In the new Steve Carell comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, there's a moment when Jane (Olivia Wilde), Burt's reluctant onstage assistant, transforms Burt's dollar bill into a butterfly.
It's a charming scene, showing one more adorable step toward Burt and Jane's inevitable rom-com happy ending. Plus turning money into a tiny fluttering monarch is just generally pretty cool. Yet it also got me thinking: Why is this the first time I have ever seen a woman do a magic trick?
This past week, I talked to performers, producers, lecturers, and teachers in the magic industry about the state of the female magician today—and it turns out that although more and more talented women break into the business all the time, female magician really are rare overall. There's little existing research on the topic, but their estimates of the percentage of women in professional magic ranged from "three percent" to "one out of a dozen" to "six to eight percent." A 2010 story in Pacific Standard reported that figure to be around five percent; one magician simply told me that at magic conventions, there's never a line for the women's restroom.
Right now, there are no female magicians headlining their own shows in Las Vegas—the "Magic Mecca" of the world, as Sue-Anne Webster, an Australian magician and lecturer on magic from Australia, puts it. And female magicians are enough of an oddity that, like Jane, Webster has found that "if you work with another magician, and that other magician is a male, people will naturally think you're the assistant. Which is annoying."
But, she added, "in my experience, people love finding out that the magician is female." And every magician I spoke to said that audiences tend to respond just as warmly to a great female performer as to any great male performer.
So why are so few magicians female? Webster; television magic-show producer and former magician Gay Blackstone; Brisbane-based magician-school instructor Julian Mather; Las Vegas-based lecturer, performer, and workshop instructor Jeff McBride; magician Lisa Menna; and the Minneapolis-based magician known only as Suzanne explained what factors might be at work in creating the wide gender gap in magic.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
History and Geography
For centuries, in much of the Western world, women practicing magic was a big no-no—so the tradition of female magicians in Western nations doesn't have a long or rich history. That's not the case, however, in other parts of the world.
McBride: In the West, for a long time, you could be burned at the stake for practicing magic. That was an incentive to get out of magic during the Inquisition; anyone who had special powers would be put to death.
And when the Industrial Revolution came around, it was the golden age of secret societies and fraternities. These were generally men's-only clubs, and one of them was the Society of American Magicians in New York City, at Martinka's Magic Shop. Houdini was one of the officers. At one time that's the only place you could study magic, but as magic evolved, it got more accessible to people not in secret societies or magic clubs. So women had easier access to the teachings of magic.
Menna: You know how you had parlor entertainment, several hundred years back? The wealthy women of Asia, some of them chose magic and manipulation—actually the manipulation of objects, which is a specific branch of magic—and their parlor entertainment, like you would learn to play the flute or sing an operetta. In the Asian tradition, women have always done magic as a high art form.
McBride: I performed to represent the United States in Asia a few years ago and I was overwhelmed with the number of women magicians. Ukraine and Russia's circus schools also produce many wonderful television-star magicians.
Are there fewer women in professional magic because women tend to be less interested in magic? That's likely part of it, according to these industry insiders. Perhaps there's some truth to the portrayal of Burt Wonderstone's lonely, bullied adolescence as a kid magician, and to Jane's retort that her childhood as a little girl who loved doing magic tricks was weirder than Burt's childhood years: Even at an early age, according to the magicians, more boys tend to take an interest in magic than girls.
"[Among the kids I teach], there's an even spread of boys and girls up until about age 10. When they reach 11 and 12, though, the girls drop off."
Mather: In general [among the kids I teach], there's an even spread of boys and girls up until about age 10. Both sexes are willing to learn, practice and perform; when they reach 11 and 12, though, the girls drop off, especially in the performing.
When I do a class magic session with 13- to 16-year-olds in an all-girls school, I get a really enthusiastic reception. It's all greeted with a sense of fun from the get-go, and the girls aren't really interested in how it works. If I do a class magic session with 13- to 16-year-olds in an all-boys school, it's a bit frosty to start. But once I establish credibility and share some of the mechanics with them, they're my new best friends.
Read endless magician profiles—as I do!—and there is a pattern of boys starting magic somewhere between age 8 and age 12 by getting a magic kit as a present. American magician Max Maven once summarized that magic is a white, male-dominated arena because most magicians get into magic about the age of 12 as a social-coping mechanism.
Menna: I think the opening scene of Burt Wonderstone rang true for a lot of male magicians: They were the kid that got beat up until they learned magic. But I don't think women often get into magic because of being socially awkward. I think women get into it because they might be interested in performance.