Women in Magic and “The Invisi-Ball Thread”

Fooling Garwulf 3 social

Last night’s episode of Penn & Teller: Fool Us was another strong one, with enchantment, delight, and mystery – as any good magic show should be. So, without further ado, onto the performances.

Leon & Romy: As Penn said during his comments, one of the challenges a lot of magicians face is to make card tricks interesting. It’s hard to dislike Leon and Romy’s approach. They use a redemption plot – they initially appear to fail to perform the trick, and then reveal that they’ve done something even harder – and using the skateboard for a revelation is a great way to use a prop in an unexpected fashion. It wasn’t a spectacular trick, but it was a good one, and it fooled Penn and Teller fair and square.

Mike Hammer: So far this season, we’ve had two very good examples of magicians creating personas for their performances, and using them to spice up a trick. Unfortunately, while last week’s Greg Dow was a great example of doing this well (his alter-ego, “the Shocker,” is outrageous and tasteless, but also larger-than-life and therefore very entertaining), Mike Hammer did it poorly. His persona of the seedy bar magician rang true, as any stage persona must, but by appealing to sleaze rather than the outrageous, he made his trick underwhelming instead of elevating it. The Shocker is a sort of character we almost never encounter in real life, which leaves us wanting to see what he’ll do next, regardless of if it is delightful or offensive – Mike Hammer’s persona is a character we encounter all too often in real life, and leaves us wanting to nod politely until he goes away. It might work well for performing in bars and clubs, but it’s just not the right persona for a show like Fool Us. I’m sorry to say it, but Hammer’s presentation just didn’t “pop,” and he didn’t fool them… nor do I think his performance deserved to. Good magic should create and exceed high expectations, not create and live down to low ones.

(That said, a dishonest, seedy persona can work wonderfully when done properly. Harry Anderson, best known for playing Judge Harry Stone in Night Court, sometimes performs magic under the persona of a sleazy 1940s confidence artist named Harry the Hat. It’s a funny, seductive performance, alluring in part because you’re never quite sure which side of the con you’re on, and you can’t wait to find out.)

Shin Lim: THIS is what magic can be! Lim turned in the best performance of the night. In Darwin Ortiz’s book Strong Magic, he discussed how the best presentation of any magic trick will look as it would if real magic was being performed. Lim didn’t show us a trick – he allowed us to watch him perform sorcery before our eyes. His use of smoke was indeed beautiful, and his presentation was sublime. “Patter” is frequently used to describe a verbal presentation, but it’s worth noting just how much can be done with body language alone. This was magic elevated to music and dance, and it was enchanting. If I have any criticism, it is that his performance should not have been subtitled, but that is no fault of the performer. He fooled Penn and Teller, and it would have been an injustice if he hadn’t.

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Peter Boie: While Shin Lim was enchanting, Boie presented a legitimately spooky performance. One of the reasons this worked so well was that, as Penn noted, Boie did not use any gimmicks in the trick itself. He presented it as it would be if he was really conjuring spirits, and his masterful use of a smoke machine helped create an atmosphere emphasizing the eeriness of the spiritualism. He didn’t fool them, but it was a wonderful performance all the same.

(The spiritualist movement as we know it began in 1848 when sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, 1837-1892 and 1833-1893 respectively, claimed to have made contact with a spirit, who communicated using rappings. The Fox sisters became famous mediums in America, and the movement they started was so strong that it survived their admission in 1888 that the entire thing had been a hoax.)

Penn and Teller: This trick harkens back to the little plunger of the previous episode. It’s just sheer delight, and you could hear it in the reactions from the audience. Penn really did reveal the secret – it is done with a thread – but it is also a routine where you stop caring about the method once the trick has begun. It’s great magic, and the sort of thing that makes you happier that you’ve seen it.

