Earlier this year, I had a friend who objected to something I said about magicians being perceived as misfits and weirdos by the general public. “That might have been true as recently as five or ten years ago, but I don’t think it’s true anymore,” was his general position. His evidence was the popularity of magicians on talk-shows and talent-shows.
While I can’t deny that magicians are appearing on tv more frequently than ever, I’m not 100% sure that translates into any individual person coming off any better when saying, “Hi! I’m a magician!” than he/she would have 20 years ago. I mean, I understand that people enjoy the magic of Shin Lim, but I don’t necessarily know if he comes off like the type of person you’d want to spend two hours in a car with.
Now, I like the fact that there is frequently a negative stereotype that follows magicians. I hope that never goes away, because I enjoy playing off that. It lowers the bar. And when people find out you’re into magic and you’re a not a creepy oddball, you tend to get bonus points just for being normal. I’ll take those points.
But maybe because I like that portrayal, I have a confirmation bias which causes me to interpret things that way. I’m always up for debunking my own biases, so I decided I needed some way to monitor the magic zeitgeist.
I think a good way to track this sort of thing is by observing the depiction of fictional magicians in the media. It’s great that more magicians are performing on tv, but all that says is that people find magic entertaining. I believe by looking at how magicians are portrayed in fiction, we can get a sense for what people think about magicians as people (not performers).
Historically, someone on a TV show or in a film who was interested in magic was either an idiot or a psychopath (or both). When a character was introduced as a magician you would think, “Oh, I wonder what will happen next. Will a bunch of feather flowers fall out of his sleeve? Or is he going to rape that woman with the business-end of a snow shovel?”
If the perception of magicians is shifting, we should see a change in how magicians are portrayed in tv and film. Will we start seeing charming, charismatic characters…. who also happen to be amateur magicians or children’s party performers? Maybe.
That’s what I intend to track. So a few months ago I decided I would take note of any show or movie I watched that included an adult character who performed magic as a hobby or job, and I’d assess the traits of that character and the show’s disposition towards magic and give it a score on the Magic Negativity Index. The Magic Negativity Index is a 1-10 scale applied to shows and movies where magicians appear. A score of 5 is a neutral score, where the “magician” character isn’t portrayed positively or negatively, and their interest in magic isn’t portrayed positively or negatively.
Here is the first batch of fictional portrayals of magicians that I saw in the past few months.
Magic Negativity Index
Modern Family: Season 10 Episode 16, "Red Alert"
Synopsis: Phil can’t find his cellphone. He hears it ringing and realizes it’s coming from inside a melon. He accidentally made the phone go in the melon while he was doing magic in his sleep.
The magician is: A hapless doofus.
Verdict: Phil on Modern Family is one of the most visible portrayals of an amateur magician in current day film/tv. While he is a likable character in general, his interest in magic and the subject of magic is always played for a laugh.
A conversation from a different episode…
Phil: Do you know what happens to magicians who reveal their secrets, Claire? They're shunned.
Claire: Doesn’t that happen already?
Magic Negativity Index Score: 5.8
I Think You Should Leave: Season 1, Episode 3 "It's The Cigars You Smoke That Are Going to Give You Cancer"
Synopsis: I Think You Should Leave is a sketch comedy show on Netflix. I like it. In the third episode, a couple is at a magic show. The man is picked as a volunteer in a sponge ball routine. During the routine he is peppered with hacky jokes by the magician. Later that night, his wife berates him and decides she’s going to leave him for not sticking up for himself when the magician "embarrassed" him. "That fat piece of shit made you look like a fool, Charlie. He basically pulled your little dick out in front of everyone and jerked you off until nothing came out because you are a boy."
The sketch ends with the guy returning to the magic show another night and volunteering himself, leading to this interaction.
The magician is: A mildly-abusive, moderately talented, hack.
Verdict: While the sketch ends with a graphic saying “Magicians Suck,” the magician—while not likable—is actually the least crazy person in the sketch.
Magic Negativity Index Score: 6.1
Note: The "fat piece of shit" magician is played by Jerx reader, Gerry Katzman.
Law and Order SVU: Season 20 Episode 16 "Facing Demons"
Synopsis: A man is found dead from suicide. He is surrounded by a bunch of polaroids of a naked boy. The police find that the boy in the pictures is, in fact, the dead man. They are pictures that were taken by his abuser. The dead man has killed himself after suffering depression from being molested by a magician when he was a kid.
The magician is: A pedophile, active for the last 30 years.
Verdict: Hmmmm….yeah, it’s going to be hard to spin this one. When the best defense of the magician character is, “Hey, at least he wasn’t molesting kids for forty years,” you know it’s going to rate high on the MNI.
Magic Negativity Index Score: 9.9
There you go. I’m not actively tracking these down; they’re just the ones I stumble over. Feel free to direct me to the appearance of any magician characters in any new media for future installments. Perhaps we’ll notice a shift in the Magic Negativity Index to some “below 5” scores as time passes. (In which case, I guess I’ll change the name to the Magic Positivity Index.)