Queering the Tarot: Gender Roles and Diversity

I wrote last month about my new attraction to tarot cards as a source of archetypal images that nurture my intuitive side. My starter guidebook, The Tarot Bible by Sarah Bartlett, works off of the Universal Waite deck, the most mainstream and familiar version of the modern tarot. As I discovered at Namaste Bookshop, there are many fanciful variations featuring dragons, kittens, angels, scantily clad fairies, and other characters that wouldn’t look out of place on a 10-year-old’s diary cover. However, I wanted to begin my studies with the foundational set of symbols. There’s one problem, though:

Who are all these straight white people in my tarot deck?

It’s funny, because tarot seems so transgressive and anti-authoritarian to me as a questioning Christian, but coming from a media literacy/social justice perspective, it looks like a step backward. After all, the Waite deck is a mishmash of multicultural symbols compiled by 19th-century bourgeois Europeans. It makes sense that the deck would be peopled with British storybook knights, ladies, and peasants. Although charming, these illustrations can make me worry that I’ve traded the radicalism of Jesus for a white hipster card game.

The implied gender roles can also be confining. I’m drawn to the cards that combine masculine and feminine energies in one character, such as the female personifications of Strength and Justice, and uncomfortable with cards such as the Empress, which seems to essentialize womanhood as fertility, beauty, and nurturance. These are good qualities, but not ones that I have wanted or been permitted to express for a lot of my life, a mismatch that has made me feel like a failure as a “woman”.

I’m a big fan of queer-identified writer Beth Maiden’s Little Red Tarot website. In an archive post from 2011, “Passivity and Activity – the High Priestess”,  she wrote:

“It’s only laziness that keeps us believing such things [active versus passive] are related to masculinity or femininity. My big bugbear with tarot is when I find it clinging rigidly to silly gender stereotypes, but actually, the more I study and learn, the more I realise tarot itself can totally elude those types of restrictive ideas–it’s only in interpretation that we get taught what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’ as a shorthand for the qualities we assign to each.”

Her analysis explores how the two priest figures in the Major Arcana, the High Priestess and the Hierophant, can reverse our gendered expectations:

“By exploring the inner world and dedicating herself to understanding what is ‘behind the veil’, she shows courage, she encourages us to do some seriously hard work. Being quiet and listening to our inner selves does not equal passivity! Meanwhile the Hierophant receives knowledge from books/tradition. It’s not about thinking for yourself with this card–so in what way is this active?”

Now what about those white Disney princesses? A post from 2010 on the Integrative Tarot website questions whether it’s possible to have a multicultural tarot. We mustn’t simply repeat the Eurocentrism of the original tarot creators by appropriating Native American or African cultural symbols, as an overlay on what’s still a fundamentally Western feudal iconography (knight, page, queen, king, swords, etc.). The discussion in the comments is also worthwhile.

The Pagans of Color website recommends some decks with more inclusive imagery, though many of these are not readily available for purchase. The multicultural Daughters of the Moon goddesses deck looks intriguing.

Of course the one I really want is Lee Bursten and Antonella Platano’s Gay Tarot. Perhaps the Hierophant in this deck took Beth’s criticism to heart, since he’s breaking with tradition by officiating at a same-sex wedding!

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