What My Dad Taught Me About Feminism (And Magic)

My dad might not call himself a feminist, but his actions speak louder than words.

The other day I was watching stage magic on Youtube. This is something that I’ve grown up doing—watching stage magic. I get it from my dad.

Aside from working for a candy warehouse (my favorite of his jobs), my dad was a clown and magician. Cornelius D. Clown. He mostly did birthday parties and corporate events, and to this day, if you’re in a room with him for more than a few minutes, he’ll start in on the quarter tricks. As a kid, this was super cool. As a teenager, it’s the most embarrassing. And as an adult, you learn to do tricks of your own—French drops, disappearing sugar packets and cigarettes—as bar tricks, thanking your dad for every free beer.

And my dad and I would watch a lot of stage magic on TV. Sometimes, he’d be as mystified as I was. And I think that was part of his excitement about magic. The figuring it out for yourself, the coming up with solutions to an impossible puzzle. Ask him how he does any of his own tricks, and he’ll give you the same answer. Can you keep a secret? So can I. 

There was a show that came on in the early 2000s that I would watch religiously with my dad. I was a shitty teenager, so we weren’t getting along well, but mutual interests are enough to get anyone into a room together. The show was Magic’s Mysteries Finally Revealed. A man in a mask would go through large stage magic tricks, showing the audience at home how they were done.

So the other day I was watching Magic’s Mysteries Finally Revealed, and, unlike when I was a child, I noticed something else about the show. The narrator spent every other sentence discussing the way that the magician’s assistants looked. And in almost graphic detail, robbed them of being anything other than a body walking across the stage. A line that stuck out for me was, after the assistant was submerged in a tub of water, “Well, now we know the water isn’t cold. Too bad.” Never mind that the magician’s assistants are the ones who make the tricks work, squeezing themselves into impossible positions, slipping small compartments open and shut, doing their own slight-of-hand so that the magician can do theirs. They were rendered into nothing, just parts, even as the trick was explained. This had been on while my dad and I watched, but I never thought anything of it. And my dad didn’t say anything about it. Which made me think about how my dad, magic, and how we treat women all collide.

I thought back to my dad’s magic sets. His go-to tricks. Piercing a balloon with a needle. Having a coloring book paint itself. Endless scarves or ribbons, lots of juggling. Any time he needed an assistant, he’d pick someone important to the event—the birthday girl, the boss of the company, the anniversary couple. People were used as set-ups to jokes, as props, as assistants. But he was a family-friendly, egalitarian magician. He was always like that, in magic and in life.

And he might not have been vocal about pointing out the faults in other magicians’ sets, particularly when it came to women, but I could tell they made him uncomfortable. When we were watching another magician on TV, he had sent his assistant off (most likely to work a trick from backstage), only for her to return with a golf ball and a garden hose. “I did it. Now what?” the assistant says. Wink goes the magician. The audience laughs. But my dad bristled. He looked uncomfortable. My dad, who worked in warehouses, didn’t like the sexist joke. I didn’t understand it at the time, but that moment, how my dad looked, made it stick with me until I did.

I think if you asked him, my dad would decline to call himself a feminist. Not because he isn’t, but I don’t know if he would fully embrace the label. I would, though, and I do. And I owe a lot of that to growing up around strong, wonderful women, getting a liberal education, and to watching how my dad treated the women around him. He’s been nothing but respectful to his female bosses, employees, coworkers, and friends. He’s never scoffed at the idea of women in power, of female presidents, of equal pay.

We’ve never had to talk about it, because he helped raise me right. He never looked for praise because he knew he was doing the right thing. My dad might not be able to do the big tricks, but he can work magic in other ways.

Wyl Villacres is from Chicago. His work has been published in WhiskeyPaper, Wyvern Lit, and Time Out Chicago. Find him at wylvillacres.net or on Twitter: @wyllinois.

Related LInks: