Are female magicians an illusion?

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Cristen: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Cristen.

Molly: And I'm the magical Molly.

Cristen: Molly, I really hope that you don't mind me sharing this with our listeners, but ladies and gents, this might have been Molly's favorite podcast research. You might have seen on your Itunes queue, Women in Magic. What are these girls talking about? Well, folks, Molly gunned hard for this, and Molly, I think, might be secretly pursuing some kind of career in magic.

Molly: Magic and illusions.

Cristen: Yeah, because she sent me a list of articles that we have to do this.

Molly: Well, Cristen mentioned magic offhand one day, and it suddenly struck me I had never seen a female magician. And I said something like, I've never seen a female magician, and Cristen dismissed me. But never dismiss me, folks, because like a rabbit, I will reappear out of your hat to remind you of gender differences, which is what I did. I went back and -

Cristen: Which is why I never wear a hat to work.

Molly: Because I'm always trying to pull things out of it. So anyway, once Cristen dismissed my magic idea, I turned to the magical Internet, if you will, and found a great article by Peter Nardi that was called Why Have Women Magicians Vanished, which confirmed all my beliefs that this was a totally gender-segregated profession and - granted, it's not the most popular profession.

Cristen: No.

Molly: I mean, it's not like this is a gender problem we need to solve because it affects so many women, like Wall Street, let's say. But it's a problem nonetheless because what we're gonna get into - and this might be what Cristen is laughing at me about - is that when you look at these tricks, they are so loaded with gender implications that I am just amazed we made it this far, almost, more than two years now, Cristen, without getting to the topic of women in magic.

Cristen: Molly's gonna start protesting magic shows, children's birthday parties, and magicians. It's gonna be great.

Molly: Well, and you know once you start trying to find female magicians, it's very hard to find some that don't perform in bikinis, which is a whole other topic.

Cristen: They make their clothes disappear.

Molly: They only make their clothes disappear, like -

Cristen: Yeah, a self-respecting male magician wouldn't make his clothes disappear.

Molly: They wear tuxedos. It's very - oh, it's so loaded. I can't wait to start talking about it. Let's start talking about it, Cristen.

Cristen: Let's start talking about it.

Molly: Now, we have to clarify that this is stage magic. This is stuff like card tricks, slide of hand, disappearing acts, things like that.

Cristen: Illusions.

Molly: Illusions. Think of Joe Bluth from Arrested Development.

Cristen: My favorite magician.

Molly: Probably mine too, for all his problems in executing tricks. Because when you are searching for women in magic, it's important to make that distinction, Cristen, because when you're searching for women in magic, it's easy to find people like tarot card readers, psychics. I mean - magic is a broad definition, but we are talking about stage magic, and making that distinction, it was very important in the early days of magic becoming entertainment because - and I think this will get into one of the reasons why women might have been wary to join the fields of this profession was because at the time they were burning witches.

Cristen: They were burning witches. Yeah, obviously magic, the dark magic, the occultish magic, if you will, was associated largely with old women. We had - we did a podcast a long time ago about women and witchcraft, and a lot of times these were just single, older, unmarried, childless women who were demonized in their villages whenever some kind of illness would - or some kind of natural disaster would befall the people.

Molly: So when people started becoming interested in things like juggling and making a ball disappear under a cup, people didn't automatically think, oh, this is entertainment. They thought it was this same sort of dark magic and these people were dangerous. So in 1584, we have kind of a big turning point because Reginald Scott published a book called Discovery of Witchcraft, and this was a book that made the argument that magicians weren't witches basically by exposing how a lot of tricks were done. But just making the point that if someone knows how to juggle, it's because they know how to throw things in the air, not that they are working in conjunction with the devil to levitate objects.

Cristen: And this makes sense because right around this time in the 16th Century, we have this backlash of - like this intellectual backlash, if you will, of rational skepticism against all of these kind of, I guess church-driven, hyper-religious overtones that were sending women to the stake for witchcraft when they, in fact, weren't doing anything at all. So Scott was trying to point out, like you said, that hey, these jugglers are just doing these fancy little tricks. They're not summoning up demons to hold the balls in the air for them or something like that, and he actually breaks down some of these magic tricks that are not unlike the illusions that one might see today.

