Why Aren’t There More Women in Magic?
Rick Lax is a professional magician, magic creator and illusion designer. In his article in Wired Magazine, “There Aren’t Many Women in Magic, But Those Who Are Kick Ass”, he raises the issue of the dramatic inequality between men and women in the world of professional magic. If you ask the average American to name a famous magician, they’ll tell you about David Copperfield, Penn and Teller and Criss Angel. If you ask an older American to do the same thing, you may hear the names Harry Houdini, Blackstone or James Randi. Ask that same American to name a female magician, and you’re likely to get nothing more than a blank stare. Our society is slowly becoming aware of institutional sexism in the business world, but finance is practically a feminist paradise compared to the state of the professional magic field. In the public imagination, women just don’t have the skills or stage presence to be magicians. Lax believes this is “…because girls didn’t have any relatable role models – simple as that”. (Lax 2016) Since there is a dearth of highly visible female magicians, this leads to a feedback loop. Young women have no role models, so very few of them become magicians, which leads to fewer female magicians which leads to fewer role models and so on. However, the handful of women who have made it to the upper echelons of the magic world have had to work so much harder and show so much more creativity than their male peers that they are almost universally amazing.
Western society in the 20th Century, although far more advanced than it was in the past, still has very specific roles for women and men. There are very clear ideas of what types of behavior the different genders should display. Ritzer calls these ideas “Sexual Scripts” and defines them as: “The generally known ideas about what one ought to do and what one ought not to do as far as sexual behavior is concerned”. (Ritzer 255) We see males as the dominant actors, initiating contact and relationships. Men are tool users and the agents of change in the world. Women are seen as the sustainers of the home and the status quo, but above all else their script calls for them to be passive. They are expected to take the “backseat” in their relationships with men and their interactions with the larger world. This is reflected in the practice of traditional stage magic where “women were impaled bisected and decapitated.” (Lax 2016) In magic, as in the larger culture, men are the subjects and women are the objects. Men have the agency and power and women are involved as the victims and props. Even in partnerships like Mistie and Kyle Knight, whose stage show makes it clear that Mistie is every bit Kyle’s equal, audiences tend to treat her as the lesser partner, or just an assistant. “Obviously that’s hugely frustrating…because I’m very involved in every aspect of the show – writing the script, creating the illusions, building the props.” (Lax 2016)
Magic can be defined as having the power (real or illusory) to affect change in the world. Specifically, it is being able to creat normal changes through extraordinary means, (i.e. bending a spoon with mental powers) or to create extraordinary changes with minimal effort (i.e. walking on broken glass). This plays perfectly into the larger hegemonic masculinity, or “…socially constructed ideas about masculinity that focuses on the interests and desires of men”. Superficially, it is clear that magic itself can be seen as a stereotypically masculine endeavor. If you are asked to “picture a magician”, it is a near certainty that you pictured a well-dressed, well-spoken, intelligent and charming, white male. Our culture has reinforced this image since the very beginnings of stage magic as an art form. Any attempt by women to learn magic would challenge the constraints of emphasized femininity, a focus on “social ability rather than intellect…and on acceptance of the roles of mother and wife” (Ritzer 261). Those girls who show an early interest in magic are met with a bizarre mix of skepticism, criticism and overbearing interest. In a scene familiar to any women who have been brave enough to visit a magic store or club “…a herd of guys appears at her doorstep, offering free lessons, used props and used routines”. (Lax 2016) Instead of offering legitimate interest in the growth of the woman as a performer and eventual competitor, the majority of these male magicians are showing off their knowledge or simply trying to impress the very rare girl in their midst. Even in the magic clubs, the role of women in magic is to admire the men’s skill, or at best, be on stage to make the men look good. To make things worse, “Female magicians are hyperaware of how their male counterparts are seen.” (Lax 2016) and this leads to the type of behavior we see in classic “Stereotype Threat” studies. If students of different races and genders scores are reminded of stereotypes about their group’s performance before a test, their scores will fall consistent with those stereotypes. (Lax 2016) The constant reminder of the gender stereotypes among magicians is one final roadblock for aspiring female magicians.
Although Lax is a passionate defender of women in magic, and as the creator of the television show “Wizard Wars” on Syfy, has personally done much to raise the profile of female magicians, he does miss some of the larger issues facing women. He focuses on the inter-relationships between the existing male magicians and potential female students of magic, without taking into account the sexual scripts that modern American culture ascribes to both men and women. If performers and audiences don’t address the existence and power of those ascribed roles, it will be almost impossible to create a safe space for female magicians to flourish. Lax believes that girls simply need more female role models, but a deeper understanding of the pervasiveness of hegemonic masculinity points to a more challenging problem. Telling the male members of the local magic club to “cool it” if a girl walks in is only the proverbial band-aid on the broken bone of sexism. Instead, girls should be encouraged to challenge the strictures of the emphasized feminine and allowed to experiment with wielding power, both real and illusory.
In the past decade, neurologists have finally noticed magic and realized that there is a wealth of untapped research material there. Magicians have developed a “folk knowledge” of how the mind works and how it can be fooled by taking advantage of the mental shortcuts our minds use to make sense of the world. In a similar way, I believe that magic has a rich variety of social interactions and problems to study. “Why aren’t there more female magicians?” seems an unimportant question at first glance, but with additional study, it can bring to light many of the assumptions about power, agency, modelling and gender that we carry with us in our day to day interactions.