SEX, LIES, AND MY CLAWS OUT – MY THOUGHTS ON WOMEN IN MAGIC
August 20th, 2013 by Misty Lee
The question of why there are so few female magicians has been popping up in the media here and there. As I AM a female magician I’ve been meaning to post some personal theories, but an article has surfaced which in my opinion so misrepresents the issue that posting my own experiences felt like an emergency.
The Seattle Times ran a guest opinion piece authored by female magician Maritess on Women in Magic (or rather, the lack thereof), in which she essentially refers to male magicians as salacious, selfish meatheads, and blames these men and their piggish behavior for the lack of women in magic. You can read the original article on SeattleTimes.com.
Now, I don’t know Maritess personally, and don’t know her work. She’s probably a very nice person, but today she made me angry – and in this article I think she’s… well, dead wrong.
If Maritess’s experiences are as reported they’re unfortunate for sure, but instead of blaming the lack of females in magic on dudes being a-holes, I contend it’s something more than that. The theories below are based on my personal experiences, triumphs, and hangups over the past ten years in the field, and I’m hoping that sharing them might help other magicians who may be having the same issues become better at what they do, and take personal responsibility for their choices rather than pointing the finger.
So why are there so few women in magic? Apologies in advance if this ends up incoherent, as my thoughts on the subject are many and varied and I’m full of vitriol right now, but for what it’s worth, here they are:
1. Communication Defaults.
For the most part, men communicate to relay information. They speak in a straight line, prioritizing and dispensing the information necessary to accomplish a task and help move all involved parties from point A to point B.
It’s my experience that man’s communication style is typically direct, sparse, and information-filled. Not calling men poor speakers – am delighted to know many magical men who possess sparkling conversational skills and are a delight to spend time chatting with (loooove my long lunches with Max Maven, and have skipped sleep many nights to chat for hours on the phone with Bizzaro) – but in a typical conversation a dude makes his points and moves on to the next directive. Reduced to a caveman perspective, it’s ‘We need to kill the creature. Here is what you need to know so we can kill the creature.’, then ‘We have to get the carcass home. Here is what you need to know to get the carcass home.’)
Women, however, usually communicate to connect. They use their words and body language to suss out whether or not a person should be welcomed into the community (where (historically) the vulnerable members and valuable possessions of the group are kept and cared for), and whether the co-communicator is safe and trustworthy. In order to function at its highest capacity, ‘Feminine Intuition’ places truth and connection at top priority in communicative endeavors. This presents a unique problem for female prestidigitators (it certainly did for me, anyway) because when you boil it down to basics, much of magic is based on lies.
I know, I know – it’s science, art, sleights, illusion, etc. etc. – but at its core, since none of us are supernatural (and if you are, call JREF immediately – they have a check for you), as magicians we’re essentially presenting deception as truth. This is usually fine for guys – “I am going to give you this experience, and here is what/all you need to know for that to happen.” Keeping secrets is important to the overall goal, so it’s imperative these secrets be kept, and kept well. Chicks, however, typically communicate to share and connect. Keeping secrets or directly lying to people whom you want to build a sense of community with and like you goes against the very core of feminine nature, meaning the concept of ‘Magician’s Guilt’ is magnified and can become quite an obstacle in performance.
I suffered from crippling Magician’s Guilt for YEARS, and it affected every single aspect of my work. Character and presence wasn’t playful – it was stilted, guarded, and inhibited. Routines rarely deviated from their books, as that was the way they were written and meant to be. Costumes weren’t what I *felt* like wearing, they were what (I thought) everyone ELSE expected a female magician to wear. Misdirection was sloppy and ill-thought out, or tried to be WAY too clever, becoming counter-intuitive – as though by forcing their eye to what they weren’t supposed to see, I could grey the line between the lie and the outcome and have the best of both worlds. None of this was ME, and NONE of it worked – it was homogenous, weak, and awful. When executing a sleight or misdirecting I was choppy – and trying to lie to an audience was so hard it turned me into a patronizing kindergarten teacher type on stage. It reeked of fear, was pretty gross, and was utterly painful to watch.
After years of improv at Second City I realized that it wasn’t that I was a bad television magician – I can execute moves just as well as the boys. The problem was the lying part. When performing as a CHARACTER, the magic was easy, fluid, fun, and flawless. But trying to be ‘just Misty’ on stage was still a death sentence. Maladroit, stilted, icky. No thanks.
About a year and a half ago, I was lamenting to John Carney about this recurring problem and he offered a simple, brilliant solution:
“What if”, he asked, “You take the onus off the ‘lying’, and simply shift your perspective – instead of ‘I’m deceiving you and I’m so sorry”, shift your inner monologue to something different: “I’ll bear the weight of this awful, heavy secret to allow you to have this beautiful, magical experience.”? Try that and see if it works.” It did.
