The Culture Crush
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Vanishing Act

Vanishing Act

written by James Kinneen

illustrations by Joseph Delhomme

 Still from  The Wizard of Oz  (1939)

Still from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

When looking at the history of magic and illusion, it is easy to trace the evolution of the craft to changes in belief systems, values, and norms that society has gone through over the years. Whereas, at one time, Victorian magicians claimed to hail from the Far East, dressed like they just walked out of a Rudyard Kipling novel, and shrouded basic tricks with the illusion of a secret knowledge learned in the unknown Indian jungles with ferocious Bengal tigers, magicians today, using iPads and cell phones, ground their magic in the everyday cultural artifacts of the present. They convince a people terrified of the effects of social media marketing that subtle clues and subliminal messages are the source of their seemingly supernatural abilities to coerce. Today, audiences are fooled and slightly frightened with laser beams and holograms as previous generations have been with coin or card tricks, proving magic consistently reflects the lives of audience members of the era in which it is performed. 

However, one thing that has been consistent in magic through the ages is the magician’s assistant. Traditionally female, and usually adorned in flashy, sometimes revealing, outfits her role in magic in today’s culture raises questions regarding the treatment of women and their role in our entertainment. Forcing us to ask ourselves, "is it time for the magician’s assistant to disappear for good?"

Recently, Formula 1 car racing banned their largely decorative, scantily clad "Grid Girls" following a public outcry about the demeaning nature of the job. Professional darts has done the same with their female models, and boxing promoters are facing an upcoming storm about their traditional "Ring Girls". Not to mention the many controversies regarding various NFL cheerleading squads.

So, as modern society becomes less and less tolerant of both scantily clad women acting as men’s cheerleaders, as well as even fictional depictions of violence against women, it seems the traditional magician’s assistant that gets sawed in half by a man in a top hat is inevitably going to have to be eliminated or replaced, right? Actually, no. After talking to one, it is clear that this is not going to happen as magician’s assistants are vital to performing magic. They are adopting new feminist attitudes about their roles and illusions and taking to social media to make their voices heard in a way they never could before.

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Gwyn Auger is a magician’s assistant from Canada who performs with a wide variety of illusionists and runs her own website; themagicassistant.com. She makes it clear that her role is far from decorative and is distinctly different from rooting for men from the sidelines, or from Vanna White’s pointless wandering around the stage. In fact, magician's assistants themselves are very much magicians in their own right. While most assistants come from outside of magic, Gwyn’s love of the art is what led her to the role.

“Magician’s assistants are typically dancers because dancers know how to move, they’re obviously very beautiful, and graceful. But that’s not how I started. I am very small, and I really love magic, so one day I was in the local magic shop and the owner said that it’s hard to find people that want to assist, so he could teach me some stuff. So, I thought that would be a great way to learn magic, since I could go inside and see the inner workings of the trick. What better way to learn magic than to be on the inside of it?”

But even though it’s hard to find people who want to assist, that didn’t mean Gwyn had everything handed to her. She was thoroughly tested by the magicians she started out with, in a pseudo magician’s assistant school that guaranteed she knew exactly what was going on in a wide variety of illusions.

 “I learned so much about magic, so many of the tricks, and all the different presentations. The guys would always have me watch magic specials, and they would ask ‘what would you be doing if you were the assistant in this trick’ and why the assistant was doing certain things in the trick. If I got it right, they would teach me the trick. This was the way that they would test me, to make sure that I was really learning the process.”

It turns out, there are many illusions where the assistant is the one actually performing the magic, while the magician is the one assisting, standing around and pointing at boxes. This fundamental misunderstanding of what is actually happening during an illusion adds to the misconception of magician’s assistant as merely pretty cheerleader, rather than a talented performer. 

Think of the famous illusion where the assistant is lying in a box, and the magician is flamboyantly stabbing the box with large swords. To the crowd, the assistant is just lying there doing nothing while the magician is somehow concealing his true actions. But, that is not what’s going on. 

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“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. I don’t want to say the assistant is the one "doing all the work" as the illusion is truly a shared effort, but the assistant would be doing perhaps the more difficult work in that type of situation.”

While we don’t think of how vital the assistant is to so many magic tricks, it makes perfect sense. If the magician didn’t need a well-trained assistant in their performance, why would they be willing to share their revenue with one? And, although Gwyn was cagey about telling me more about exactly how these tricks work, she did say there are so many of these assistant driven tricks, that she has considered doing a new show where she takes a member of the crowd and makes them the magician.

“I’ve actually thought about building my own show based purely around audience volunteers, where I would be getting members of crowd to come onstage and actually be the magician by focusing on tricks where they don’t have to do as much. So, if I could find enough boxes where I can just go in them, then all I really need is a box pointer. I could make other people the magician and build a whole show out of that.”

Gwyn actually noted that when the famous silent magician “Teller” (of Penn and Teller) appeared in the documentary "Women in Boxes" he discussed his role as a magician’s assistant to Penn. While, he essentially does the same things as the women in dresses, because of his gender, people never think of it that way. 