Molly: And you would think that centuries later this connection between witchcraft and magic would be done. You know, that was a long time ago, but it's still brought up, even in this 2010 article by Nardi, as this sort of specter, I guess, just hanging over the magic field that if a woman does something like make something disappear, conjure something, it still has that association in people's mind of the occult. So that's something that keeps coming up.

Cristen: And another thing that was keeping women out of magic back in the day were the all-male magician gilds. I mean, it's - we kind of see the same thing like when we were talking about our podcast on women in art, the artist gilds which were exclusively for men, and so we have the same thing even with magic, and even today in L.A., there's this place called - what is it, The Magic Castle?

Molly: Yeah.

Cristen: I believe, which is - a friend of mine has actually been to The Magic Castle and I am incredibly jealous, but when you walked into The Magic Castle, which is this kind of enclave for higher end magicians, you don't see many women hanging around. It's guys in suits.

Molly: Right. It was only in the last few decades that they allowed women into some of the magic clubs and gilds and, even today, female membership in those clubs hovers around 5 percent, very low, and I think that this discouraging of women in magic starts when you're a kid. I remember my brother playing with a magic kit when he was a young boy, putting on his magic ticks, as he called them for us. He couldn't say his R's. But on the front of the kit was a boy. I think that female magicians have mentioned that over and over again that when you're looking in magazines, all the magazines feature male magicians. All the toys feature male magicians because I think just for one simple reason, because they're all wearing a tuxedo and we don't think of women wearing tuxedos.

Cristen: Well, and let's go to this Miller-McCune article that you talked about earlier, which is the one that you sent me that really got this magic ball rolling.

Molly: Magic ball.

Cristen: And aside from the witchcraft connection and these kind of gender roles that we're talking about, the author, Peter Nardi, points out that there might be some other aspects at work that has created this gender gap in magic. And I don't necessarily buy all of his points, but -

Molly: I do.

Cristen: You do? Okay, well, then, Molly, please -

Molly: Well, which one did you have trouble with? I bet you had trouble with the masculinity of a magic wand.

Cristen: Masculinity of the magic wand. Yeah, I mean, that's a little much for me, I'll be honest.

Molly: I mean, let's be honest. It can be phallic looking, a magic wand.

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: They're always talking about boys and their toys, and so he makes that point that the instruments of magic wands, swords, saws, these are things that we associate with men and we associate with power. And here's I bet another one where you had some trouble buying an argument, that magic is a display of power and we're uncomfortable with watching women on a stage exercising power, particularly over men.

Cristen: Well, here's the thing. I could see that back in Reginald Scott's days back in the 16th Century. Today, however, I'm just - yeah, I don't know.

Molly: You don't buy it?

Cristen: I don't really buy it. I think that we might have progressed beyond that point. What I do buy, though, is that most magic instruction is designed for men with jackets -

Molly: That's true.

Cristen: - and women's clothes don't have pockets a lot of times and can't reach into breast pockets.

Molly: Although there was one funny anecdote from a magician in another article we came across and they were - she was wearing a strapless dress to perform her magic, and someone was like, where did those doves come from, and she was like, but you never noticed how flat-chested I am. Illusions.

Cristen: Illusions. But speaking of that too, since magic has been more popular among men, the tools that they need - because this is a highly kind of technical art, you know, Joe Bluth has to buy magic tombs, yes, things like that. A lot of times these tools are built for men.

Molly: Except for things where they need an assistant.

Cristen: Right. For assistants, like if you have a box of someone you're gonna saw in half or someone's gonna disappear from, they are going to be small.

Molly: So they think that's why women have been pigeon-holed into the role of assistant because they're the only ones who can crawl into a very small box, who are flexible to crawl into the small box, and there was actually a documentary made called Women in Little Boxes that examines the role of the magician's assistant and why we so often associate women with that assistant role. Many magicians have said it's the assistant who does all the work. They're the ones who've gotta go through a trap door, maneuver like some pulley with their toes. What they're actually doing was, of course, was made very obscure by the article since we're not sworn to the magician code and we can't find out how a trick is actually done.

Cristen: We can't get into The Magic Castle.

Molly: But they're saying that it's actually the assistant who is the real magician. So that's what's kind of interesting about this is despite the fact that it's very hard to name a female magician off the top of my head, the fact is, they were probably pulling the strings behind many of the male magicians that we could name.