Removing guilt and insecurity from the ‘work’ part and shifting priority instead to the audience’s experience was liberating, and *poof* – my shows got much, MUCH better. Not just from a creativity standpoint, but from a technical standpoint too. If you want the spectators to focus on feeling your story, you’ve got to execute the moves flawlessly to prevent distraction. Practicing became both fun and important instead of painful and labored, and my ‘bold’ level increased tenfold. He probably doesn’t know it, but John’s wise words realigned my career.
So anyway, Magician’s Guilt. It’s tough on chicks (or was, at least, on me).
2. Some women in magic are confused.
Women (especially in this country) sometimes think that being sexy is paramount to being marketable. Not denying that sex sells and that an appealing, defined image is a big part of a performer’s JOB, but given a choice between a sparkly, vapid linking rings routine and Suzanne’s story about and closeup effect with band-aids, I’ma go with band-aids every time – and so will most audiences. Vapid sparkle is fun to watch for a minute, but frankly it isn’t good theater. It’s forgettable, and doesn’t make you FEEL anything. ‘Pretty’ simply isn’t enough, and pretty fades. Some female magicians think that having a vagina and a beautiful smile entitles them to the riches and the throne. Those female magicians are, in my opinion, missing the mark – instead of focusing on getting/missing opportunities based on your gender or angling at being the best FEMALE magician, why not just try to be a great MAGICIAN? Oh, that’s *hard*, you say? Yeah, it IS. Competing in a market with thousands of talented men is MUCH harder than competing against 50 other chicks. If you’re not up to the challenge, do something else.
Yes, being a female in magic seems rare right now, so it’s good for marketing. Am getting quite a bit of mileage myself from being the first female Houdini Seance Staff Medium at the Magic Castle, so denying that our gender can be an *asset* would make me a hypocrite. My point is being female hasn’t INHIBITED my work opportunities – it’s only INCREASED them. (For the record, I didn’t get the seance job because I’m a chick. I got it because I had a good idea for a different kind of show, and Milt Larsen wanted to see the show I pitched. He hired Rob Zabrecky at the same time because Rob had an also good but different idea, and gender aside – if either show was garbage or we didn’t do the job well we’d be fired.)
Most folks don’t give a damn if the paramedic saving them is male or female – only that they’re qualified and do the job well. Why on earth should a MAGICIAN’s sex come into play? Insisting that men in magic are chauvinistic or oppressive is, in my experience, absolutely asinine. I’ll admit I’ve been pretty damn lucky to know (and worked/studied with) some of the creme de la creme – Jonathan Pendragon, Steve Valentine, Sylvester the Jester, Andy Nyman, the three boys mentioned above, Whit Haydn, Leo Kostka, Craig Dickens, Jim Steinmeyer – the list goes on and on – and none of them – NONE – has ever crushed my dreams, insulted my work, or denied me ANY opportunity because of my gender. Have some of them told me what I’m doing is utter shite and needs a re-write? Absolutely. Because that’s what people who respect and want the best for you DO. Have some of them generously shared ideas and spent hours helping me hone and develop my shows and abilities? Yep, and my gratitude runs VERY deep. Maybe I’m wrong and they’re totally distracted by my big brown eyes and fabulous rack and are just way too classy to say so, but it’s been my personal experience that overall me being a chick is pretty irrelevant when it comes to actually doing and reviewing the work – and if the work focuses *too much* on being a chick and too little on the audience’s experience, it probably sucks.
Am not in any way implying that there aren’t asshole magicians out there (there are assholes in EVERY field), and am absolutely not saying women should strive for androgyny in their shows (as I mentioned, personal stories and individuality trump all as far as my taste in magic is concerned). Am merely saying almost all of the magicians I know are encouraging, giving people – not douchebags and porn-mongers who have no interests beyond ogling bikinis at a magic gathering. If that’s what your magic meetings were like, Maritess, perhaps you should’ve gone one town over and tried again. Or better yet headed over to Jeff McBride’s Wonderground – it’s a hotbed of positive creativity, and many – MANY – female magicians develop acts and perform there.
Those aren’t my only two theories about women in magic, but I’ll save the rest for another post, as this is already lengthy and I’d like to address a few specific points from Maritess’s article. The quotes are lifted right from her text. My responses are beneath them:
1. “This is the territory where men shove women in boxes, chop them up and set them on fire while an audience applauds.”
Don’t like that? CHANGE IT. Lin Dillies does every sadist thing you mentioned to a dude in her shows – while an audience applauds. My girls and I do a dominatrix-style sawing of a male spectator, and trust me – nobody’s complaining. Lamenting about the way you think magic has been for so long is moot and futile – especially when the opportunities to create and distribute your own material is right at your fingertips. What do YOU want magic to be? Foster an idea, and make the magic YOU want to see – because you CAN.
