Category Archives: Magic

Women in Magic – A Sociology Paper

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.

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Dezrah The Strange vs. Amanda Fucking Palmer

It’s true, it’s true! After weeks of frantic e-mails, wishing, hoping, planning and stressing, I was accepted as pre-show entertainment for Amanda Palmer‘s “Cabaret” produced by Harvard’s ART!

I first heard about it on Amanda Palmer’s Twitter feed where she put out a call for street performers and other ne’er do-wells to help build ambiance before the show. On a “why the hell not?” sort of urge, I responded to her and miraculously she gave me the e-mail of the Asst. director.

After a little back-and-forth determining what would be appropriate for the space (glass walking out, street-magic in!) I was invited to join other potential performers at an audition last night. I was up against some serious (and seriously talented) character actors and artists including a drunken ex-pat opera singer, a conscripted Polish WWI veteran/Cubist caricaturist, a two-person, one puppet dirty old man, a beautiful bronze living statue and Meff and JoJo’s Tiny Instrument Revue!

I performed a little forkbending, my bastardized 2-cup version of the cups and balls, Sankey’s Paperclipped and closed with my “match trick” that now incorporated the animated matchbook. I got gasps and applause in all the right places and my “mistakes” were bought hook, line and sinker. I’ve never actually auditioned for anything, certainly not for something as amazing and edgy as AFP and ART’s “Cabaret”. I was terrified the entire time and my nerves showed, but I have to say that the past few months at the Piccadilly have really tightened my routines and burned the moves into my brain. I was able to just be there in the moment and forget about the mechanics.

Nerves aside, I think my set went well, but considering the character and type of performances we all saw that night, I was concerned that I wouldn’t really fit in with what they wanted. I knew for sure that I wouldn’t be hearing from them and was just grateful for the opportunity to audition. It turns out that I was wrong, HOORAY!!! Apparently my strategy of meta-weirdness, (being the most normal person in a room full of weirdos in turn makes one the weirdest person in the room), is paying off.

So now I’m just waiting for the details of my schedule and rehearsals, but the hard part is done. I’ve been paying my dues at the restaurant, getting my chops up, took a chance and somehow fell ass-backwards into awesomeness!

So, if you, or anyone you know is in Cambridge in the next 6 weeks, stop on by (and bring money)! I’ll be outside the theater, so you don’t even have to have tickets to some see me! Of course, you should really, really, REALLY see “Cabaret” but act fast, shows are selling out left and right.

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Filed under Magic, Performing Arts, spoonbending, Uncategorized

Podcast Party!

I’m a huge fan of podcasts. They’re (mostly) free, feature content that mainstream media would never touch and range from “polished and professional” to “fresh from mom’s basement”. It’s a really exciting time for content creators, the tools of production are cheaper than they’ve ever been, and distributing the finished product is easer than ever. At some point I’ll do a rant on the rise of social media, Web 2.0 and the democratization of content, but for now, let’s talk reviews and recommendations.

Here’s a list of my Top 10 podcasts. This list consists of shows that are only available as podcasts, NPR rebroadcasts, etc don’t count.

1. The Totally Rad Show (weekly, video and audio)

    In my humble opinion this is the best pop-culture/geek review and preview show out there. Three guys (Alex Albrecht of Diggnation and Ex-Tech TV alum, Jeff Cannata, actor and Dan Trachtenberg, director) review Movies, Games, TV, Comics and anything else that pops up. With regular segments like “Dan Becomes A Man” and one of the best intros to Geocaching ever, it’s a fun run through everything geek

2. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe  

(weekly, audio only)

    The SGU is a co-production of the New England Skeptic’s Society and Skepchick.com and it’s probably the most popular science/skepticism show on the web right now. Hosted by Dr. Steven Novella and his group of skeptical rogues (Steve Novella, Bob Novella, Evan Bernstein and the 1st and greatest Skepchick, Rebecca Watson) it’s your weekly round-table run down of scientific and pseudoscientific news. Funny, irreverent and knowledgable, it’s a must listen. It usually features an interview with some of the shining lights of the skeptical movement as well as science newsmakers and even true-believers. Don’t miss it!

3. The Bugle 

(weekly, audio only)

    The Daily Show’s John Oliver and his friend from back home Andy Zaltzman take a scathingly sarcastic and stunningly satirical look back at the week’s news. Imagine the Daily Show if it paid attention to the rest of the world. Tied with YLNT as the top source of my “laughing out loud in public for no apparent reason” moments.

