Loose Leaf Tarot

Gender and the court cards (heaping spoonfuls of salt required)


Queen and King of pents

So, I’ve always had some problems working with the tarot courts. I’m starting to branch out into using non-traditional decks, but I’m still most familiar with the standard Waite Smith, and the court cards in that deck are… problematic. For me, anyway.

The archetypes in the tarot tend to be focused on finding balance between dichotomies (Moon and Sun, Magician and High Priestess, Empress and Emperor). Here’s what Joan Bunning says in Learning the Tarot, from her description of the fool’s journey: “It is a feature of the material universe that as soon as we name some aspect of experience, we automatically evoke its opposite.”

In the major arcana, these dichotomies are abstract, so while there’s a bit of reductive cringe-factor with cards like the Empress and Emperor, I find it easier to essentially ignore their gendered nature, or to take them with a grain of salt. But the court cards are more down to earth; they’re supposed to represent real people and specific aspects of ourselves. And these cards are the worst offenders when it comes to traditional, restrictive ideas about masculine and feminine traits.

Men act! Women contemplate things! Even the pages are supposed to be boys, because whoever heard of a lady page? You can’t carry messages in a skirt. Come on, now, that would be silly.

The problem I’ve been having lately, though, is that I’m actually making some headway in reading the court cards… but what’s helping me understand these images better is their gendering, the very thing I dislike about them and disagree with in real life. Yesterday my daily draw was the Queen of Pentacles, and I decided to pull the King as well to look at them side-by-side. I realized that for me, these two most clearly sum up the symbolic differences between the kings and the queens. Queens are inwardly-focused, more “passive;” Kings are outward or “active.”

In this pair, both are focused on the pents in their laps, but evidence of the King’s more ambitious, even flashy materialism is all around him (he’s got an awesome castle, and then there’s the kinda gaudy vineyard-pattern robe and gold scepter). The Queen, on the other hand, is outside somewhere, chilling out, wearing more subdued clothing. Her rabbit friend down in the corner represents her energy: independent and intelligent, but more connected to simple comforts than to ruling a kingdom. The hare could also tie her to the original pagan meaning of Easter, to “feminine” cycles of rebirth and growing things.

The King, on the other hand, is aggressive even sitting on his throne. One foot is pushed forward so we can see the ass-kicking armor he’s wearing under the grapevine robe. This king is a protector, or a fighter if need arises. He looks like the type to always be planning the next addition to his castle (indoor maze? bowling alley?). If the Queen is a gardener, he’s a builder.

While I was scribbling my original thoughts in my notebook earlier, I got a bit excited because I’ve never had this much to say about the court cards before, and now in the past week I’ve started to crack them. Should it matter if I got there by using the divide of male and female into active and passive?

I’m left wondering how to approach all of that imagery in readings. Do I just accept it,  tacking on “except not really” every time something is needlessly gendered? Do I try to queer the cartoony Smith style by pretending the artwork is gender neutral? I’m planning to get a new deck that avoids this issue somewhat (the Wild Unknown, which is all animals). But I really wish I could rehabilitate my beloved and battered Waite Smith, without having to give a million disclaimers if I read for somebody who doesn’t know tarot.

I guess it’s like when you go back to an awesome book or movie and realize it actually has some terrible element you missed the first time around. You can still be a fan, if you want, but you’ve got to critique the flaws. I just wish it wasn’t necessary in the first place.


3 thoughts on “Gender and the court cards (heaping spoonfuls of salt required)

  1. I couldn’t agree more! This is a great summary of the issues which I personally haven’t been able to figure out how to resolve in the RWS deck. I just got others that are more gender neutral instead. I hope you post more about this in the future.

    • Yeah, I’m excited about getting the Wild Unknown (in a month or so, when I can shell out $40), but I think more because of the beautiful, pared-down imagery than because it uses animals… since it still refers to Mother and Father, with the traditional meanings. But I guess I can’t really predict how it will feel to read with the deck until I have my hands/paws on it.

      Also, hurray, you are my first commenter! Well, the first on the actual blahg instead of the Tarot School page.

      • I’m really interested in the Wild Unknown too! I think you are right about not knowing how it will feel until you have it. The Dreaming Way totally took me by surprise in that regard. I didn’t realize how totally unique decks can, er, feel.

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