Tarot was, most likely, developed from imported Persian playing cards, and may or may not have been used as divinatory aids at first. But then again, late-medieval and early-Renaissance people used everything for divination, from little card stock spinning wheels to pins stuck in their copies of Homer. So it seems likely. When you divine with something, with a set of something, there are certain expectations that come with it. Your divinatory system needs to have everything inside it. What if you’re experiencing anxiety because of an illness but there are no symbols of illness in your divination system? Now we’re to the point of this essay: cultures code what are included and excluded from divinatory systems — what do we do when we aren’t included, or what if we are but in a deeply unsettling way? You guessed it: let’s talk about gender and tarot cards. It’s Pride month, and it’s as good a time as any to get really personal…
First, let me say I am incredibly uncomfortable with how personal I get in this essay, and that’s because academia leveraged its full weight on me in school to convince me I must be objective. I need to get over that. Hell, it’s not even accepted in academia anymore, but when you enter the vestibule you still get all the old shit before you get into the building itself and are told that shit was bad actually.
Here we go. I feel like I’m not represented in my tarot decks by any card (except the Hermit I guess — bearded Virgo solidarity). The men reflect what I was assigned and the women reflect what I’d like out of life. But none of them do both, even when the little white books say they do.
I was assigned male at birth (that’s AMAB for anyone collecting acronyms for the test later). So, let me acknowledge now that I did receive a lot of privilege for that, yes. I remember very distinctly a moment in my grandmother’s home— it was in the hallway next to where her washer and dryer sat — when I got so angry, angry enough to vibrate and cry. I was angry because God had made me a boy instead of a girl. And now, sitting here writing this, I remember moments flaring up in the back of my head all the way through the age of maybe eighteen where I thought maybe I was just a lesbian and somehow inexplicably a boy anyway. Suffice it to say I had never heard of transitioning. I’m pretty sure if I had tried to do that, my biological family would have kicked me out. I don’t know that, and can’t know now, but it’s what I think would have happened.
I’m now tentatively nonbinary (the acronym is up to AMAB Enby, you’re welcome). I have a beard; I’m that general male-bodied pear shape since my knee and hip problems mean I can’t run anymore. My students still consistently refer to me as Mr. [my name here] in emails despite how that’s not even appropriate, given that I have a doctorate and am literally their professor. And yes, I tell them not to. I recently got a new haircut, like one does after growing up in the 90s and beginning to resolve an identity issue.
What does any of this personal shit have to do with tarot, you might ask? You are probably asking that right now. Well, I’ve been studying tarot, from amateur questions about romance to literally making money at it, for about twenty years now, and every time I see someone say they want to mess with gender in tarot they put women in the traditionally male cards and that’s about it. Additionally, my discomfort with things like the traditional methods of assigning court cards to the reader/querent showed me something was up, too. So my relationship to tarot was one small thing that helped me to realize my gender identity maybe wasn’t what I thought it was.
I may be complaining about tarot generally, but there are going to be exceptions when it comes to individual decks. In fact, let me go ahead and put my blanket invitation out now: please, leave a comment telling me about the deck you love that proves me wrong. I’m literally complaining about the dearth of something I’d like to see, so yes, throw those suggestions at me. I would love to see them!
Let me stop burying the lede: because of the cultural history of tarot, attempts to deconstruct or reconstruct tarot itself are bound up in the actions and reactions of that cultural history. Here’s an even simpler version: most people trying to “queer the tarot” have a very specific image of what it means for someone to be “queer.”
(Note: I have not read the book titled Queer the Tarot, so if that’s a suggestion you have for me, tell me! It’s just a phrase more widespread than the book itself.)
The standard tarot deck has 78 cards. It was developed, as I said a minute ago, from the hot broth of medieval and Renaissance European culture. That was, broadly speaking, Christian, and deeply marked by things like church plays, Greco-Roman mythology, and political symbolism (hey hey! did you know? some historians think the Hanged Man represents the people who were literally hanged by the foot in Rome when found guilty of traitorous crimes). What’s not present in that “hot broth?” Twenty-first century conceptions of gender.