4. You Look Nice Today  

(sporadic, audio only)

    “A Journal of Emotional hygiene” and the absolute best thing to come out of Twitter, no question . Merlin Man, Adam Lisagor and  Scott Simpson get together and brainstorm business ideas both ridiculous and sublime. Seemingly random topics are used as launching points for conversations that end up in territory such as “Baby Butlers”. Simply put, it’s three very smart, very funny guys trying to one-up each other with stream-of-consciousness weirdness masquerading as a serious conversation. This is one of the few podcasts where I would recommend, nay, demand going back and listening to the entire run.

5. Scam School (weekly, video only)

    The podcast that introduced the world (and myself) to Brian Brushwood. This pointy-haired wizard of the bar-room bet teaches you no-lose propositions that can get you a free beer, stunts that will get you stunned stares and tricks that just might impress someone enough to get you the elusive “phone number”. Basically, it’s how to do real world, kick-ass magic tricks for the non-magician. On top of all that, Brian is just a really cool guy if you ever get the chance to see his show, DO IT and tell Mr. Happypants that Dezrah sent you.

6. iFanboy (weekly audio with occasional video)

    a.k.a. The podcast I curse because it got me back into comics. Ron Richards, Josh Flanagan and Connor Kilpatrick review the week’s comics and each week they take turns with the unenviable task of choosing which book will be the “Pick of The Week”. The guys know their stuff, and discuss the craft and structure under the surface of the comics as well as spoiling the hell out of the plots. Funny, snarky and passionate about the medium, it’s like the comic conversations you have with your friends, except these guys are actually fun to listen to.

7. iTricks Magic Week In Review (weekly, audio only)

    (Full disclosure, I’m an assistant and weekly contributor to the iTricks.com parent site) iTricks is probably the premiere magic-based podcast right now. Justin Robert Young reviews the week’s magic news with the help of a guest magician/co-host every week. You get the perspective of working pros on some of the hottest issues in magic, while avoiding the simple Q+A of a straight-up interview. Barring the return of Go Magic Go, this is the must listen podcast for magicians.

8. Buzz Out Loud (daily, audio w/ live video broadcast)

    Tech news, headlines and rants from the best tech reporters in the business. Tom Merrit, Molly Wood, Jason Howell, Natalie Delconte, Brian Cooley, Rafe Needleman, and more tell us what’s going on and try to sift through the FUD. I listen every single day, it’s perfect commute listening, and keeps me up-to-date on gadgets, gizmos, and the vagaries of patent law.

9. This Week In Tech (weekly, audio w/ live video broadcast)

    Leo LaPorte of Tech TV fame has gone insane. Part of the insanity is building his own $10,000 recording and live broadcasting studio and hosting over 30 hours of live content a week on the TWIT network. The flagship show is This Week In Tech, where Leo, other Tech TV alumni dissect the week’s news and use their years of experience to parse the press releases. Entertaining, but very free-form and not for those who are afraid of rat-holes.

10. Reasonable Doubts Where the SGU turns a skeptical eye on pseudoscience and the paranormal, the folks at Reasonable Doubts aim all of their considerable knowledge and critical thinking skills at the heart of religion. It’s the best casual introduction to in-depth counter-apologetics available without a prescription. Personally, I think it’s mandatory listening for anyone with an interest in religion, no matter what your beliefs are. All three hosts are ex-Christians, with an impressive amount of religious education to draw from. They know their stuff. Great to listen to because they’re challenging without being dismissive or insulting. (Usually 😉   

11. Point of Inquiry (weekly, audio only)

Yet another “must listen” for anyone on any side of “the culture wars”. This podcast is sponsored and hosted by the Center for Inquiry, the parent organization for groups like Center for Scientific Inquiry (once known as C.S.I.C.O.P.), the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and the Council for Secular Humanism. The host D.J. Grothe (apostate, activist, mentalist and all-around interesting person on his own accord) interviews some of the most intriguing, controversial and thought-provoking guests imaginable. He asks tough yet respectful questions of everyone, no matter whether he agrees with them or not. I can absolutely guarantee that you will find something thought-provoking in every single episode .

12. Film Riot (weekly, video only)

I just started watching this a few weeks ago, and I’m in love. It’s another show from the geniuses at Revision 3. (Scam School and The Totally Rad Show are also Rev3 productions) Put simply, it’s a “how-to” show on video effects and movie-making for DIY directors. It covers practical effects and digital effects, both done on the cheap. A typical episode is full of vignettes and skits that use the effects described in the how-to portions. Aside from all the great information, it’s FREAKING HILARIOUS!!! Now be warned, the guys’ tastes run a little more to the extreme side of things, so it’s not exactly kid safe, but if you want to know how to smash in your friend’s skull with a toolbox on-screen, this is the place to go.

That’s a good start, but really it’s only the tip of the iceberg as far as free podcasting content goes. I’m into tech, magic, religion and pop-culture geekery, so that’s my list, but there are literally podcasts for ANYTHING you can think of from knitting to kinking. Explore and enjoy!

