Tarot and Gender

As you may have noticed, I do my best to avoid unnecessarily assigning gender where it doesn’t need to be.  I like to remind people that just because the card the Emperor is a depicted as a man, that doesn’t mean the energy in the reading is coming from a man.  Men can assume the role of the nurturing empress just as women can assume the firm leadership role of the emperor.

However, I was working on a review of the Prisma Visions tarot deck (stay tuned for that at a future date) and I was writing about the court cards of the Wands suit.  They’re beautiful and the figures depicted in the court cards are androgynous humanoid figures without any obvious physically gendered characteristics.  As I was ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the progress of the wands energy in the Page and the Knight I simply referred to them as ‘they’ which is a gender-neutral pronoun that I’ve heard many gender nonconforming people use.  And that felt very correct for those cards.  But when I got to the Queen and started using ‘they’, it no longer felt correct to me.  Not because a queen figure has to be a woman, but because if I didn’t use she and her, it felt like I was stripping something away.  It felt like I was trying to erase women and that made me stop immediately.

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I wasn’t sure how I could balance those two desires.  I have no problem queering the figures in the tarot cards.  I do my best, and I know I don’t always succeed, to question the gendered assumptions I am making about my readings.  My approach, as an able bodied white cisgender woman, has a lot of limitations.  I’m trying my best to broaden my understanding and to make my tarot as inclusive and empowering as I can.

So, although I’m sure there’s plenty of room to grow in this interpretation, I think where that leaves me is that the Page and the Knight will be ‘they’ but I’ll talk about my Queens and Kings as “she” or “he”.  This doesn’t at all mean that women can’t be Kings and men can’t be Queens.  Because they sure as heck can be.  All I mean when I talk about these cards are the depictions on the cards and what I get from them.  The Queen of Wands in the Prisma Visions deck told me that she is a woman.  She didn’t flash her breasts in my face or talk about what was between her legs, because that isn’t what makes her a woman.  Especially when we’re talking about a representation of an embodiment of energies, her physical body doesn’t define her.

This is much more about the role that the card is playing.  The reading of these cards is also heavily steeped in gendered expectations of being too. Call into question the assumption that the empress is nurturing because she’s a woman.  The empress is nurturing because that’s the energy that the card represents.  Being nurturing and caring isn’t a gendered attribute, but that’s what our culture teaches us.  Our culture says women are caring and nurturing and it’s their job to raise children and manage the emotional soft side of things.  My job as a tarot reader, is to try to pull apart those gendered assumptions when I find myself making them.

The cards are representatives of energies.  These energies are not essentially male or female energies, they just are.  Assigning gender to them has helped us to conceptualize these energies and fit them into our framework of understanding.  The goal we should be striving for is that we create a more just and fair culture that serves the needs of all participants in it.

Working towards that goal, it’s very important to acknowledge that gender, like sexual orientation, is not binary, it exists on a spectrum and people can move around on that spectrum.  I want to make sure that the spaces that I’m in are inclusive and welcoming to everyone.  That means that I’m going to question the assumed gender of the figures in my cards and respect that traditionally assigned gender roles are hopelessly outdated and need not apply.  But, I need to make sure that I’m not erasing women at the same time.

Sound complicated?  It is, but that’s the reality if you want to be inclusive.  And that’s okay.

Want to read more about tarot and gender?  Check out this post by The Tarot Lady: Gender Bending the Tarot.  Also I completely recommend you spend some quality time with Beth at Little Red Tarot.  Her Alternative Tarot Course is an AWESOME resource for Queer tarot stuff.  And wander over to the Queer Tarot Project.

I’d love to hear your thoughts as well!  Feel free to leave a comment or share an article or post you found useful on this topic.

 

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Challenging the Rider-Waite(-Smith) Tarot

Arguably, the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck is one of the most famous and influential decks that still exist today.  I respect the traditional Rider-Waite-Smith deck because of it’s huge influence, but I have some issues with the deck as well.  My first thing is that I’m not a huge fan of the art style, classic and traditional though it is.  I need a deck that draws me into the visual style.  But that’s not the biggest challenge around this deck.

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What bothers me the most, and I do admit that I didn’t even learn about this until recently, is that for much of the deck’s history it was called the Rider-Waite deck.  The deck was designed by Arthur Edward Waite (also known as A.E. Waite) and then published by the Rider company.  So where is the problem?  The problem lies in the fact that all of the art for the cards was done by Pamela Colman Smith.

“Waite is often cited as the designer of the Waite-Smith Tarot, but it would be more accurate to consider him as half of a design team, with responsibility for the major concept, the structure of individual cards, and the overall symbolic system. Because Waite was not an artist himself, he commissioned the talented and intuitive Smith to create the actual deck … The Minor Arcana are indeed one of the notable achievements of this deck, as most earlier tarot decks (especially those of the Marseilles type) have extremely simple pip cards. One reason for the enduring success of the Waite-Smith deck may be the richness of symbolic signification that Smith brought to the Minor Arcana.” 01

Her name was left off the published work and she was largely uncredited for her revolutionary illustrations.  She was paid a flat fee for the design and illustration of the cards and didn’t receive any further compensation from the deck.  This further illustrates how she was not viewed as a true collaborator in the project, merely relegated to a role as hired help. 02

Swords13Had it not been for her work and creativity we might not have the wealth of beautiful and varied decks that we’re lucky enough to have today.  And it might be at least partly thanks to her interpretations that the women in the tarot decks are powerful in their own right. 03

You might be inclined to say, okay, so yes, that wasn’t cool of A.E. White, but is it really such a big deal now?  Many tarot readers today now refer to this deck as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which is the name I use as well.  I want to celebrate this progress.  Adding her name back onto the deck that she was so instrumental in creating is fantastic and long overdue.  Why this is still important is that it was just another slight in a long tradition of ignoring, overlooking, or just outright dismissing the work of women.  It is important to recognize the role of women in history and especially in influential works such as this one.  Calling the the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot is a great first step.

Do yourself a favor and go and learn more about Pamela Colman Smith.  While you’re at it, maybe take a gander at some other contributions of women in Tarot.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia
Footnote 01 – Wikipedia
Footnote 02 – Tarot Heritage – The Rider-Waite-Smith Deck
Footnote 03 – The Tarot Lady – Powerful Women in Tarot