So I’m going to start doing these kinds of posts every once in a while. The purpose is to question, and perhaps examine, why things are considered “guy things”, and if it will ever change (and yes, for the record, I think it can, and should change, in all of these cases).
If you really have to question where I stand on this… well… I’ll tell you this once: these things are “a guy thing”, but they shouldn’t be. I believe that the reason these things are “guy things” is a self-reinforcing circle, and I hope to prove that. This is something that is harmful… that’s the point. I hope to end by offering suggestions on how this particular thing can be changed from “a guy thing” to “a people thing”.
And yes, I know that “sex sells”; but society seems to think that this means “female sex sales”. It most certainly does, to straight men (and lesbians). But male sex sells to gay men and straight women, right?
And, as the title suggests, I’m starting with magic.
This first post was inspired by the series “Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed”. I’ve included the link to the show’s Wikipedia page because I’d really rather not go into a synopsis of the show, even a short and sweet one. So please go to the Wiki page and read it.
Do you notice anything about that picture?
It should be immediately obvious: four stunning, barely-clothed women.
Of course, my immediate, visceral reaction to this is to rub my hands together, lick my lips, and get… you know… happy. Yes, I love beautiful women, especially scantily-clad (or even naked) beautiful women. Always have, always will. And, of course, that is exactly the reaction they want. In the 1997-1998 series, the 2002 special, and the 2008-2009 series, they use beautiful dancers in outfits like these as the Masked Magician’s assistants. And I will now say that this, in and of itself, is not actually the problem.
The first problem starts when you actually watch the show. The men in the show, including the Masked Magician and the male stagehands, are all often referred to as men (though they will contrast the women assistants with the men stagehands by calling the men “male” occasionally, but nowhere near as often). They are never once sexualized. They are given the respect of being referred to as adults. The women, on the other hand, are largely referred to as “girls” and “females”, and are only sexualized. They literally serve no other purpose than sexual appeal. In other words, unlike the men, the women are infantilized and dehumanized; they have no agency, no humanity, outside of their sex appeal.
The second problem only appears if you’ve seen the original 1997-1998 series. In the last episode of the original series, the Masked Magician is unmasked, and turns out to be the magician Val Valentino. He notes that he revealed these secrets for children because he believes that kids get more joy out of magic when they know the secrets, and it would even turn many of them to become magicians themselves.
And yes, I agree with Valentino. I always enjoy magic tricks more when I know the secret. But then, I’ve never been a fan of surprises or ignorance, and will go to great lengths to find the secrets to dazzling tricks (I’m still on the hunt for the secret behind “Think-A-Drink” [also known as “Any Drink Called For” and “the Magic Bar”], an incredible magic trick I first saw performed by Steve Cohen with a tea pot on the History Channel special “Lost Magic Decoded”; a good show, but they could have… you know… actually decoded the tricks, instead of just highlighting their history). I think this is partly the fault of my brother, who performed his own magic for many years, and actually got really, really good… he was even able to make himself disappear, with a prop built by our mom’s parents. I would always pester him for the secrets, and more often than not he would eventually let me in on the secrets, largely, I think, to shut me up. I learned how to spot sleight-of-hand and other trick moves because of him. I know how to tell when a magician is palming an item (s)he wants hidden (like fake thumbs, coins, etc). So I think my dislike of surprises and ignorance and my drive to know the secrets can be at least partially blamed on my brother. He spoiled me.
So what’s the problem? It comes in with this: how was this show in any way geared toward children?
Now, don’t get me wrong… I rail just as strongly against the mistaken impression we have in the US that sex is somehow worse than violence (which is why you can have violence in children’s cartoons, but nudity, especially nude women, is left for R-rated and above [with some exceptions, of course]). But that doesn’t mean I’m all for little kids getting an eyeful of nude men and women, either. And, of course, we don’t have any nude women in “Breaking the Magician’s Code”. But this show certainly pushes the limits of PG into PG-13 at the very least, especially the original series which featured a hell of a lot of very suggestive, rather exotic dancing from the women wearing barely-there outfits like that. Add on to that the way the narrator talked about the women, and… I don’t see how this was formulated for kids at all.
