Why Have Women Magicians Vanished?
Working magicians conjure up rationales — both beneficial and baneful — for why so few women perform magic.
In the early 1900s, Adelaide Herrmann was one of the most famous magicians of her day. She inherited her husband Alexander’s magic show upon his death in 1896 and performed internationally for 30 years.
A hundred years later, few people could name her as quickly as they would Houdini, and few can name any contemporary female magicians as famous as David Blaine or David Copperfield.
Research studies show that female membership in magic clubs and performances hovers around 5 percent.
Why there aren’t more women magicians is an intriguing question, especially in an age when women are more likely to participate in comedy, acting, sports and music. What is it about magic that discourages women from an active role and sees them primarily as magicians’ assistants?
Perhaps by looking at this unusual hobby and form of entertainment, we can better understand how gender is performed and how differences continue throughout today’s society. What does magic tell us about the persistence of gender roles in our supposedly more egalitarian era?
Some might argue that women doing magic were historically linked — dangerously — to the practice of witchcraft. Others point to the all-male gatekeepers of the magic clubs and associations, the male-dominated images on magic kits and TV shows, or the problematic entertainment value of watching a woman saw a man in half
The old gender roles of men as instrumental and women as expressive gains some support when focusing on male magicians with their masculine instruments of power (wands, swords, and saws) and women with their sensitive feminine touch in a palm reading or female intuition in a séance.
Instead of speculating, consider the explanations from magicians themselves. Responding to a survey posted on various magic Web sites and boards (and thus not meant to generalize all magicians), 220 male and seven female amateur and professional magicians answered the question: Why aren’t there more women magicians?
Let’s first look at the answers provided by the seven female magicians:
• As a female magician myself, I believe that males can better identify with famous magicians, most of who are male, and therefore are more apt to develop an interest in magic.
• Because magic at its heart is about power. Men in general have an internal desire to move into chaotic situations with power to bring about order. Is that not in essence what magicians do? Now, I know sometimes the magician causes the chaos in the first place — cutting the rope, tearing the paper, sawing the lady — but the magician always makes things turn out right. Women, by contrast, usually desire to build strong, intimate relationships with others, and this doesn’t always translate well to magic. Part of the great challenge in being a female magician is not simply to amaze people – which is crazy easy — but to put a deeper meaning into the things we do in order to build that relationship to a level where meaningful ideas can be exchanged.
• Because women have not seen themselves as magicians and have not been encouraged. Women have to invent for themselves ways to do things that men do not. Most magic instruction is designed for men with jackets. Women’s clothes don’t have pockets and women can’t reach into their breast pockets.
• Magic books and magazines gear more for men in their advertising and descriptions of magic. It’s hard for women to find role models that they identify with. Also, women are under intense pressure to stay thin to perform, they are criticized more, where men often do not have the same pressures when performing.
• Like most performing arts, there weren’t many women as a lead performer. It wasn’t socially acceptable for women to be in a “lead” role since they were housewives and mothers of children. To break that mold took a lot of courage. Women were known as the assistants to create a beauty and distraction for the stage magician. So the lesser role was really played by the woman, yet the one with the most responsibility is the woman. It is the assistant who is the real magician.
• Just recently women are starting to appear in more science- and math-related jobs, and the same goes for magic. Men never take women seriously, and it is harder for some women to find mentors. Also women see a magician do a stage act with skinny models dancing around and have a hard time visualizing the woman doing magic with men dancing around her. Large men can’t be box jumpers, so [they] can’t have a male assistant in the box all the time, which adds to the difficulty of a woman performing.
• Why is this question always asked? Yeesh. Sociological, economic, political and biological reasons.
Many of the 220 men (80 percent white, 63 percent college grads, with a mean age of 43) said they often wondered why women weren’t more into performing magic and speculated about a wide range of biological, cultural and historical reasons.
In general, these amateur and professional magicians invoke some fairly traditional gender role stereotypes about men and women: Men are into objects, tools and gadgets with which they can demonstrate their control and power; women, on the other hand, are not competitive and are best suited (physically, emotionally) to assisting magicians.
While many of the men saw these differences as a function of society reinforcing gender roles and the magic world’s “gentlemen’s club” structure (and discrimination), a few located the reasons in innate biological and psychological traits, including physical size, the ability to keep secrets and even give birth. The often-debated “nature versus nurture” explanations about male and female differences can clearly be heard in these magicians’ voices when trying to make sense of this gender disparity.
To summarizing the key explanations, then, the actual words of the magicians are presented below by combining them into paragraphs organized according to the categories their responses most represent.
It’s rare to see women become interested in technology and gadgets to the same extent as men. I suspect the underlying reason is related to why it’s rare to see women interested in magic to the same extent as men. New technology is somehow very magical. Many tricks are one way or another technical, similar to boy’s toys. Magic has a very gimmicky side and guys always love gadgets. It’s the male need to know “how it works” that motivates them toward getting into magic. Pretty much any field that has to do with figuring out how things work has a lack of females (engineering, architecture, science, etc.). Maybe the male mind is more interested in how things work. It interests guys more in general to know how stuff works.
