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.
Another part of that is the same as how math and science often attract more boys than girls. Magic is a puzzle. I was in the math club—it's no coincidence that I became a magician.
Suzanne: I didn't tend to hang out with other girls. I played around with magic a little as a child, but I didn't really look at it as magic, I thought it was puzzles. I went to college to study computer programming—puzzles—and I liked brainteasers and optical illusions, so magic was right up my alley.
Webster: If I played with other kids, I always loved playing with boys more than girls. And I never saw a real magician until my early 20s. He was my art teacher. After months of learning to paint, he suddenly showed me a coin and vanished it, then made it re-appear out from nowhere! He was a magic teacher from that moment on, because I wouldn't let him breathe until he promised to teach me magic. I love magic because it involves the sciences in performance, and I couldn't get enough of it.
Blackstone: I was a television dancer at the time I first got hired for a magic show.
Even when women do pursue careers in magic, though, they sometimes find that certain aspects of the magic performance tradition just weren't designed with women in mind. For starters, the clothing.
Menna: Most magic that you learn assumes that you're wearing a jacket with long sleeves, and a pair of pants with pockets—so that if you put your hand in your pocket to put your pen away, you can secretly take out your gold coin. But you don't have a pocket in your gown! So you have to rework it into your purse or something. If you're hiding a couple of doves on your body somewhere, those are bumps.
Blackstone: There was one woman who was very prevalent in the '60s, Celeste Evans, who did a bird act in a form-fitting evening gown, and nobody's ever had a clue where those birds came from. So have there been a few women who got around it? Absolutely. But it's not quite as typical.
Some tricks of the trade don't work for women because of the size differences between men and women. As Blackstone points out, though, those are generally easier to work around.
Blackstone: Most women's hands are much smaller than men's, so therefore when you'd be doing things with cards, the ability to totally cover a deck of cards—even a bridge size—is much harder to do with a female hand than with a male.
I wear a size 4½ ring. A man typically wears a 10½. If we're multiplying that over five fingers and then the palm of your hand, it just makes covering certain things so much easier if a hand is larger. It's not that someone can't do it technically just as well—it's just that they can't cover it as much. If you're not covering something that is magically vanishing or appearing, there's no magic.
A woman uses a bridge-size deck versus a poker deck; I probably wouldn't use huge poker chips. An audience won't translate that large poker chips are any different in size from the smaller poker chip, though. It'll just translate as a poker chip.
The work-life balance challenge applies for magicians, too: Historically, the grueling on-the-road lifestyle has been considered a deterrent for women who might otherwise be interested in magic.
Menna: When I started out, I used to travel by myself—and if I was in Vegas, I'd go down to the bar to get a chili or something after my gig and the security guards would come over and check to see that I wasn't a prostitute. So I started wearing pigtails and Keds downstairs to get my food! Traveling by yourself in the 1970s and 1980s as a [22-year-old] woman was terrifying. That wasn't acceptable until recently.
I don't have children; I don't have a family. I had to give that up. You can do it, but it's very hard to make a living in one town; you top out at a certain level. If you're a birthday-party clown or something, you can stay there, but if you're a successful magician, you have to be an international traveler and travel constantly. And that's not an easy ride. One has to choose quite a bit and give up quite a bit to do that. Most women who have children either take a step down or they perform as part of a duo or team.
Suzanne: Magic is really best seen in a live setting. So 100 years ago, when magicians were touring the country, it would be less feasible for women to be magicians. They had to stay home with the children and take care of the house, etc.—so there's also the idea that there just haven't been many role models for women interested in magic.
Few Role Models
As Suzanne mentioned, the tiny portion of magicians who are female could also be a self-perpetuating thing—so every female magician has to be a trailblazer in her own right.
Webster: Sometimes, I perform magic with Geoffrey McSkimming, who's writing a series about a young female magician called Phyllis Wong. When young girls and teens see the magic that comes to life from the story, they go crazy and badger me to learn. I think not seeing female role models in magic, nor having the facilities to learn, is a big reason so many girls don't think to try learning magic in the first place. Out of sight, out of mind.
Menna: I must get a letter a month for the last 30 years from some young girl who says she'd never seen a female magician, but then, "Oh, I saw you work and I thought, that's what I want to be!"