It seems to me that the format of this show is to cater to straight men.
And this is the problem. This is what I want to focus on.
One could argue that the show’s formulated that way because magic is “a guy thing”, but I’d argue that this is putting the cart before the horse. The show contributes to the stereotype that magic is a “guy thing”. It quite literally alienates women with the way it’s set up, without even an apology. On top of that, it reinforces the stereotype that women exist for sex… and that’s it. And no, those assistants are not exactly unintelligent. As shown numerous times when revealing the secrets, those assistants are very knowledgeable in what they’re doing. They know what they are supposed to do, and even know how to manipulate the props when they need to. They do this all seamlessly, and with an ease that suggests that they could probably perform these tricks themselves, and quite well. But this is also glossed over by the show most of the time, and the few exceptions are played up by the narrator to add to the sex appeal of the women.
Imagine if the Masked Magician was a woman. Do you think the show would be as good? If you said no, then you’re part of the problem. Why would a magic show featuring a woman not be as good?
And in that vein (to get off of the show and onto magic in general), where are the women? Why aren’t there more magicians who are also women?
An article written back in 2010 by Peter M. Nardi and published at the Pacific Standard website asked this very question.
Research studies show that female membership in magic clubs and performances hovers around 5 percent.
Why there aren’t more women magicians is an intriguing question, especially in an age when women are more likely to participate in comedy, acting, sports and music. What is it about magic that discourages women from an active role and sees them primarily as magicians’ assistants?
Instead of answering the question himself, he turned to a survey posted on numerous magic forums, and the usual evo-psych stuff was trotted out by 220 magicians who are men and 7 (yeah… just 7) magicians who are women. Peter’s conclusion was this:
Although there are many young female magicians entering the field, and despite less overt discrimination in magic clubs and performance venues, the continued male-dominance of magic highlights the entrenched values and social roles in our society today.
Looking at the increased number of women in other traditionally all-male occupations, such as medicine or law, obscures how many still view gender differences in areas characterized by issues of power and control. Perhaps only when magic’s gender imbalance changes can we declare that discrimination based on sex has truly vanished.
It’s not going to be as simple as that, of course. There are a lot of things that would need to change before that happens. But it would be good for magic, in my humble opinion.
In the comments of that article, somebody linked to this web page, listing a lot of well-known magicians who are women. This is a great web page and introduced me to someone magicians I very much would like to see live one day.
But even this web page has its problems; one very specific problem, in fact…
Notice how it’s labeled: “Female Magicians”. Now, this is already a problem in and of itself because calling them “female” removes their humanity. However, that isn’t my specific issue with it. My issue is that the women are distinguished as female magicians, while the page listing male magicians is labeled simply as “magicians”. This very much suggests that male magicians are the norm, while female magicians are a separate, special category requiring that separation; out of the ordinary. Many would say, as I noted above, that this is because magic is “a guy thing”. Again… I think this is putting the cart before the horse. I think stuff like this is why magic is seen as “a guy thing”; because things like this push that idea.
So how can we change it?
Let’s start with “Breaking the Magician’s Code”. I think, if they do this series again (and I dearly hope they do), the Masked Magician should be a women, and her assistants should be men. And no, I don’t think this will hurt the ratings of the show. I think the ratings will ultimately stay the same. Or, if Val Valentino is reprising his role, and wants to continue it, they should, at the very least, sexualize the men, at least a little bit. Or, if they’re expecting this to be watched by children, then tone down the sexualization of the women. They can wear a little bit more, and don’t have to dance as much, and the narrator doesn’t have to take every opportunity to hint at how much he wants to have sex with them.
As to the website… instead of setting it up the way they did, they could have done it like this:
Make it a searchable web page. Let people filter by gender, style of magician, retired, historical, still performing, and so on. There’s no need to distinguish “female magicians” from generic “magicians”, as if the word “magician” itself refers specifically to men, and women who are magicians are an anomaly.
Magic may be seen as “a guy thing”, but it really shouldn’t be. It never should have been seen that way in the first place, but now, in the 21st Century, we should work to change it.