By Manon Sintes
Some people know Caryl Churchill for her famous play ‘Top Girls,’ but I know her from a time before that play was on our school syllabus, from when I was younger and more impressionable, and our class read ‘Vinegar Tom’. Her poem (or song, if you want to look at it that way) called ‘Nobody Sings’ has regularly entered my thoughts since then, and has become the narrative playing in the background for me as I grow up and learn, often to my dismay, what it means to be a woman in our current society.
I have been subtly taught that my value as a woman decreases as I age; learning this through social media, films and general commentary about my gender. As a woman you realise the reality of the situation through narratives that assume you will peak at the age of eighteen, possess maternal instincts, want a partner, and intend to have children one day. If you don’t meet these expectations by the age of thirty, you’re pictured as ‘desperate’ or to have something missing from your life. It is unimaginable to many that we can fulfill ourselves and find happiness without someone else there to stave off the crippling loneliness.
Caryl Churchill’s poem takes us through the life of a woman, and we are shown vignettes into impressionable moments that define femininity in a way we may have never imagined it before. The first stanza, in my eyes, describes a girl’s first period, (although some have read it as bleeding after her first-time.) It is something we have all gone through and as the girl now looks around her on the street, she understands that women have something much deeper in common. However, the other women remain silent, and she won’t realise the wider implications of growing up until later. During this time, she discovers sexuality, with her body becoming politicised and debated over, and she ponders previous friendships, which, with sexuality now inserted in the equation, become much more complicated.
Again, I feel this is something many can relate to. As young women observing older women, we are able to understand them more than we did as girls. When I was a girl, reading in ‘Vinegar Tom’ that old(er) women still want sex… well, the author says it made her blood run cold, and in a way, mine did too. I didn’t see older women as possessing sexual energy. Maybe this was because I didn’t think that they could be objects of sexual attraction to others, which is honestly really sad to think about because aging is something that will happen to us all one day and so I was enjoying my youth too much to realise that I wasn’t really “seeing” older women as human. What defined them wasn’t their experience and powerful femininity, but their age.
Now, aging appears a much sadder and scarier process (understanding why our mothers panic buy anti-aging products). The question remains: will you be seen for who you are? Will you be seen as a person with many experiences and moods and layers and knowledge? Or will you just be seen as “past your time,” and in this sense have much of your inherent value taken away from you? “Will they say it’s just your hormones / If you cry and cry and cry.” It is true that nobody talks about it, but it is happening all the time.
What stuck with me the most in this poem, and that I know off by heart, is the last stanza. It puts beautifully and poignantly what I have felt as a young woman and what I feel will happen when I am older. “Nobody ever saw me / She whispered in a rage. / They were blinded by my beauty, now / They’re blinded by my age.” It feels as though your value comes from others perceiving you, both as a young and thus ‘desirable’ girl, as well as an old and thus ‘invisible’ woman. Who knew simply existing could be so political? Nobody sings about it, but it happens all the time.
Image: Maeve Moran