Tarot communicates through symbols and through images. By doing so, it creates a bridge between the conscious and subconscious mind. In this way, by manifesting this world between worlds, tarot allows a unique divinatory experience. Even though tarot is meant to stimulate the subconscious, the conscious is still a big player in the equation and its filters, strengths and weaknesses, should be recognized. One filter that must be recognized is on that is fairly common. In fact, the wonderful Kate Hepburn (playing Bunny Watson) recognized it in The Desk Set.
Spencer Tracy (playing Richard Sumner): What is the first thing you notice in a person?
Kate/Bunny: Whether the person is male or female.
It's not just gender that we notice, but also general age—at least whether someone is a baby, child, young adult, etc. The way we use this information, about gender and age, in our daily lives may be different than how we use it, or should use it, in tarot card interpretation. So, let's take a look at how gender and age are used symbolically or metaphorically in tarot.
Most decks do not have the same number of male figures as female figures, or a balanced depiction of age ranges. Some decks will have more females than males or vice versa. The use of gender and age as symbols by the deck designer is something we need to take into account as we get to know any particular deck. A baby doesn't necessarily mean a baby and a young woman doesn't always mean a twenty-year-old female. It is important to understand the use of gender and age as symbols and not as literal representations so that we can accurately interpret readings.
Male and Female
The decision to use either male or female images reflects the ideas that the deck designer or artist wishes to convey. Those ideas are generally not about anatomy; they are about energy or characteristics. Tarot communicates through images and archetypes. Archetypes are not too many steps removed from stereotypes. Our history and our culture have created stereotypes of masculine and feminine behavior, energy, and characteristics. These influence us when we look at the cards.
A female figure represents what we think of as feminine qualities, such as nurturing, passiveness, receptiveness, and integrated worldviews. A male figure represents what we think of as masculine qualities, such as leadership, assertiveness, activeness, and linear thinking. We know that actual men and women have a combination both feminine and masculine qualities. Therefore, in a reading, the High Priestess or one of the Queens does not always represent a woman and the Emperor or one of the Kings does not always represent a man. When we are reading for a man and the Empress card comes up it, we should not automatically assume it means his wife or mother, although it could. Rather, we should consider the idea that it represents the qualities of the Empress—nurturing, creative, and abundant—in the querent himself.
Young and Old
A baby on the Sun card and an old man on the Hermit card do not necessarily represent merely an infant or simply an old man. Instead, youthful figures represent a youthful, optimistic, enthusiastic, or childish attitude that anyone can have regardless of age. A mature figure can indicate someone experienced, confident, or strong. A young person in a card may represent someone who rushes into things, is vulnerable, or is a novice at something while an image of an older figure can show someone who is stuck in a rut or a master at something.
So if we are reading for a young woman and the King of Swords comes up, we should not automatically assume that is her father or other male figure in her life. It may, instead, represent those qualities—leadership, intelligence, and experience—within her.
In a Reading
As we begin to interpret a reading, we can scan the spread for male and female figures and the ages represented. That tells us something about the reading. Does the situation look balanced, or is there a lot of either masculine or feminine energy involved? Is someone asking for advice about resolving a conflict and there are many children or young people in the spread? Perhaps that indicates that the people involved are behaving childishly and need to "grow up" in order to come to an agreement. A good interpretation depends on paying attention to the qualities symbolized and not just the literal images.
In the Cards
Whenever we look at a new deck or an old favorite, we can learn even more about the possibilities of card meanings by considering gender and age.
As readers, we always pay attention to symbolism. But it is important to not overlook the symbolism of masculinity or femininity in terms of the overall meaning. Think about how the meaning of the card can be expressed in either form. For example, we usually see Strength with a female image. Does that meaning change if a male figure is used instead? There are many kinds of strength. Symbolically (not literally), what kind of strength does a woman represent versus that of a man?
Apply the same idea to age. In the Strength card, we usually see a young woman. What if it were a child, or an old woman? How would that affect your ideas about the card? Thinking about the symbols used as well as what is not used can add depth to understanding a particular card's meaning. Imagine the Knight of Pentacles, or any Knight, pictured as an old man on a horse or the Lovers as an old couple rather than a young couple. That changes the feel and meaning of the card. When looking at a card, ask yourself why that particular image was used rather than something else.
Female and male figures, youthful, mature, and elderly people all show up in tarot cards. While not always archetypes, they are symbols. Understanding this keeps us from falling into the trap of automatically interpreting all cards that don't look like the querent as someone else in their life. The cards are often about the querent, even if they don't appear so at first glance. By thinking about the qualities, energies, and experience represented by the images and you'll find that your readings become more accurate and useful to querents, and that your understanding and insights about the cards are deepened.