Cristen: But speaking of which, Molly, why don't we name a few famous women magicians?

Molly: That's a great idea, Cristen. One that I was particularly impressed with who was highlighted in a 2008 article of Bust magazine was Dorothy Dietrich because she pulled off a trick that even Harry Houd ini would not attempt.

Cristen: Yeah, this was an intense trick. She held a metal cup in her mouth and caught a .22 caliber bullet in it. Someone shot a gun at her face, and she caught the bullet in this cup.

Molly: And it has killed 12 men since people have started trying this trick, and so by doing this in 1980, she has earned her place as Nicole Summer says, in the pantheon of magic history.

Cristen: Now, there's also Dell O'Dell who's the original queen of magic, and she was born in 1902 and grew up in Kansas and she - this is awesome - she developed a strongwoman act and actually won the title of Miss Physical Culture, and then she started to integrate magic into her strongwoman act and also had a pretty rye sense of humor as well, and people just loved Dell O'Dell.

Molly: Yeah, she was the celebrity of the day. She had her own half hour show, she was on books and stamp albums and dolls, so I think that really is one exception to the thing that we don't know the names of female magicians. If we had grown up in that age, maybe we would have.

Cristen: Well, yeah, because Bust magazine points out that in the '50s and '60s, there was a surge of lady magicians on the scene and they were becoming more accepted along with them showing up more in the workplace and we have the slow rise of second wave feminism around this time and all this stuff.

Molly: And also Vegas.

Cristen: And also Vegas, yeah. They - Vegas and the nightclub scene out there needed something new and spectacular every night to keep audiences coming back for more, and lady magicians were a big crowd pleaser because it was unconventional.

Molly: And you know, a lot of the magicians who are profiled in this Bust magazine article, which we'll put on our blog roundup when it publishes, is that they were originally drawn to magic because a boy or a man said they couldn't do it. One magician, Celeste Evans, she was playing with some boys one day and they tied her up because she was gonna play the damsel in distress role. They were gonna come in and rescue her at the last minute before the train ran her over, and she got out of the ropes on her own, and someone saw her and said, who do you think you are? Houdini? And she was like, well, I don't really know who this Houdini fellow is but I better go find out, and she realized that because she had the skill and because she found out who Houdini was, she was gonna pursue this career in magic.

Cristen: And we should also add that Celeste Evans is the one who pulled doves out of her small-chested frame.

Molly: And these magicians talk about how when they are rising in the ranks that it was very much - they did come across that boys' club where men wouldn't tell them the secrets of the magic society and wouldn't help them with their stage performance and things like that. It does circle back to this idea of men having power that we were talking about earlier and not willing to seed that to someone who might take their job or might upstage them. So I think that that's something we do see that is a parallel to Wall Street, let's say, in that it's hard for these women to find mentors and someone who can bring them up because of the power that men hold. And speaking of male power in magic, Cristen, I think we need to talk about the first time that a man made a woman disappear on stage because if you wanna get into power implicit in some sort of performance, I don't think we can get much better than that story.

Cristen: And this is coming from a paper by Karen Beckman called Vanishing Women: Magic, Film and Feminism, and the setting - just to give you an idea of when this is taking place - we are in Victorian area Britain around the 1850s. There is some economic trouble. There are a lot more women who are choosing to not get married or remain single around this time.

Molly: A surplus of women. It was declared by the census.

Cristen: Yeah, and then that came up also in our spinster podcast is when that whole negative notion of a spinster, if you will, comes up. So -

Molly: You've got all these women -

Cristen: Yeah, all these ladies.

Molly: They are starting to have fishy ideas like wanting to vote.

Cristen: Make their own money.

Molly: Like whoa, all right. So the British man is a little intimidated, not to mention at this time Britain is an imperial power. They've got colonies all over the country, and one man even jokingly says, you know, we've got Australia, we could just send all these women there, get rid of all the extra women.

Cristen: I mean, yeah, they really did consider all these women official problems.

Molly: Make women vanish. Do you see where this is going?

Cristen: Yeah. Karen Beckman takes it there, guys.