2. “Although I knew some really great effects, such as how to turn $1 into a $100 bill, I was ashamed that I didn’t understand the most basic magic secrets, such as how to make a dove appear in my bare hands or how to make someone vanish from a chair.”
A bill change is just a neat thing you’re doing unless you make it matter. An effect becomes ‘great’ when it means something to the people who are watching you do it. As far as ignorance goes, a little ambition could’ve unlocked those shackles: In 1992 (before the internet was widely accessible), a simple library search or visit to a magic shop would’ve turned up Mark Wilson’s widely available ‘Course in Magic’ book, which could’ve unveiled these secrets – WITHOUT demeaning you or insulting your femininity.
3. “I also aspired to become one of the best card workers out there. I went to blackjack-dealing school, bought books, invested thousands of dollars in apparatus and spent hundreds of hours networking, but my efforts always seemed superficial.”
Some important words are missing here: ACTING, PRACTICE, and PERFORMANCE. Blackjack dealing school is technical. It doesn’t teach you how to connect with people or make the impossible miracles you’re performing relevant. Knowing the secret to a trick doesn’t mean you know it and can do it well. Knowing why you specifically have chosen to share THAT specific moment – why it matters to YOU – is what makes the magic ‘real’… and makes it matter.
4. I’ll concede your thoughts on ‘Burt Wonderstone’, but ‘Now You See Me’? Disagree. Although it was implied she entered magic as an assistant (And so what? So did I.), heavy-handed romantic plot aside, Isla Fisher’s character in that movie was creative, a solid performer, and very much an equal, featured part of both the group and the overall plan.
5. “If you really want to gauge the psyche of mainstream America, don’t look at legislation or online trends. Look at magic shows.”
Again, disagree. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems Twitter hashtags, Onion articles, CNN, and legislation probably WOULD more accurately reflect the psyche of mainstream America than Dan Sperry’s eyes bleeding or David Blaine’s hermit-ing up in a glacier. Although he/she might be entertained by a performer’s doing so, I’m pretty sure not every American citizen wants to get buried alive in cement. Magic shows tend to reflect the thoughts, feelings, and desires of the performer/creator – not the desires of the public at large. My show’s content isn’t selected via democratic vote. I feel it, I write it, and we do it.
Here’s the bottom line: Boys are boys – some DO on occasion make insensitive or sexual remarks. Sometimes women don’t deal well with those, and instead of just shutting them down and telling the offenders they’re acting like assholes, the women retreat in shame or defeat and assume they aren’t welcome in the circle.
As far as girls in magic, though? I think Maritess is off the mark. I’ve been mistreated and disrespected a lot in life – magic included – but feel it’s what you take from those experiences that matters. For example: When just getting into magic, I attended a lecture by the late John Calvert. Being the only chick there besides his wife got his attention. He assumed I was an assistant. I didn’t care, and just corrected him. Upon finding out I was a magician myself, he offered this advice:
“Never use your body in your magic. Make it more.”
Did I mention that he said all this DIRECTLY TO MY CHEST?
I had a choice: Take his (good) advice, dismiss him with disdain and play the victim, or combine the two – USE my feminine wiles and woman’s perspective on life to inform my work AND have a funny story to tell about a renowned, beloved master of our art who meant well but was accidentally Creep-McGeepin.
I’m fully aware that a nice set of boobs can make a guy as dumb as a box of rocks. But manipulating that knowledge to my advantage and adding brains AND good work to the mix? Well, that’s just powerful.
See, I consider being a woman in magic an ADVANTAGE. Always have.
Let me tell you something, Sister: you’ve gotta have a mouth if you want to survive – not just in magic, but in life. If the boys (or girls!) are getting sassy with you, a little sass back stops it in its tracks. People who overstep boundaries usually aren’t evil – they’re ignorant (or idiots). Most of the male magicians you are trying to vilify have spent a large percentage of their lives alone with a deck of cards and their imaginations, and these hobbies aren’t always conducive to charm or staggeringly suave people skills.
If you dream of success in magic, don’t let anyone stop you. Stand up for yourself. If you’re still being disrespected, find a new social circle. But please – PLEASE – stop blaming your career frustrations on other magicians. Overall, they’re damn good folk.
Misty Lee is a female magician currently living and working in Los Angeles, California. She is the only female ever hired as a ‘House Medium’ for the Magic Castle’s Houdini Seance Show, and is also the current voice of the Magic Castle (a position she is also the first and only female to ever hold).
Next, read Misty’s blog Cold Readings: Cool Trick or Callous Manipulation.