Tag Archives: masculinity

G is for Gender (of humans and deities)

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter G.
I’ve announced this post a few times already, and now I’m finally sitting down to write it. Parts of my thoughts about gender have already been included in these previous posts:

D is for Dualities (and why so many of them aren’t very useful)
F is for Female. Feminine. Feminism. Femme. … Fertility?

Despite (or maybe because?) having a Master’s degree in Gender Studies, I still don’t get the idea of gender as a duality, let alone a binary. Sure, I experience (and categorize) some people as more masculine or more feminine than others, and I myself feel more masculine or feminine in certain situations, but that really doesn’t mean much for anyone outside my head.

Franklin Roosevelt in gender-neutral children's clothes of the time (1884)

Because gender isn’t at all a simple thing about two kinds of bodies or even two kinds of energies. What is considered masculine or feminine is so different throughout history and cultures that I can only laugh at anyone’s claims that anything about gender is “natural.” Even if we stick to one culture and one time in history, what is considered feminine or masculine still isn’t the same all over the board, and class and race/ethnicity are just two things that influence gender. To give you just a few examples: Pink used to be a boys’ color in Europe/Northern America up until the 1940s (because it was a pastel version of red, which was considered a masculine color). The most manly thing for an stereotypically Jewish man to do wasn’t (and probably isn’t) to go and prove his physical strength but to become a scholar. Anatomy is pretty much irrelevant in some Native American nations which assigned gender by way of the social role and skill sets (sorry, but you need to log in to view the link) someone took up.

Even if we limit our understanding of a “natural” gender difference to our physical bodies, things are a lot more complicated than bathroom doors suggest. Physical gender (aka physical sex) is made up from a combination of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics like the amount and placement of body hair or the presence or absence of breasts. Not to mention brain chemistry that has become so popular recently for pinpointing gender differences to somewhere within our bodies. And yes, any of these parts may or may not conform to a certain human-made standard of “normalcy” for someone “male” or “female.” Actual humans are born with widely varied combinations of the factors contributing to physical gender. And we all develop from an embryonal state that is the same for each of us. (I strongly recommend Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body for a potentially mind-blowing biological perspective and lots more details.) Our gender is assigned to us at birth, usually by the judgment of the midwife, doctor, or nurse of what they see between the newborn’s legs. If that seems too ambiguous to them, further tests may be made to look for chromosomes or other biological “evidence” for the gender of this person. And let’s not forget the variance that occurs even among people who are genetically female (or male). Not every woman has breasts of a size that would fill even the smallest bra available (and I’m not just talking about women who’ve had mastectomies as part of their cancer treatment). Not every man has a penis of a size that would fill even the smallest condom available (and I’m not just talking about men who’ve had accidents that reduced the size of their genitalia). Not every woman is able to get pregnant and give birth, and not every man is able to sire a child. Few people would seriously argue that either of them wasn’t a “real” woman or man.

And we haven’t even talked about people of any anatomy who enjoy wearing skirts and nail polish and wielding power tools and discussing astrophysics and still fully identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Or those who enjoy wearing flannel shirts and big boots and cooking five-course meals for their loved ones and needlecrafts who also embrace what their birth certificate always said about their gender. Nor have we talked about those who were assigned one of the two commonly acknowledged genders at birth and have eventually come to the conclusion that the other of those two commonly acknowledged genders would actually be a better fit for them socially, and/or in the way their body looks, and who then go on to legally change the gender on their official documents and/or and physically change their bodies to fit better with the gender they identify with. This includes but isn’t limited to transsexual/transgender people (male-to-female or transwomen, female-to-male or transmen), some third-gender folk, some Two-Spirit individuals, and some genderqueer people.

It should be obvious by now why I would argue that gender is one of those dualities that don’t make much sense because there aren’t any clear ways to accurately and usefully measure it or to even agree on what actually belongs to “gender.” And that’s without even getting into the “nature vs. nurture” debate.

"Thomas Beatie" by Marc Quinn, 2008

All of this has been the reality of my experience of gender within and around me for the majority of my life. The first intersex individual among my friends came out to us fifteen years ago. Many of my friends and some of my lovers/partners have been (are) transgender and I’ve witnessed their social, legal, and/or physical transitions first hand. And they are just the most obvious examples of the gender variety I’ve seen, felt, and lived for at least half of my life. This is what’s normal to me (and I haven’t even started on people’s sexual variations that intersect with all this gender variety!). It’s normal to me that people are able change aspects of their gender presentation, including their bodies, more or less drastically (and with more or less legal/medical support). It’s normal to me that no human interest or capability is inherently masculine or feminine, let alone male or female (ever since Thomas Beatie the point should have been made even to the greater public that sometimes men do in fact get pregnant and give birth). I should probably also say that it is normal to me that I can also clearly see differences in individual capabilities or interests, and that I also see the influence of larger forces like education, society, and media onto how accessible some of these interests/skills are to specific individuals or groups of individuals (aka sexism et al.).

Of course, I carry over this experience and understanding of gender into my search for a spiritual tradition (or non-tradition) that makes enough sense to me to claim it as my own. And that is where I get stuck all the time. I just can’t seem to find a tradition that sees gender like I do.