Molly: Because another one of their imperial involvements was India, and now she writes about how the Indian mutiny is linked strangely to this first magic trick because a lot of the magic tricks that become popular in that time they got from India and other places that they were traveling to. And so there was this mutiny in which many women and children were killed, British women and children, and so this was really an attack, another attack she writes, on British manhood, that not only at home did they have these women threatening to take more power, but they had their colonial subjects killing their women and making this violence against the British body very apparent. It was very raw. It was a big wound for them. And so she writes then that seeing the first woman disappear on stage in 1886 by magician Charles Bertram sort of was a way to wrap up all these inadequacies into a way and then take back that power because what you're doing is you're putting a woman in a box - this superfluous woman who does no good to your society except want things - and make her disappear, but as a magic trick you still bring her back, which is what separates you from the Indians who massacred all these women. And so she really writes - you can take it with a grain of salt. It's a very deep reading about how these British audiences really responded to the idea of making a superfluous woman disappear, yet bring her back in a way that didn't align yourself with the violence of the savages that you were dealing with abroad.

Cristen: Yes. Heavy stuff.

Molly: A very deep reading indeed.

Cristen: So do we wanna talk a little bit about this vanishing woman act then?

Molly: Sure.

Cristen: So according to Beckman, the 1880s was the decade of vanishing women. When this trick first came on the scene, it became very popular very quickly. And it all started -

Molly: It made like the newspapers every day for a month. That's how cool it was that this magician had made a woman disappear.

Cristen: Man. Slow news month. And this starts in 1886 with a French-born Hungarian magician, okay, who comes up with this act called -

Molly: Surprise, The Vanishing Lady.

Cristen: Now in writing about this vanishing lady act when it first happened, August 6, 1886, a day that will go down in the history books.

Molly: I would love to be at The Magic Castle on that date, on the anniversary of that date.

Cristen: Yeah. I wonder if they celebrate it. But there was another magician who wrote years later about seeing this trick, and he describes it as what is considered by every known professor of the magic art to be the most perfect and most startling stage trick which has ever been produced.

Molly: And it was - I don't know - now reading the description of it, you're kind of a little bit - are you still mystified by it, Cristen? If this guy picked up a woman who he describes, the writer describes, as not petite.

Cristen: Yeah, she -

Molly: Beckman makes the point -

Cristen: She weighed a little over 9 stone.

Molly: Beckman makes the point that this was a really overt way of saying women take up too much space in our society, the fact that he noted that. Now you can take that with a grain of salt too.

Cristen: I think he was just saying, well, she was bigger so there's more to disappear.

Molly: Okay. So he gets this woman on stage. He puts a red silk covering over her, and Beckman claims this is a sign of the India connection because it had come from India and then he does a little magic and she disappears.

Cristen: Yeah, she disappears. She is sitting in this chair under this shawl. The next thing you know, bingo, bango -

Molly: She's in the audience.

Cristen: She's in the audience, totally freaking some audience members out too, because according to this illustration -

Molly: They are all mystified.

Cristen: Yeah, they are mystified. So this incredibly simple trick - this doesn't even involve like an Egyptian tomb like Joe Bluth might use. This is just a chair and a shawl and a woman disappearing. Something that simple in 1886 really just blew people's minds.

Molly: It blew people's minds, and it blew Karen Beckman's mind and mine when she presented her research on how everything was connected like magic.

Cristen: Like magic, and I think it really set the tone for modern magic.

Molly: It did.

Cristen: Would you say the vanishing woman act?

Molly: Well, I think that you have a picture in your mind now of the woman as the lovely assistant who will crawl into a box or be the one that disappears, and one site made the point, would we be comfortable watching a woman make a man disappear, or would that seem too politically loaded? I think that if we tried to reverse the trick today, it would be impossible to ignore the gender implications, whereas I think the reason I respond to the argument that Beckman makes in this paper is that - why didn't we - there was a reason to pay attention to the gender implications of what they were doing then as well.

Cristen: Right.

Molly: So I think it would be interesting to see what it would look like in reverse. I know there are some additions out there that can be kind of cheeky and get the male volunteer from the audience and do the reverse, but the argument keeps coming back as would you be comfortable watching a woman do that, or do we respond more to a man in that charismatic role and - he's not even because he makes her reappear.

Cristen: Well, and I'll just throw out this one little theory of mine, Molly -

Molly: I'm ready.