Even though they are a vital part of the show, magician’s assistants are, of course, not immune to the shittiness of men in power. Unsurprisingly, she has dealt with bad men in the past:

 “You can get replaced if a magician gets a new girlfriend who wants to be part of the show. It does happen. It’s sad for me when I do get replaced because I’ve worked so hard on the show that I just want to do it. It kind of breaks my heart a little bit every time. Most magicians are great and very professional, but I did have one call me moveable furniture. It happens. I’ve been told I’m just a pretty face or that somebody else could be put in the box. I mean, Burt Wonderstone had the scene where there’s an assistant, but he just slaps a wig on another girl and replaces her with zero hesitation, so even in movies there’s your moveable furniture right?”

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But, this is actually getting better due to an unforeseen force: the internet. Yes, while we believe the relationship between magic and the internet is one where Google has virtually ruined the mysterious nature of magic tricks forever, for magician’s assistants it has helped them create a name for themselves, develop their own fanbase, and in doing so become much harder to replace.

“Because of the world of social media everybody has their own voice, and everybody that wants to can be heard. With magic shows in the past, the magicians were the ones in the spotlight, the one’s people knew, and the girls were just the ones in the boxes. But now with social media, if you’re going to celebrate what you’re doing and post pictures of you working on and practicing magic tricks, then people are going to know who you are. Back then, before the internet, there weren’t as many opportunities for an assistant to be showcased, but now there’s so many more ways that you can show off.”

Gwyn herself has a pretty active twitter account (@magicassistant) where she tweets about her day job as well as her magic.

Keep in mind that we have seen magic without assistants, and for the most part it was no more than a passing fad. When David Blaine released “Street Magic” in 1996, he introduced the world to a stripped-down form of illusion without three-piece suits, smoke, mirrors, stages or assistants. While this new style worked perfectly for the 90’s grunge generation that rejected flash in favor of muted tones, it became widely mocked by the mid 2000’s and has been replaced by a revival of the more classic forms of stage illusion. 

As the millennial generation embraced woodworking, home brewing, beards, pocket watches and other pastimes once considered irrelevant remnants of the past, they increasingly came to appreciate classical magic. Gwyn noted that these days most crowds come to her shows to get amazed and to feel a sense of wonder, undeterred by their ability to easily learn how the trick is done and more than willing to remain blissfully ignorant of that fact. A generation raised with the ability to ruin an illusion instantly, seemingly enjoys the nostalgic charm of magic’s classic form, a form that (in their minds at least) has always included a female assistant.

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But what about the inherent violence towards women that classic magic thrives on but can no longer be tolerated? After all, 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 as magic historian Jim Steinmeyer told Slate.com:

“Decades ago, in popular early illusions, it was standard for beautiful assistants to appear to have their necks sliced, be set on fire, be drowned, and, very often, to disappear. Just as modern women—the suffragettes—were demanding equal rights, staging violent strikes in England, and protesting in the United States, vaudeville theaters were offering tongue in cheek vengeance."

As a result of shifting attitudes about women acting as damsels in distress, there has been a shift in style within magic.

“Some of the styles are changing. There are not as many of the ‘woman being sawed in half’ trick or if you look back to older magic styles there were more violent illusions and I don’t think those are as popular, they’ve definitely taken out some of the damsel in distress aspects of their shows. Outfits are becoming less scantily clad, there’s less flowy robe type outfits. It’s more like the magician’s assistants are partners in the show, and you’re showing the trick but not doing it in a way that is disrespectful to the woman. It’s shown way more in a positive light now.”

 Joseph Delhomme

Joseph Delhomme

But, some of the traditional tricks that simulate violence against women are still incredible illusions that have amazed audiences for decades. So, what do you do if you still want to do the amazing trick but avoid the inherent ickiness of its past? While magician Dorothy Dietrich famously opted to saw men in half, for Gwyn the answer is simple: you repackage the trick to be about the assistant’s badass ability to survive, not about the man harming her.

“I have a friend who is a magician’s wife that still gets sawed in half, but they do it in a celebratory way, where it’s more of an emphasis on like, ‘whoa! look what this woman can do!’ She’s not a damsel in distress getting attacked by an evil magician, she’s getting cut in half as a way to show what she can do. It’s pretty cool to be able to say, ‘yeah I can get cut in half.’ There’s no need to be like ‘this mean magician is sawing me in half, oh no someone help me, when instead you can frame the trick as ‘look at this unbelievable woman, she can get sawed in half.’ 

So, what will happen to the magician’s assistant? As long as people long to be amazed as they have for hundreds of years, and as long as so many great magic tricks require two talented people working in tandem, they won’t be going anywhere. In the face of increased societal scrutiny of violence towards women, and a desire to see women as partners not sidekicks, magic will simply adjust to the times. Just as it always has. So, the next time you go to a magic show and the role of the assistant gives you pause, just remember, anybody can use a saw, but how many people can get sawed in half?