Of men, women, and other freaks: Gender in the Deviant Moon Tarot

Standard

The Deviant Moon has an interesting way of portraying gender, so I decided to take a closer look on that on my last day with this deck.

First I’ve tried to identify the symbols that are used in the Deviant Moon to mark gender in the first place.

As far as bodies are concerned, there are several naked breasts on female figures (e.g. the Star, Five of Pentacles, Temperance, Queen of Wands, Empress, Three of Wands, Lovers, Three of Cups, Eight of Swords the World – who is also the only one with naked breasts that aren’t pointy), and many male ones have beard-like growths from their chins (e.g. Four of Pentacles, Emperor, all four Kings, Devil, Eight of Pentacles, Six of Pentacles, Hierophant, Justice, Ten of Pentacles). Interestingly, flat male chests don’t work as a gender marker for me very well, nor does the absence of beards on female characters (which is probably in tune with the general Western perception of gender: the presence of breasts works as a stronger marker than the absence of them; works the same way with beards). Pronounced muscles are also used to emphasize masculinity (e.g. Two of Swords, Strength), but this remains an exception. Many other body shapes are concealed by clothing enough to be readable as male, female, or androgynous with only a little effort (e.g. Seven of Pentacles, Six of Wands, Nine of Wands, Four of Cups, Four of Swords, High Priestess, Justice – despite the beard). Other bodies are altogether non-human (e.g. Chariot, Knight of Pentacles, Ten of Wands, Ace of Pentacles, Knight of Cups, Knight of Wands, Page of Pentacles) or so abstract that gender seems to be beside the point (e.g. Nine of Pentacles, Nine of Swords).

In terms of clothing, there are more female than male characters with floor-length dresses, cloaks, and gowns, and no figure that is explicitly marked as female wears pants. Then again, many male figures wear bright red lipstick and/or nail polish, and decorative elements of clothing are seen all over the gender spectrum.

Let’s look at a few cards more closely now. (I have linked each card to its scan over at AlbiDeuter, so you can see the cards in more detail.)

First, I’ve chosen a few cards that depict both male and female characters: Lovers, Four of Wands, Three of Cups, and Ten of Cups.

Of those, the Lovers shows the most difference between the characters and relies a lot of traditional gender stereotypes. The woman is leaning most of her weight on the man, and she seems to give herself over to him completely and rather passively. The man bears all the weight and seems physically much stronger. Her eyes are closed in passionate abandon, his are wide open. He also seems more active. This is one of the most boring and disappointing Lovers cards I’ve seen because of the stereotyping. Contrast that card with the Four of Wands, which I find a much more suitable depiction of the Lovers (maybe because the Greenwood Lovers are a bit similar?). A gender difference is still recognizable in this card by way of a pointier chin, harsher and more shadows, and the lack of a hair-like hood on the masculine  face. But the emphasis of the image is on the figures’ hands, which are exactly alike and hand-fasted with ivy. My preference for one card over the other probably tells you what kind of relationship I prefer (not that I’m against swooning in my lover’s arms every now and then, or having him swoon in mine, but as an everyday mode of love, an image of looking eye to eye and having committed to being together works much better for me).