Cristen: - for the end. Perhaps women are especially suited to do the magician's assistant role, if you will, because they are in charge of distracting the eye a lot of times, while the magician is preparing his illusion, like you said. A magician's assistant is really the one doing all of the grunt work to pull off a successful trick, and I would say that a dazzling lady perhaps is more eye-catching than a dude in a suit. Who would you pay attention to?

Molly: John Hamm in a suit.

Cristen: Okay, you just changed things.

Molly: See. Exactly. This is gonna be my new career, everyone. I'm gonna be the magical Molly. I'm gonna go around and do ominous-loaded magic tricks. My slide of hand distracting assistant will be John Hamm.

Cristen: Maybe you could make Josh and Chuck from Stuff You Should Know disappear.

Molly: Or turn them into rabbits.

Cristen: Oh.

Molly: Can't you imagine if you had little cute rabbits, Josh and Chuck rabbits?

Cristen: That would be kinda cute, their little faces as rabbits. I'm picturing it now. All right. Before we start just planning our magic show extravaganza -

Molly: We're gonna turn all the How Stuff Works podcasters into something.

Cristen: Into something? I don't know, man.

Molly: I'm gonna turn Jonathan and Chris into computers.

Cristen: All this magic stuff has really taken over Molly's brain. I'm getting a little concerned.

Molly: I'm just - yeah.

Cristen: Is that why you wore a top hat to work today, Molly?

Molly: Today and every day until the end of time.

Cristen: So we wanna know what you think about this whole magic conundrum. Is it just - are there any gender politics associated with magic, or is it just -

Molly: Or have I gone crazy?

Cristen: Has Molly gone a little crazy? Are just illusions just meant to entertain or is there something to the fact that hey, why are there only lady assistants?

Molly: All entertainment has cultural [inaudible] attached to it.

Cristen: This is true. This is true. So let us know your thoughts. Send us a magical email at Mom Stuff at

Molly: And really, isn't email pretty magical because it just goes through like - it just goes from one computer to another.

Cristen: Yeah. You don't even see it.

Molly: Magic is everywhere, people.

Cristen: So let's read some emails.

Molly: I've got one from Tia who's writing about the gorilla girls podcast, and she writes on one of our favorite subjects, Canada. She says I want to shift attention up north. As a Canadian, I feel I should plug two iconic folk artists who are revered nationally, Emily Carr and Maude Lewis. Emily Carr is probably the most prolific and well-known of the two. Maude Lewis is a Nova Scotian hero who has an entire display devoted to her at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, complete with her original house. While it's true that outside of Canada these names probably do not mean much, within the country, they have always been respected for their amazing works and never titled as female or woman artists, but simply artists. I find in fact that when you ask the average Canadian to name a Canadian artist, these two are usually names mentioned well before a majority of male artists. Just another reason that we love Canada.

Cristen: Canada rocks. All right, I've got one here from Lindsay and this is in response to our episode on how breakups work in your brain, and she says, I'm so excited to hear that there are scientific studies supporting two terms my friends and I have coined, called distractionitis and forget the baditis. Forget the baditis is a period during and after a breakup when you completely forget all of the horrible parts of the relationship that made the experience not worth it. You forget the hard feelings, the fights, the nitpicking, etc., etc., and all you do is think about how happy you were in those happier times and how you will never be that happy again. When you're experiencing a strong bout of forget the baditis, your friends may end up pushing you into an even stronger bout of distractionitis. Distractionitis is when you're so focused on distracting yourself in the hardships of the breakup that you end up doing rather uncharacteristic and sometimes self-destructive things such as drinking too much, one-night stands, rebounding, overeating, etc., etc. There are, of course, positive ways to exhibit distractionitis that can help you heal your forget the baditis. However, if you go down the negative route, it generally only makes you feel worse, and the forget the baditis will get much stronger. So thank you for sending along those very important terms, Lindsay, that I think, yeah - everybody does experience a little bit of both of those with breakups. So if you have any stories you'd like to share with us, feel free to email me and Molly at Mom Stuff at -

Molly: Magical Molly.

Cristen: Magical Molly - I'm so sorry - at Mom Stuff at If you would like to share your thoughts, get other people's feedback, head over to our Facebook page and write something on the wall there, or you can follow us on Twitter at Mom Stuff Podcast, and then finally you can check out our blog where you can find all of these sources that Molly and I have been referencing throughout these podcasts. You can find it at

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