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Why Women Can’t Be Magicians

9 January 2012

In her fascinating book Pythagoras’ Trousers, Margaret Wertheim makes the claim that most physicists are male to this day because physics, like organized religion, deals with a knowledge of the “magical” core of the universe.  On a more mundane level, I got to wondering why men often proliferate as magicians (the entertaining sort).  It turns out that 95% of magic club membership is male.  Why?

Peter M. Nardi offers a collection of explanations for the trend in his article “Why Have Women Magicians Vanished?”  He quotes a number of practicing male magicians, some of whom actually claim that women’s anatomy and clothing is what inhibits them from performing magical tricks (e.g., where do you hide the doves if you have to wear tight-fitting clothing, especially around your breasts?).  Such technical problems may exist, but they don’t do much to give a deeper explanation of the dearth of women in the field.   Nardi gets closer to the solution when he says,

Magic has always been presented as something of a fraternity, and for the longest time, magic clubs did not allow women to join (following the trend of most private clubs of the era). The traditional role of a male magician and his female “assistants” is not a social role that is easily transposed into female magician and her male “assistants.” This makes the road to being a successful female magician even harder since they have to create a whole new paradigm of what it is to be a magician in order to succeed.

While Nardi doesn’t elaborate, this insight is at the heart of the problem, in my opinion.  A good male magician must not only appear to control the physical world through magic, he must also demonstrate that he can control the social world, a social world symbolized by his female assistant.  Just as he waves his wand and controls the physical elements (fire, water, hankerchiefs, coffins), so he controls the fate of the young woman, his subject.  Her cheerful demeanor glosses the fact that she assents, almost hypnotically, to the will of the magician.  Through the female assistant the audience is encouraged to trust the magician, and thus social control is asserted.

That is to say, women can’t be magicians, at least of the traditional variety, because it is unacceptable for them to exert social control.  They have no male assistant, no medium, by which to charm the crowd.  They do not stand above the earthly elements, above actual men, above the social world.  Women are not free to work the spectacle.  They must remain the spectacle.

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