (Bazin 121-122).  Marlene brings these historical women together because she believes she has become a part of them, yet she is horrified when they tell their stories. Marlene is on her way to the realization that maybe she doesn’t truly know who she is, after all. Churchill explained in an interview:

I thought we could look at Marlene as a sort of feminist heroine who had done things against extraordinary odds so that we could then have a different attitude to her as the play went on and we begin to question what her values actually are. (Bazin 122)

At first Marlene prides herself in being a part of this extraordinary group of women. Towards the end of this first scene, however, Marlene is shocked because of the horrific sacrifices they had made to succeed, even though Marlene, in her mind, has also made a sacrifice herself. By the end of the restaurant scene, the audience has come to realize how difficult it is for women to succeed in a man’s world, and the extent to which they are pushed to live up to ideological pressures, blinding them to their oppression, which leads to confusion about what their values have become and who they really are.

As Top Girls progresses to the second scene, we see the side of Marlene in the workplace, who, even though she is a successful woman in a capitalistic and male-dominated culture, tries to prevent other women from rising to the top who are not willing to sacrifice their personal identity.  There can only be one Alpha male, and Marlene fights to sustain her superiority. Her domination becomes clear when she is interviewing Jeanine. During this interview, Marlene tries to break her client’s confidence by pretending not to know her name, remarking on the absence of “A levels,” and making it sound like Jeanine’s numerous “O levels” are due to her lack of ambition. She also describes Jeanine’s typing speed as “not brilliant” (Churchill 1435). It is the most evident that Marlene believes Jeanine is not worthy of participating in the workplace when she interprets Jeanine’s desire to marry as a sign that she is not serious about pursuing a career. When Jeanine reveals that she is saving money to get married, Marlene responds that it would probably help her to get the job if she did not tell them about her intentions (1434). By saying this, Marlene is showing that she does not believe that Jeanine can make it in the capitalistic world because her family is of priority. To Marlene, this is a sign of weakness. The reason that Marlene is successful is because “she does not offer women like Jeanine opportunities or prospects” (Bazin 125). At the Top Girls agency, “it is important that the employees, like Marlene, who are willing to make huge personal sacrifices, are given these positions of power because they deal with clients as a man would,” and to be successful in a capitalistic culture is to be masculine (125). It is evident that Marlene believes that there are only two types of women: the ambitious, single, and childless career woman, and those who are married with families. In the first scene, Marlene was so proud that she had become a member of the successful women’s club, yet she will not allow other women to do the same because they are not “worthy.” Angela McRobbie explains:

From being assumed to be headed towards marriage, motherhood and limited economic participation, the girl is now a social category understood primarily as being endowed with economic capacity. . . . They are invited to recognize themselves as privileged subjects of social change. (721)

However, even though women are no longer excluded from the workforce, women are still not considered equal if they do not take this “opportunity.” This “economic capacity” is what has caused Marlene to treat younger women as inferior, and why the younger female clients allow her to do so. Marlene expects these women to put aside their other priorities and recognize the “privilege” they have been given to be allowed into the culture of a man’s business world. The women in the capitalistic society are asked to choose between identities, the businesswoman or the wife, even if they want both. The cultural expectation of having to choose between the two creates an alternate identity that Marlene and these other women struggle with. Because it seems that they cannot have both a family and success, it leads women to regret choosing either, because no matter which identity they choose, they can never have it all.

In Act Two of Top Girls, the audience finds out that it is Angie, the abandoned daughter of Marlene, who is the ultimate cause of Marlene’s alternate identity, as she had made the decision between motherhood and the workplace. Marlene shows no compassion for Angie who was left to be taken care of by Marlene’s sister. However, Marlene contradicts herself in the last act of the play when she visits her sister and daughter, and the confrontation begins as Marlene attempts to establish a relationship with Angie. Marlene defends herself by using her workplace identity. She insists to her sister that, “Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes” (Churchill 1449). Marlene believes that because she has become successful in the workplace as a female, now she can be successful in both roles. The final scene is where her identities struggle to coincide. It becomes apparent that Marlene wishes that she could have both the career and the family, hypocritical of everything she has believed up to this point. When she switches her mindset to her alternate identity, the one she wishes that she could attain, she wants Angie back. She pleads to Joyce:

I know a managing director who’s got two children, she breastfeeds in the board room, she pays a hundred pounds a week on domestic help alone and she can afford that because she’s an extremely high-powered lady earning a great deal of money. (Churchill 1449)

It is obvious that Marlene wishes that she could have raised Angie, yet she also knows that she has already made her choice. Looking back on her decision to leave her daughter, it is natural to wonder how her life would have been if she had stayed. Unfortunately, Marlene is unable to switch completely to the alternate identity of motherhood because she has chosen to adapt to one which permits her to succeed as the “top girl” in a male dominated capitalistic culture. If she wants to remain the dominant Alpha male, she cannot go back.  

Glengarry Glen Ross explores the theme of this masculine role within the male dominated workplace, where men define themselves by their careers and become confused about who they are if they are unsuccessful. Mamet’s additional character, Blake, in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, portrays the businessman ideal of how men in a capitalistic agency “should be.”  As he removes a pair of oversized brass balls from his expensive briefcase, holding them in front of his crotch, his message is obvious, “to be a successful salesman, you must have the ‘balls’ to be ruthless, cunning, competitive, and aggressive. Anything less, the character taunts, and you ‘can’t play in a man’s game’” (Greenbaum 34). Mamet uses him as the symbol of economic success, a representation of an Alpha male in the capitalistic business world. As salesmen, their jobs are at stake, and because they define themselves according to their place on the sales board, what transpires is a desperate struggle for these men to retain not simply their sales positions, but their sense of masculine identity. They become their jobs, and similarly to Marlene, are encouraged to give up all other priorities in life, such as a family, in order to compete for the Alpha male position. It seems that to one who desires success, other priorities distract from the competition.  

