THE LADY VANISHES
There was magic in the studio this week as we learned about the ins and outs of being a magician’s assistant. One of the important lessons to be learned from James Kinneen’s new essay is that the women who assist the magicians aren’t there to serve as decorative eye candy, as some might assume. To the contrary, a lot of times they are the ones responsible for performing the illusion, while the magician is reduced to being just a man with a saw and a top hat, meant to distract and entertain the crowds as the assistant works out the logistics behind the trick.
As his piece explains, “often times in a ‘box trick' the magician is on the outside. So, let’s say that you’re doing something like an illusion where you’re sticking swords into the box. In that case, without saying exactly what’s going on, the assistant is inside the box, and she’s the one making sure that the illusion goes well.”
Yet, that is not to say that the role and treatment of female magician’s assistants are completely divorced from society’s evolving views on women. In fact, as Kinneen writes, some of the most famous illusions in magic, at least the ones that feature an assistant, rose to prominence due to cultural anxiety surrounding women seeking the right to vote. He explains, “the popularity of magic acts that emphasized violent actions against women became popular because men liked seeing fictional vengeance against women, who at the time were demanding equality during the suffrage movement.”
Playing off fear is something magicians have always done. Before the women’s suffrage movement, Victorian magicians would tap into Europeans fear of the unknown by dressing as if they hailed from the Far East, looking like they walked right out of a Rudyard Kipling novel, donning turbans with Bengal tigers trailing at their heels. Nowadays, with our growing panic surrounding technology and Big Brother (a.k.a Google and Facebook) tapping into our social media and data, magicians fool and frighten audiences with subliminal messages using iPads and cell phones.
Like the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” However, like most technology, it’s actually humans behind the façade, not artificial intelligence, or magic. Bots are programmed and data is tracked by people, just like us, after all. And so it makes sense that the magician’s assistant is highly trained in the art of magic, because a skilled trick, like most good things, takes a village. Just like many cheerleaders are athletes in their own right, many magician’s assistants are truly skilled in the craft of illusion.
That being said, it is not hard to see the validity, especially given the current context, in people being hypersensitive to the notion of a woman being sawed into two, even if it is only simulated. Except today the tricks are much less “damsel in distress” and more “look what I can do.” So, maybe it’s time to pay more attention to The Man Behind The Curtain, because it was most likely a woman all along. Like Kinneen writes, “anybody can use a saw, but how many people can get sawed in half?” To pull off the latter is much more impressive, if you ask us.
Which reminds us of a little Beyoncé diddy, that goes something like, “Who run the world?!”
This talk of magician assistants reminded us of scenes from the 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan. Despite the combination of a low-budget and a rookie screenwriter, the film was not only a success, but a cultural touchstone that instantly made Madonna more than just an up and coming pop star—she plays the exhibitionist, sexy, cool, downtown New York City hustler Susan to Rosanna Arquette’s bored, introverted suburban housewife Roberta and the film goes on to feature plenty of other downtown NYC characters like John Turturro, Ann Magnuson and Richard Hell as well as some of the iconic nightclubs of the time. The way Madonna wore her hair, makeup, and her thrift store bangled edgy style, including wearing inner wear as outerwear, launched countless wannabes that still mimic that style today.
It’s a totally classic tale of switched identities, marriage trouble, dead mobsters, Lower East Side scenes, amnesia, particularly valuable earrings, and some stellar clothes. Throughout the movie, a constant setting is the only fictional location in the move: The Magic Club. Susan’s best friend, Crystal (Anna Levine Thomson), plays a goodhearted girl who works as a magician’s assistant at the club. Her crazy outfits make her the second most fashionable character in the movie (first would, obviously, be the Queen of Pop), but her career as a magician’s assistant is short lived. During her time there, the magician grows increasingly annoyed with her inability to help him pull off a trick, though she did look amazing in the outfit.
After Crystal is let go, Roberta, who thinks she’s Susan at this point because she was hit on the head, takes over the role. Which essentially makes her a person pretending to be a person pretending to know how to do magic. Her constant mistakes comically ruin multiple magic attempts and she’s eventually fired from the gig. Further proving our new columns point - the show simply cannot go on without a good assistant.