Wicca (which I encountered first because it’s so omnipresent in neo-Pagan writing) has its binary God and Goddess. It was pretty clear from the beginning that I wasn’t even going there, because I certainly won’t stick a knife into a cup to symbolize the union of gender energies by way of alluding to penis-in-vagina intercourse. Not even for me as a butch-loving femme did this seem like a good representation of gender because my femininity/femmeness can be just as active and penetrative as anyone’s masculinity and/or butchness, both on a literal and a symbolical level. Besides that, the whole two-gender system of it all didn’t make much sense to me.

Other polytheistic pantheons have a larger amount male and female deities, but none of them quite fit in with a femaleness like mine that wasn’t defined by the presence or absence of fertility/physical children. But at least there were several men and women to spread characteristics around a bit. There were even “virgin” goddesses like Athena or Artemis who weren’t mainly concerned with housekeeping and bearing children. There also were “monstrous” female deities like Kali. But still. I never quite found what I was looking for. I still felt left out. I also never quite found the same kind of masculinity I saw in my butch partners in any deity (male or female), but I’ll admit I didn’t spend all too much time on male deities to begin with.

I already described my experience with looking for queerness and gender variance among deities by way of reading Raven Kaldera’s Hermaphrodeities. Let’s sum it up with: it wasn’t helpful at all.

So what’s a person to do who seems to have a pretty androgynous mind, a queer-feminist consciousness, and a female/feminine body that she likes equally well when bellydancing as when assembling furniture and wh experiences only society dysphoria when it comes to gender?

For a long time I thought I needed just get used to the necessity of putting everything Pagan through my ever-present culture filter that translates things into queerspeak for me until I could at least accept a little corner of it. Or, if that wasn’t enough, that I needed to invent my very own non-tradition and mix up a queerly Pagan worldview of my own.

However, recently I’ve felt given in to explore Heathenry/Asatru/Northern Tradition Paganism a little more in-depth. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve found myself to be especially interested in the female jötnar (giants) and their not-quite-so domestic femaleness. I don’t have any conclusions to make about this, however, as this exploration is still very much in its ongoing early phases.

And then I read something in another blog a few days ago, not much more than a remark in passing, that almost made me smack my head in sudden understanding.

The gender of Gods, I believe, is part of the metaphor, the story that we humans create to fit them into our worldview.

Duh! Of course! You should think I forgot my entire Gender Studies education the way I apparently haven’t been able to realize this for myself: the way humans have talked and portrayed the gender of deities is of course heavily influenced by what we even have words for. Why would we think and speak differently about divine genders than we would about human ones? And why would our perception of deities and their gender not be subject to change the same way that our understanding and perception of human gender changes?

Zeus giving birth to Athena

Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss all deities that are reported to have had heterosexual relationships when there are also so many stories of the exact same deities changing gender, shapeshifting into animals or humans, and giving birth to children out of bodyparts like their armpits or foreheads?! Maybe I shouldn’t take the surviving lore as “all that there is” and at least accept the possibility that deities may look different in reality (that is, in my own eyes, if I should ever be able to look at them directly) than the pictures other humans have created of them, and that they may end up being a lot more varied in their gender expressions as well? Why on earth did I ever buy into mainstream Pagan illustrations like that and simply accepted them as objective truth?! Why, oh why, did I ever think that deities couldn’t be as varied in the ways they embodied their gender as us humans (and probably more so)?! Honestly, this is all a rather embarrassing realization for me, not because I finally have it but because it took me so long to get to this point. Haven’t I read enough about “UPG” (unverified personal gnosis) and “PCPG” (peer-corroborated personal gnosis) to know there’s more to deities (especially Heathen ones) than the surviving lore? But for some reason, the connection never clicked with my thoughts about gender. Until now.

I’m not quite sure where that leaves me, but I already sense an interest to look at mythology again, this time with a queer eye for any traces of gender “normalization” (I can’t quite explain right now how that works, but it’s not as simple as nodding wisely at the point where Loki changes into a mare…). And I definitely want to examine my own assumptions about divine gender some more to see where I did my own “normalizing.” And maybe I can even try and see what happens to my thinking about deities when I don’t take their gender as one of their main defining characteristics and instead look for personalities. I think I now have some very interesting reading (and writing?) ahead of me!

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Bonus link list:

Other people have also written about gender during the Pagan Blog Project. Here are some links to articles I liked so far, to sort of conclude the topic of gender (for now).

Pixiecraft: “Gods, Goddess, and Gender from one’s Grrrl’s Perspective
Per Sebek: “G is for Gender, Queerness, and the Gods
Adventures on the Dusken Path: “Fertility (And how it’s kinda exclusive)”
Walk Softly, Witch: “D is for Duality. Or: Fuck you, Aristotle”
Máris Pai: “D… is for Debacle”
Armed Venus: “Pagan Blog Project D is for Diversity (edited)”

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Edited to add (14 April 2012):
The spelling of “Thomas Beatie” has been corrected and a link to his homepage added within the text.

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

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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.