The next card is the Three of Cups, which depicts a mixed-gender scene of celebrating people. That in itself in unusual enough, since most other decks I recall have a one-gender scene for this card. I suppose, one could read the Deviant Moon version as two guys having (subtly sexist) fun with a naked woman because the most obvious marker of gender is once again a pair of naked breasts on one of the figures. To me, however, the scene reads more equal, possibly because the figure with the naked breasts is also the tallest one, and none of the other two actually touch her. In fact, in my mind, this is a wonderful queer family scene of a butch woman (the one in green), a slightly feminine man (the one in red), and a femme woman (the naked one with the bald head). It’s also one of the few cards that depict light and dark-skinned people together (the others are the Lovers, the Tower, Six of Cups, Two of Cups, and Two of Swords) – but that would be another post. Compare that scene with the Ten of Cups, the traditional “happy family” card. I usually cringe at most versions of this card because of the way it idealizes heterosexual partnerships with children as the universal symbol of a happy family. I feel differently about this card, however. We still have a scene of two adults, one male, one female, and two kids, one of them male, and the other ambiguous. Nothing new so far. But wait, there’s more! The man is not the ideal embodiment of perfect masculinity with his wooden leg that ends in a wheel, and a chunk missing from his head. His sword and wounds make me read him as a soldier who has returned home to his family. And that brings me to a much more nuanced reading of “family” in this card. The soldier has come home wounded physically and mentally, and his family (especially his partner) reacts with a gesture of caretaking. To me, that says that most of the weight of dealing with war trauma and other traumatic experiences is relegated to the private realm. I see my own caretaking of my partner and ex-partners in this card (minus the children). I was the one they came home to after being raped, hit, harrassed, riduculed, and discriminated against. They considered me a safe place to let down their guards, usually the only safe place in their lives. I was often asked to keep their pain private and not to talk about it with others, which meant that my own means of getting support for dealing with such second-hand trauma and hurt were severely limited. So this card reminds me both of the strength of a family (biologically related or not) when it comes to dealing with difficult experiences, and of the burden that declaring certain issues people’s “private matter” can place on a family. Altogether, this makes for a very interesting and multi-faceted Ten of Cups. It also serves to let gender fade into the background of the issues dealt with in this card.

I’ve also selected bunch of cards with male-only images: Two of Swords, Emperor, King of Wands, Strength, and King of Pentacles. They show a diverse range of masculinities.

The two most stereotypically masculine cards are the Two of Swords and Strength. Both show men with bald heads and big muscles who are physically fighting each other or a dangerous creature. The King of Pentacles is another big-bodied figure. With the way he spreads off his little finger, however, he comes across a bit more feminine than the other Kings (the red lipstick and nail polish as well as his heeled shoes may contribute to that effect). Then again, fat men are indeed often portrayed as somewhat less manly than slimmer/more muscular men, so this may not be such a great example of a positive portrayal of a different kind of manhood after all. Compared to the Emperor, however, the King of Pentacles looks manly enough indeed. The Deviant Moon’s Emperor sits on his throne in a very unusual pose for a man, let alone for the archetypal father and ruler. He also wears a downright flamboyant outfit (which is only surpassed by the one worn by the King of Cups). To me, he looks like a vain and self-obsessed monarch, not like a symbol for structure, order, and solidity (characteristics I usually associate with the Emperor). But even if I don’t particularly like him (and I usually feel fine about the Emperor), I still count him as an interesting take on maleness. Finally, there’s the King of Wands, one of the few fathers in this deck. Whereas other fathers act as teacher/competitor (Ten of Pentacles) or don’t relate much to their kids at all (Ten of Cups), the King of Wands seems to take on an almost “motherly” role. His kids climb all over him, demanding his attention, while he wanders along his path. He doesn’t seem annoyed by them and seems to have taken on his responsibility for them with almost a shrug. I can’t even say why, but I do like this card. Maybe because it’s a far cry from many other Kings of Wands, who are often shown as warriors or leaders of warriors. It’s a nice change to see a different kind of “leadership” depicted here.

Finally, there are a few interesting all-female cards: Empress, Ace of Wands, Three of Wands, Death, Eight of Wands, Queen of Swords, Wheel of Fortune, Queen of Wands, and Two of Pentacles.

Let’s start with the latter two. They are the most conventionally beautiful women in the entire deck (if we can speak of conventional beauty in the Deviant Moon at all). The Two of Pentacles is a Tribal Style bellydancer holding pentacles instead of finger cymbals. Except for her rather pointy elbows and breasts, there’s nothing particularly “freaky” about her, compared to most other cards in the deck. As a bellydancer myself, I’m rather fond of this image, especially because this woman has “real” hips, and her torso actually has equally realistic folds from the movement. As a positive image of femininity, it works well for me. The Queen of Wands is another card I immediately liked when I first saw it. She is a lot more of a freak than the previous card, and she wears her difference proudly. She reminds me of amazons and the goddess Artemis, and I see her as a great illustration of queer femmeness due to her combination of femininity and freakishness.

