Magic and mentalism for girls
by Hayley Morgan
Name a famous female magician. Go on, name one (and no, Debbie McGee doesn't count). Unless you're a committed member of the Circle and your answer was Magic Jade, Jayne Corrigan or Charlotte Pendragon, you've probably fallen short of producing a verifiable name out of a hat...
Despite the Magical profession becoming edgier, trendier and more contemporary thanks to street magicians, mind-boggling endurance acts and headline-grabbing danger stunts such as Derren Brown's 'Heist' or 'Russian Roulette' - one of the true remaining mysteries of the trade is why women are still so notably absent. Previously, amateur 'Magic tricks' were performed almost exclusively by teenage boys in the privacy of their bedrooms, but with the art returning once again to the forefront of popular entertainment, the question remains: where are the girls?
Although the halls of fictional fantasy are crammed to burst with bug-eyed, wand-waving anime super-girls and feisty, charm-casting witches, the 'real' world of magic is practically monopolized by men, with women given a permanently sidelined role as 'The Assistant'.
Frocked out in sequins and feather boas, the Magician's Assistant is best known for bringing props on stage or being sawn in half as she acts out the vaguely sadomasochistic Damsel in Distress routine. She provides the glamour and beauty to the Magician's awe-inspiring intrigue. In reality, however, the Assistant is subtly setting up stunts and ensuring that they work whilst the Magician reaps the applause. Considered a distraction, the Assistant is able to move objects and enable the success of tricks, creating the illusion of magic.
It is in this fashion that the Magical community has come to be viewed as misogynist, boxing women into an over-sexualised, under-valued subordinate position. Despite being considered an 'alternative profession', historical Magicians applied to the same rules as the traditional disciplines of teaching, law and medicine: given that they held a position of power, responsibility and magnitude over an apt audience, it was assumed that stage Magicians must be male.
In the 21st century these stereotypes no longer apply but women are still put off the profession by the overwhelming machismo that seems to have infiltrated the world of Magic practitioners: there are only a handful of women in the prestigious Magic Circle and it has proven difficult for women to gain respect and recognition within it. With a lack of resources and support available for girls, and limited opportunities once they finally infiltrate the network of secret-keepers, it is no wonder that young women aren't rushing out in droves to buy white rabbits and special packs of cards.
Times are changing in the world of Magic, but slowly. The aforementioned Debbie McGee has become an icon of the changing face of the Magician's Assistant. Although decked out in traditional tights and sparkly Lycra leotards, Debbie's off-stage personality earned her the right to share Paul Daniels' credits - they made their household name as a duo. The Pendragons also share the line-up and applause. The way was paved for these women in part by the wife and Assistant of The Great Tomsoni, Johnny Thompson: a former actress who refused to become another prop. She developed her role in the form of a character. Although still an "Assistant," her precocious gum-chewing and eyeball-rolling comedy was as important to the show as Johnny's magic.
However, women still have a long way to go before they are taking centre-stage solo in Vegas. There are approximately fifty full-time female magicians (or 'magiciannes', as they may prefer to be known) in the world to date and not one of them has achieved the same level of fame and notoriety as their handkerchief-waving counterparts. While the male gender proudly flaunts representatives such as David Blaine and David Copperfield, women in Magic are typically represented by middle-aged ladies performing at children's birthday parties.
This male bias seems at odds with the idea that female magicians could perform with a subtlety and grace that differs from male magicians, producing an entirely different kind of magic. The aforementioned Jade, for example, gently uses accessories such as scarves and butterflies to create ethereal distractions and suspend belief. Unlike the big-box, big-bang, big-animal variety of stage magic, women such as Jade offer unique performances and new perspectives for an entirely different kind of audience.
Another developing branch of 'Magic' concerns cold reading, neuro-linguistic programming and psychological illusionism - known under the umbrella term of 'Mentalism'. This type of Magic has existed since the 19th century and has recently been popularised by Derren Brown. These techniques are used expertly by those who claim to perform telepathy, give precognitive information or contact 'spirits'.
Unlike jumping through the hoops and learning curves of stage magic, Mentalism is a skill that perceptive persons of either gender could harness in their part-time - particularly if they enjoy analyzing and interpreting the behaviour of others. Mentalism involves using subtle sensory clues and body language and planting subconscious clues to create the illusion of mental transparency.
Like traditional stage Magic, women too are absent from the field of Mentalism (19th century women possessing the 'gift' preferred to work under the guise of Clairvoyants and Mediums). However, it is much easier to develop amateur interest in Mentalism, which does not rely on showy theatricals and costly contraptions. For example, Derren Brown's book Tricks of the Mind features detailed information, tips, tricks and practical techniques on Mentalism that allow the reader to develop their own Mentalist abilities.
Contrasting the typical shrouded-in-mystery pact of Circle members, Mentalism is an almost scientific phenomenon that anyone with the necessary time, interest and enthusiasm can emulate. While it may be harder for women to reach the coveted world renown of Houdini or Blaine, girls with an interest in the Magic arts are encouraged to develop their techniques - whether this is through Trick boxes, hypnotism or cold reading their friends.
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Magic Jade is very cool. And her speciality lies in tricks of ethereal delicacy.
Charlotte Pendragon was the first woman to be allowed to enter the Magic Circle (it had been man-only for over 100 years)
Here's another pic of Magic Jade doing something strange with a man in a box. Apparently she will fold him like origami.