Why do 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.
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• 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”).
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