Next, there are some stocky, strong women. The Eight of Wands shows a farmer about to take her scythe to a patch of young trees. It’s nice to see a woman working physically for a change. The Queen of Swords is also an impressive woman. She looks much more matronly, but not particularly motherly. The blood on her sword makes her another rather ambiguous figure. Whom did she stab (and maybe kill) with it? Why is she crying? At any rate, this is a woman you don’t want to mess with. Then again, as a Queen of Swords, she’s not particularly interesting, since this card often shows a less-than-desirable and not especially happy woman. The Wheel of Fortune shows a similarly threatening person, who is in charge of said wheel. While I applaud the appearance of some women who aren’t thin and/or young and/or traditionally beautiful/sexy, I also regret that a lack of conventional attractiveness and also some degree of de-feminization is once again used to portray women in power (yawn!).

Finally, there are some “mother” cards to explore in more depth: Empress, Three of Wands, Ace of Wands, and Death.

The Empress is the least motherly of them. She is dressed much simpler than the Emperor, but her pose is similar to his, although she feels a lot less “out there” than he does. She hides a dragon-like back under her cloak, and the tail that grows from there winds up as a flower in her hand. As I said, I don’t see anything motherly about her (since I don’t perceive breasts – of which she has three – as a symbol of motherhood), and she’s also lacking associations with creativity and abundance that many other Empresses embody for me. Instead, this image reads like she has to hide who she really is, as if she has to transform her power into something delicate and non-threatening. Which is an interesting statement about women in positions of power indeed! The Three of Wands seems to feed her three flowers from an umbilical cord entering her pregnant belly (or do they feed her?) She wears a monstrous face on the back of her head, and stands in pensive mood in front of the plants. I see this card as an illustration of having to be patient until something has come into fruition, no matter how loudly the “monster” of impatience (and anger about having to wait and remain inactive) in the back of our heads roars. The physicalness of the scene works well for me, even if I’m quite sure the experience as such isn’t limited to women. The Ace of Wands holds her pea-pod baby in two of her three arms. The other one grasps a thick, burning wand. There are trees and fruit on her head, and butterfly wings stick out from her back. Now this is indeed a “mother” whose creativity is not limited to procreation. I think I would have chosen this image as the Empress. I like it how she isn’t limited to being a mother, but that she also has other passions to follow. And then there’s Death. A pregnant woman with a horse(?) skull for a head tramples on a childlike version of herself who is kneeling on the ground in a begging pose. The Kali-like quality of being both destroyer and creator/mother appeal to me (without the Kali association, I’d probably find the image a racist depiction because there are so few figures with dark skin in the deck that each of them stands out). Despite the grinning skull, she doesn’t seem intentionally cruel to me. Destroying is just part of what she does, no more, no less (the same goes for giving birth). While killing her own child may seem pretty brutal, I see a valuable lesson here – not all our creations are worth staying alive, and we have to have the courage to follow through on that.

With that I end my examination, and my time with the Deviant Moon. I’ve found the multiplicity of genders in it very interesting to examine, and have found some true gems in doing so (and some disappointing, old clichés, too).

As a final “word” on our time together, I drew one last card from the deck:  the Five of Wands.

I’m drawn most to the flower that stands upright on the other hill, not by the fighting scene going on in the foreground. I take that to mean that I need (and learned) to look beyond my first impressions of this deck. It seemed overly negative but I’ve come to discover many of its strengths and much of its beauty.

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7 responses »

  1. so this is borderline necro-commenting, methinks, but working with this deck now and found this study of gender in the deviant moon quite fascinating! thanks for posting :]

  2. I hope my posts don’t “die” quite so soon, so please feel free to comment on older ones if and whenever you have something to say about them.
    And I’m glad you found my thoughts useful!