Magic suggests power, or a show or display of power. Magic attracts men for the most part because of this power, which is oft associated with men in patriarchal societies. The traditional persona of a magician — magic as a display of power — might not be appealing to many women. Boys begin magic when they are powerless. Boys who seek to become magicians believe that the arcane and esoteric knowledge compromising the secrets of magic will enable them to wield power over others; girls don’t pursue power as a means to influence others. People often first get interested in magic at ages 8-12. It’s usually boys, and they may like having secret knowledge. They may sense performance-magic as a type of power. Men feel more social pressure to be in control. It stems from the initial power trip most young men are on when they first begin the pursuit of magic (“I know something you don’t know”).
Competitive, Confrontational and Commanding
Sometimes it just becomes a competition to see who can pee the highest, and generally women don’t want to get involved in that. The initial steps in magic tend to be attempts to prove “I know something you do not.” This is a very confrontational relationship that is more typical of men than women. The “boldness” required to present yourself is, historically, a masculine trait. If the initial steps were more relational, as in “This is what we are doing together,” then I believe magic would be more attractive to women. Women don’t take command of the performing arena the way a man does. Many men can’t handle a strong woman. They are intimidated by strong women. Men’s egos typically won’t allow themselves to be upstaged by a woman. The classic image of a conjurer in the past century was a dominant, commanding figure, which is at odds with our Western idea of the feminine role. Magic, for the most part, is presented like a puzzle or a challenge to an audience by most practitioners. Women present magic more as an art form.
Hobby for Geeks
It’s the boys-and-their-toys syndrome. Magic is often considered a childish phase and fixation, which is more acceptable for men to have than it is for women. Magic may also suffer from the Star Trek syndrome: lots of uncool, nerdy geeks involved. Women tend to shun anything that is even remotely “unhip” or just not cool. Magic has a stigma of being geeky. Men are more likely to be socially inept and require a shield to hide behind for attention and social interactions. Insecure males get into magic as a way to make up for their social inadequacies. It is very much like being a computer geek, there is a lot of alone time and practicing.
Traditional Gender Roles
It’s about stereotyping and social acceptability. Parents give magic sets to little boys and dolls to little girls. The classic image of a magician is male, so more males are drawn to it as an acceptable hobby, and the next generation sees mostly male magicians and thinks it a pursuit for males, so the pattern perpetuates itself. There are not many female role models in magic. The “good old boys” kind of lock women out of the loop. There is plenty of “boys club” attitude among magicians. Women magicians aren’t encouraged or mentored. Women are not encouraged to find self-validation in nontraditional means. Young women are still very rarely encouraged to focus on anything that is not “wife,” “mother,” and now, maybe “career.” Society still places women at home. Even those with careers still do the majority of chores at home. Also, differences in social acceptance of keeping secrets may be a factor for magic. Men tend not to believe they have deceived a friend by keeping a secret (not restricted to magic) while females relate it to trust. Males accept keeping secrets such as customer base, market information, etc., as just another day at the office. Women “share” and aren’t generally the best at keeping secrets.
The Nature of Magic
Historically, women have been persecuted for participating in magic and women who practiced magic were historically identified with witchcraft. Perhaps people expect males to be wizards/magicians and women to be witches. Not many women want to be associated with the negative image of witches. Magic has always been presented as something of a fraternity, and for the longest time, magic clubs did not allow women to join (following the trend of most private clubs of the era). The traditional role of a male magician and his female “assistants” is not a social role that is easily transposed into female magician and her male “assistants.” This makes the road to being a successful female magician even harder since they have to create a whole new paradigm of what it is to be a magician in order to succeed. What females do when they are magicians is a more subtle type of magic whereas men do the sword through/cut ‘em up/more sadistic type of thing. Because women are smaller, they are better suited as the subjects for levitations and other illusions where close confinement is required. A woman’s hands are usually smaller than a man’s and therefore less suited for concealing cards and other large objects. It also seems to be more difficult to adapt women’s clothing with pockets for concealment of birds and other objects used in magic.
Brains are wired differently for men and women. Most of contemporary magic is presented as an analytical challenge/puzzle. This is analogue to the left part of the brain, which is the “male” part. Women are more right brain oriented and respond better to the emotional, lyrical and mythical. There are different interests between women and men, mainly due to a difference in their brains. This does not mean that women are inferior to men, just that they are different. Women are less solitary, on the whole, and more social, so magic does not appeal to them as a career because to become a successful magician requires a lot of solitary work. They are also truly magical mystical creatures: Women can deceive you without gimmicks. They are magical in and of themselves. The ability to create life from seemingly nothing is all a woman needs. They can perform the greatest miracle of all — giving birth to a live person. Woman can command men with that power. Men must resort to trickery to suggest such power residing in themselves.
Although there are many young female magicians entering the field, and despite less overt discrimination in magic clubs and performance venues, the continued male-dominance of magic highlights the entrenched values and social roles in our society today.
Looking at the increased number of women in other traditionally all-male occupations, such as medicine or law, obscures how many still view gender differences in areas characterized by issues of power and control. Perhaps only when magic’s gender imbalance changes can we declare that discrimination based on sex has truly vanished.
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