You know this song: there are two sexes, and gender is a synonym for sex; men are active and outward-thinking, women are passive and inward-focused. Men fight, women nurture. Tarot is old. Tarot is sexist. Yup.
Naturally, many artists and designers today want tarot to represent the world they live in, rather than the one 16th century Italian people lived in. So now you can find decks that disrupt the entire gender binary tradition… You know, portraying the Emperor as a woman, or the kings as women, or all the people on the 4 of Wands as women. Hm. This is tricky.
OK, so that was a snarky paragraph, but my point is that the way cultural changes tend to happen include backlash moments. In our history of tarot, there was an inevitable moment when women designed tarot decks that displaced the men and included more women, because, as we saw obliquely already, tarot put men in the powerful roles. And people are now trying to reflect our strange, wonderful, Delany-esque world of gender spectra. Except, so far as I’ve been able to see, the two attempts have blurred together.
People a lot smarter than me have written about how “androgyny” has been turned into “women dressed as men” and other problematic issues in our contemporary attempts to break out of the husk of our cultural discourse. This would be a good place for an Utena joke, but I haven’t finished that show yet.
So, here’s where it all comes together: I have loved tarot for more than half of my life. So that means I was consciously opting into a symbol system that said men did Y and women did X (yes, jokes that rely on algebraic terminology and biochemical symbols, I can do it all). I didn’t like it, but I didn’t like any of the alternatives either. It appears to me that a lot of attempts to deal with this issue end up trying to efface the masculine. And, you know, that is bad. That is to say, it’s bad if it’s not your stated intention. There are tarot decks with nothing but cats in them, so of course there can be tarot decks with nothing but women in them. That’s fine.
If that’s not what you want to do, and you do it anyway, consider anyone who isn’t a woman. See, here’s the thing. Here’s the shitty, insidious thing: for most of the history of feminism, considering “not women” meant “men” — and so the call to consider anyone who wasn’t traditionally female or feminine meant to please include the men. And it’s absolutely true that men had plenty of time in the spotlight. But that’s no longer true. When a deck is nothing but women, they tend to be cis-women.
So, basically, as we’re all putting in the work to move past the idea that there’s a binary at all, an either/or switch to flip, our symbol systems continue to hold us hostage. That’s part of what they’re for. Symbol systems are meant to show the entire world to us, so anything that’s not in the system functionally doesn’t exist. If you use the traditional gender symbol system on a world that isn’t restricted to that any more, your system will fall short.
Sure, the Page isn’t specifically coded as male/female by the name, but when a deck just puts a very feminine person in a shirt so big you can’t see if they have breasts, this is not breaking the gender binary very much. It’s falling into the same “androgyny” trap everyone fell into with fashion. If you feel like it’s rad as hell to make the kings women but flinch when someone suggests making the queens men (or, you know, neither) sit with that reaction for a few minutes. Maybe the princesses can have beards one day, and wear the big skirts if they want (the Golden Dawn tradition called the Pages Princesses, and some people roll with that still). Even that’s a pretty simple solve for a complicated problem, but I haven’t even seen that yet.
Everyone trying to make strides toward better, more reality-representing tarot decks is doing good work. But my whole research field is symbol and narrative (I’m a literature professor). Symbol is hard to escape. Narrative builds itself as it goes (semiotics is a hell of a drug, give it a try sometime). Dion Fortune wrote about thought-forms, and sometimes they are called egregore now. Ideas have power. They exist independent of any individual brain. I don’t want to even try to discuss why that is, because we don’t have the time for ontology. Symbols exist. They live to serve, but they served someone else first, and they need time to learn how to serve us instead.
(The title was a Patricia Wrede joke.)
Edit 7/14/19: revised “AMAB NB” to AMAB Enby”