  3. Oh, thank goodness necro is allowed. I’ve been going through the blog in a haphazardly backwards fashion, wanting desperately to comment and worrying that my timing would render me irrelevant. Luckily, though, I found my solution in writing a shout-out post, because my first– and only, so far– deck is the Deviant Moon. I haven’t finished or published it yet, mostly because I wanted to see if you’d mind. Would you? And if you’re not sure, I could post the link when it’s done so you could exercise retroactive veto power. It’s not a commentary on your site or anything, but I know that people have varying preferred levels of Internet exposure, so I figured I should ask. Thanks!

  4. This is a really interesting look at the gender representations in the deck! (By the way, I found it posted on FB by Patrick Valenza). I, too, was attracted to this deck in part because of the gender ambiguity. Also, I love how the characters are strange and not quite human. Regarding depictions of race: I usually read the color of the characters’ skin as archetypes of the conscious or subconscious. Many of the faces are separated into white and blue-black, and often a character’s eye is closed on the blue-black/subconscious side, indicating processes that are hidden, not tapped into, or not in control. An example of where the eye is open is the VII of Cups, where the subconscious is controlling what goes onto the canvas.

    Because of this interpretation, I focus on the Lovers as the physical manifestations of the separate consciousnesses rather than on their race or gender. In the card, the weight of the relationship is literally being supported by the subconscious and intangible aspects of attraction, but the relationship could not be complete without the other half. They are balanced, in their own weird way. Isn’t that true for most good relationships? As a major arcana card, it focuses on the spiritual aspect, whereas the IV of Wands—also a favorite of mine—seems to focus on the practical, day-to-day aspects of a relationship.

    The beauty of this deck, though, is the myriad interpretations that it inspires. It’s good to read other people’s thoughts on the artwork. Thank you!

  5. @ Iggy: Please feel free to comment or link to my blog any time, even if a post is ancient!
    I’m interested in reading what you have to say about the Deviant Moon and don’t need any veto power on what you write. So go ahead and post! :)

  6. @ nissalee: Wow, I wasn’t aware that Patrick Valenza had linked to my blog (I’m not on Facebook), so thanks for telling me!
    I also enjoyed reading your take on the Lovers vs. Four of Wands and the meaning of the light/dark skin color of the Deviant Moon characters.

  7. What a wonderful post. And I’m obviously f-a-a-a-r behind even your other necro-commentors! I just got this deck as a birthday gift. My first response: “How fast can I return this to Barnes + Noble and get something that doesn’t scare the crap out of me???” But the giver is a good friend, so I had to open it in front of her . . . and there goes the trade-in-at-B+N option!

    Poking around the web to see others’ thoughts, I found my way to yours, and really appreciated your honesty as you wrestled with the cards. Loved the “drama queen” comment! Your and others’ comments convinced me to try it a bit–and I immediately found the Deviant Moon to offer insights none of my other decks could have given me. Whoa!! I’m still cautious with it–and taking it slow, looking on-line to learn from others’ experiences.

    In this post, the HUGE take-away was on the Death card as Kali, and the idea of killing our creative children as just part of the process. You’ve helped me find a way into that card that feels actually positive and comfortable. Thank you for that, Cat.

    And then, in these comments, I particularly appreciated Nissalee’s noticing of the black/white as unconscious/conscious. I felt the same, and her affirmation was, well, affirming! Also, had a LOL moment when she nailed exactly what I’d thought about the Seven of Cups.

    BTW, I trimmed the white border from JUST the top and bottom, rounded the edges, and it looks terrific! I agree that the white adds–but too-long cards irritate me, and this way I saved enough white to keep the aesthetic but lose the s-t-r-e-t-c-h.

    Thanks for the great effort you put into your posts.

    Appreciatively,
    Jaimiequick

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