Going back to the first act, Leon and Romy are a male and female duo, where it is very clear that both are equal partners in the magic, as opposed to Romy being Leon’s assistant. And this brings me to women in magic, which is a far trickier subject than it first appears. We have a certain image of the challenges that women face in trying to make themselves known that was well captured by Burt Wonderstone – not being taken seriously, relegated to the role of assistant regardless of talent, and having to deal with the sexual advances and sexism of male magicians.

On first glance, there is certainly some basis to believe this. While there have been some illustrious female magicians in the past (Adelaide Herrmann, 1853-1932, a showgirl turned assistant turned magician who became known as the Queen of Magic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, comes immediately to mind), they are by far outnumbered by men, even to this day. In the 1940s, Dariel Fitzkee (1898-1977) advocated against relegating women to the assistant role, stating that they should be treated as full magicians. In the late 1960s, Henning Nelms (1900-1986) wrote a highly influential book, Magic and Showmanship, that firmly cast the role of assistant as being female and discussed the problems of recruiting women into the part.

But while this may have been a reasonable description of magic in the 1960s or ’70s, it bears little resemblance to magic today, as I discovered upon beginning the interview portion of my research. Knowing relatively little about the subject outside of history books, books on performance theory, and a few online articles, I reached out to Christen Gerhart, a magician, magic critic, and judge on Wizard Wars; Misty Lee, a stage illusionist and theatrical seance medium who in 2010 became the first woman in the history of the Magic Castle to become a staff Medium for their magical Houdini Seance; and Suzanne Sinclair, a professional close-up magician who has been performing since 1985.

All three face a number of challenges in their magic careers, none of which are based on their gender. Their interactions with their male peers are generally professional, and they are treated as equals. If anything, magic today is highly supportive of female magicians, with just about everybody in the field wanting more women involved.

The only institutional sexism that was related to me, in fact, came from outside of the magic community. Both Christen Gerhart and Misty Lee described situations where they had encountered sexism from Hollywood casting directors, but even this faded when somebody wanted to cast a magician, rather than a walk-on role who needed to fit into a particular dress. And while there may still be sexist audience members who are surprised to see a female magician headlining, as Lee explained, they’re there to see magic, and that is what they care about – in a decade and a half of performing, nobody has ever expressed disappointment to her that they’re seeing a woman rather than a man. Likewise, in Suzanne Sinclair’s three decades of performing, the only thing she has ever seen the audience care about was whether they were entertained.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t sexist magicians. The FFFF convention – a prestigious, invitation-only magic convention with a waiting list that is years long – recently implemented severe penalties for anybody caught making misogynist jokes or remarks (they lose their invitation). But, this sexism or misogyny is far from institutional – there may be individuals or small cliques who are sexist or misogynist, but the field as a whole cares about the magic, not the gender of the performers. Suzanne commented that the number of sexist or misogynist magicians she has encountered was proportionally lower than the number of sexists and misogynists she has encountered elsewhere. The image of the sexist world of magic is at least one generation out of date and counting.

There is still the question of how to recruit more women into magic, and this is something that a lot of magicians, both male and female, are trying to figure out. But, this may very well be the last gender-based challenge left, if it hasn’t already been erased by the large influx of women coming into magic right now. In fact, if there is one takeaway I had from talking to active professional female magicians, it was that the time has come to stop talking about the challenges faced by female magicians, and just talk about magicians.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Christen Gerhart, Misty Lee, and Suzanne Sinclair. Any errors are my own.

Author’s Other Note: Steven Brundage has done an AMA on Reddit, where he talks about his cube trick that fooled Penn and Teller last week, and it is very worth reading.

Author’s Other Other Note: Since this is a feature about magic, we must ask for discretion when it comes to discussing methods in the forums. For the sake of preserving the mystery for those who do not want to know how the tricks are done, as well as to avoid accidentally exposing the hard work of some very talented magicians, please avoid revealing methods in the discussion threads; if you must talk about a method in a way that might expose it, please use spoiler tags.

Robert B. Marks is the author of the new and revived Garwulf’s Corner on The Escapist, as well as Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, the original Garwulf’s Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, his Patreon-based magazine experiment, Garwulf Speaks, can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.


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