In Act Two, Roma tells Lingk that he shouldn’t listen to his wife, portraying how women only get in the way of business. He tells Lingk that “You have a contract with your wife. You have certain things you do jointly, you have a bond there . . . and there are other things. Those things are yours. You needn’t feel ashamed, you needn’t feel that you’re being untrue” (Mamet 1499).  Lingk’s marriage is reduced to a mere contract by Roma, “a business transaction—like purchasing real estate; the world outside of this male universe ceases to exist, and when its values do intrude, as in the case of Lingk’s wife, it is viewed with suspicion and disdain” (Greenbaum 36). Feminine values, such as compassion and empathy, endanger the male workplace. Similar to Marlene’s belief about women in Top Girls, there are two different types of men in the world of Glengarry Glen Ross: the real men who are ambitious and successful in the workplace, and men who are “weak” like women, who are considered feminine or homosexual, the men who give into their wives, such as Lingk. To those competing in the workplace, if one is not masculine they are feminine, and a man who is feminine is regarded as homosexual (36). So, the men in Glengarry Glen Ross are forced to adopt this masculine identity in order to survive. Roma has already accepted this masculine identity to succeed, exactly as Marlene had.

But, like Marlene, Roma and the other men at the agency desire a partnership. Roma, the most successful salesman, embodies the idea of individualism as a key part of capitalism. Just as Marlene holds women back to remain successful herself, so each man in Glengarry is only worried about his own success. In the beginning of Act Two when Roma enters the agency and realizes that his contract with Lingk may be gone, he becomes distraught, concerned with his own profits, not the effect the robbery has on the agency. As Aaronow expresses his worries about how he hasn’t even made the board, Roma complains, “All the little [contracts], I have, I have to go back and . . . ah, I got to go out like a schmuck hat in my hand and reclose the . . . ” (Mamet 1490).  Roma wasn’t even listening to what Aaronow was saying, too concerned with his own troubles to care about anyone else’s problems. This is his masculine work identity. Yet, when Levene arrives at the agency, excited about his huge business deal, Roma is excited for his triumph, telling the other men what Levene “The Machine” had done. When Moss replied with “Fuck The Machine,” Roma yelled back, “Your pal closes, all that comes out of your mouth is bile, how fucked up you are. . . .” (1494).  Roma turns into a hypocrite as he suddenly cares about the good of the whole, because just moments before he yells at Moss for only thinking of himself, he had done the same to Aaronow.

Some readers would interpret that Marlene and Roma have all completely lost their identities to the capitalistic ideals of the perfect worker, as they all have rejected any alternative lifestyle that would have room for love, family, compassion, companionship and generosity. Angela McRobbie argues:

Young women [part of gendered axis of social division] are in effect graded and marked according to their ability to gain qualifications which in turn provides them with an identity as female subjects of capacity. The young woman now is normatively in possession of a distinct occupational identity. (Brazin 721)

If Marlene had an absolute, “distinct occupational identity,” then why would she bounce back and forth between not having any compassion for her daughter and then wanting her back a short time later? If she had this occupational identity, and only that identity, she would never regret her decision to give up Angie, yet it is made clear in her argument with Joyce in the last scene that she does have some regret. Aaron also rebuts: “In gaining an alternate identity, [the characters] are definitely losing their old one. Also, since it is impossible to be completely devoid of identity, if their old one is lost, it is a natural progression to achieve a new one.” However, if the characters lost their old identity and developed a new one, that would not be labeled as an “alternate identity.”  It would instead be referred to as the expansion of an already existing one. These characters bounce back and forth between capitalistic expectations and their primal urges for a family—an alternate lifestyle, and because it doesn’t include the workplace, but an alternate self.

Marlene and Roma’s first instincts are to fulfill their identities within the capitalistic workplace, and to do only that which benefit themselves. Yet, as time goes on, we realize that the characters still have the natural desire for partnership, even if it is not coming from a wife or family. The characters of Churchill’s Top Girls and Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross contradict themselves as they switch back and forth between their needs as humans and their craving for success in their business. Because the characters live in a time in society where the culture does not allow the two identities to co-exist, they suffer from a life in which they will never be satisfied.

Works Cited

Bazin, Victoria.  “[Not] Talking ‘Bout My Generation: Historicizing Feminisms in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.”  Studies in the Literary Imagination  39.2 (2006): 115-134.  Academic Search Premier.  Saint Martin’s O’Grady Library.  6 Nov. 2008 < http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/>

Greenbaum, Andrea.  “Brass Balls: Masculine Communication and the Discorse of Capitalism in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.”  The Journal of Men’s Studies 8.1 (1999): 33-43.  Academic Search Premier.  Saint Martin’s O’Grady Library.  11 Nov. 2008  <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/>

McRobbie, Angela.  “Top Girls? Young Women and the Post-Feminist Sexual Contract.”  Cultural Studies 21.4 (2007): 718-737.  Academic Search Premier.  Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library.  6 Nov. 2008  <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/>

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About Katie Hargrave

A post-sport athlete, Weight Loss Coach, Holistic Health Coach, and Personal Trainer trying to become the healthiest version of herself and guide others in their journey.
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