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Filed under Atheism, Christianity, Ethics, geekdom, Magic, Pseudoscience, Religion, Science, Writing

Are you still reading this? Thanks!

Wow, this blog still exists, huh? I bet you’re as surprised as I am. So, let’s get caught up:
 
Orion is doing well; he’s almost 8 months old now and roughly the size, shape and weight of a dump truck. Zoe is discovering the wonders and joys of fingernail painting and playing dress up, and Amanda is still the best wife I’ve ever had.
 
So I’ve got that going for me.
 
On the employment front, I’m coming up on my one year anniversary at Intel, halfway through my 2-year contract. At this point my thoughts are already turning to what’s next. There are a lot of changes coming to my area of the fab and I’ve yet to figure out how it will affect me and my ‘career’ with Intel. People have been impressed with the magic-based training videos I’ve done for the internal LeanTV “network”, but I’m not 100% happy with them. It’s the first time that the editing and production is completely out of my hands, and there have been some issues. WHO DOES A JUMP CUT DURING MIDDLE OF A NEWSPAPER TEAR?! Well, Ellusionist, of course, but why would anyone else?
 
That segues nicely into the magic topic…My career as a professional magician is doing as well as I could hope considering I don’t do anything to promote myself. I just did a really fun and successful show at “The Q” for their 2-year anniversary and had another fun but less technically successful show for Camp Inquiry. Lately, I’ve given up on thoughts of becoming a straight, serious mentalist. I really tried, and for awhile it’s what I thought I wanted to do. It turns out that being an entertaining and convincing mentalist requires a certain sense of decorum and seriousness to be truly effective and after 15 years of trying to NOT be an arrogant bastard, I’ve developed that pathological inability to take myself seriously.
As a result, my mentalism act always seemed lacking, and I just didn’t have fun when I tried performing it traditionally. Lately I’ve been mixing more geek magic and comic beats into the show and it’s really shaping up into something interesting. I won’t go as far as to say it’s polished or ready for prime-time, but it is a lot of fun to do. I’m more relaxed on stage and actually starting to enjoy myself. Shocking insight: I think that’s making a difference with my audiences! It turns out that audiences don’t actually enjoy watching stammering, nervous, pretentious numbskulls failing to be Max Maven. Apparently if the audience thinks the performer is having fun, they have fun too.
 
So I’m giving up on trying to blow minds and impress the audience with how amazing I am. Wow, until I just wrote that sentence, I didn’t realize that was (unconsciously) what I’d been trying to do. Self-realization +5. I guess that’s where the main criticism of magic comes from. Grown men on stage acting like little boys saying: “Look at me! Look at me! Look how cool I am!” Ugh. No wonder why so many people think they hate magic.
 
Time to grow up, get serious and HAVE FUN!!!
 
Question for any of y’all who’ve made it this far: If you’ve seen my show in the past year or so, leave a comment and let me know:

1) What was your favorite bit that you remember?

2) What was your least favorite?

 3) What would you like to see me doing on stage?

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Filed under Magic, Other, Performing Arts

Masters of Self-Delusion

“So Scott, as a magician, how do you feel about the new “Masters of Illusion?” on MyTV?”
 
Well, I’ll give you an answer, but you’ll need some background first.
 
The series “Masters of Illusion” is produced by the same folks that brought us  “The World’s Greatest Magic” specials in the past. If you’re around the same age as me, you grew up watching them on (insert your local broadcaster). These shows exposed our generation to the best and brightest cabaret and stage performers in the world. If you know the names Jeff McBride, Mac King, Max Maven, The Amazing Jonathan, Franz Harary, etc. it’s because:
 
a) You were sitting in your room, surrounded by magic books and practicing a one-handed fan so you could impress girls, while your peers were actually out on dates.
 
or
 
b) You saw them on one of the World’s Greatest Magic specials. 
 
The annual series set the standard for that generation of stage performers and defined what magic (on stage and screen) would be for the next 15 years. It wasn’t a radical departure from the past, but it was the first time in decades that such a wide range of styles and performers had been captured and shown to a mass audience. To say it was kind of influential would be like saying that it was kind of hard to find work during the Great Depression. The show had a massive impact on the magic world, but began to show its age after countless reruns on the various cable “Family” channels. It seemed like magic on TV would be stuck, stagnant in its stage silliness.
 
Enter David Blaine. His special “Street Magic” turned the magic world on its head. Television magic went from Mylar costumes and ritualized misogyny to gritty, real-world wonders performed for everyday people. David didn’t create a new genre of magic; he took close-up magic and remade it for the YouTube generation. He understood that audience’s gut reaction was central to sharing the magic with the viewers. He took the camera off himself and pointed it directly at the screaming, awestruck spectators. The gauntlet had been thrown, and all TV magic since then has been informed by the new direction that David Blaine had chosen. He is remembered by the public for his spectacular stunts and physical trials, but he’s more important for rewriting the rules of the magic special.

 So it was with great excitement and high expectations that I tuned into the first episode of “Masters of Illusion”. It was produced by the same team that gave us the original World’s Greatest Magic and we’ve had ten plus years of Blaine and his progeny to inspire a new generation of television magician. There was the potential to see an exciting new direction for stage performers with a nod to the past classics of magic. It should have been a wonderful thing.
 
It wasn’t, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. It was as if Scorsese had produced Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight  and we got the over-the-top campiness of Adam West and Caesar Romero instead of the intensity and power of Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Yes, the Adam West Batman is a classic. It was good for it’s time, but times have changed.

The performers featured on the first episode (even the ones I normally respect) just dragged out the same tired tricks, jokes and routines that they’ve always had. Some performers just trotted out the same acts that they’ve been doing on the road for years, with no thought for the challenges (and opportunities) of this newly reborn medium. It seemed as if neither the producers nor performers gave any notice to the fact that the entertainment world had changed radically in the past 20 years. They had a television audience that was primed and waiting for experimentation and innovation. Instead, they chose to give us the same dancers in distress and artificial, preening, pumped up drama. There were a few bright spots: McBride’s “lights” and a new-to-me performer named “Hillel“ who meshed performance art, clowning and magic into a creative and spectacularly weird piece that almost made the entire train wreck worth watching. Sadly, the bulk of the show felt like the zombified corpse of magic specials past.

I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the future of magic, and instead I saw that the present of magic was apparently stuck somewhere in 1982. Maybe the TRS guys can do a sit in with the guilty parties and get them up to speed.
 
If magic is to be seen as an art, its practitioners (amateurs and pros) need to start treating it as one. That doesn’t mean that it has to be serious, gritty or gruesome, but it must grow. It doesn’t have to abandon it’s rich and wonderful history, but in the world of new media, it must adapt or perish. (See Marco Tempest for a perfect example of classic magic rewritten for the 21st century) Magic on TV has had a well-deserved resurgence in popularity and respectability worldwide thanks to the efforts of David Blaine, Derren Brown and their peers, but it could only take one show like “Masters of Illusion” to kill the genre dead.

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Magical Gift Ideas (better hurry!)

Okay, it’s getting very late in the game, but here’s some gift ideas for that budding magician on your insert politically correct seasonal holiday celebration shopping list.

As an added bonus, not only is magic a fun and pretty unique hobby, it’s got the added benefit of arming it’s practicioners with some pretty hard-core critical thinking chops. It’s a lot harder to believe that people can bend metal with their minds when you learn how to do it with practice!

I can personally vouch for the power of magic education as a way to encourage critical thinking about the paranormal.

That in mind, you can’t go wrong with the following magic books for your gift target. (BTW, stay away from most magic kits! The majority of them have very cheaply made props and horribly frustrating instructions.)

Klutz Book of Magic
(great for all ages, 5 – Adult)

One of the best introductions to modern magic. No direct skeptical message, but it teaches a lot of KILLER tricks that can be mastered by kids. (the Klutz Juggling book is also terrific, off topic, but terrific)

Penn and Teller’s How to Play with Your Food
(young teen – adult depending on your personal parental style 😉

The bad boys of magic use food-themed tricks and essays to teach basic concepts of magic and skepticism. Not heavy-handed, but they teach spoon-bending and it was my first introduction to James Randi.

Magic for Dummies
(advanced middle schoolers to Adult)

A wonderful mix of tricks for close-up, casual and stage performance. If the Klutz book is a big hit, this would be my next choice for the budding magician.

Magic: The Complete Course (Book & DVD)

This book is brand new, and I haven’t purchased it yet myself, but I know Joshua Jay’s writing and dedication to magic and teaching, so I can’t imagine it being anything other than a fantastic introduction to the art for anyone. (He’s also very sympathetic to Skeptical causes)

There are also tons of books, dvd’s and props available from magic specialty dealers, but tread carefully. My favorite online retailer is http://www.penguinmagic.com but I strongly suggest that you do a google search and find your local “brick and mortar” magic shop. If they’re any good, they’ll even offer lessons, just do your homework first. 😉 (and stay away from “Magic Masters” WAYYYY OVERPRICED)

If you have any other questions about magic (for your kids or yourself) please let me know. You can links to my e-mail and social networking presences at my site: http://dezrah.googlepages.com

Merry Christmas!!!

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I will make it someday…

 

No matter what it takes…

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