“Masculine” vs. “feminine” energy: Why is this still a thing?

A power plug hovering next to an outlet

A few days ago, I was reading a newly-published book on Tarot. I just about threw my e-reader across the room as I read a detailed explanation about how binary gender depictions on Tarot cards are important because masculine vs. feminine energy is a thing and the cards need to show that and we should just stop getting worked up about the gender binary because it’s, like, valid on a spiritual level.

Comedian John Stewart looking confused, then horrified, then putting his face in his hands.
OMFG.

Okay. Let’s take this from the top.

Are there two different kinds of energy?

The short answer: there are LOTS of different flavors/styles/types of and ways to interpret energy.

If we’re going to categorize energy by its flavor, “masculine/feminine” may be one of the many ways to do that, but I would argue:

  1. It’s overly simplistic and limiting, from a magickal perspective: The whole “masculine/feminine” binary could be useful as “training wheels” when you’re first starting to learn magick, because it’s a metaphor most of us can grok pretty easily (unfortunately, most of us are ingrained with the concept of traditional gender roles from an early age). But when you start to look into all the different energetic-interaction patterns we actually use (the elements, the pentacle, higher/middle/lower self, the Qabala, the Zodiac), you realize energy work is a heck of a lot more complicated than just two opposing points. (It’s more than “Tab A goes into Slot B,” fam.) The deeper I go into my practice, the less useful I find the concept of working with these two types of energy.
  2. It reinforces harmful “masculine” and “feminine” stereotypes: Honestly, I would have less of a problem with the whole “masculine/feminine” energy binary concept if we didn’t use those specific labels packaged with these definitions of what “masculine” and “feminine” mean:
Masculine energy is described as…Feminine energy is described as…
Active
Projective
Light
Positive (+)
Passive
Receptive
Dark
Negative (-)
A gif of comedian John Mulaney saying, "Now we don't have time to unpack ALL of that!"

As someone Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB) and whose gender identity is wibbly-wobbly but leaning toward “femme,” I am downright insulted that “feminine” is defined as “passive and receptive.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but this stereotype reinforces rape culture. The idea that masculinity means “taking action” while femininity means “receiving whatever is done to them” is a patriarchal relic best left in the gutter.

An animated gif of a person in an owl costume and children throwing litter into a trash can, from a 1970s public service ad.
Begone, patriarchal bullshit!

Further, this kind of language can alienate nonbinary, agender, and genderqueer people. When you come into a magickal community, magickal text, or magickal working with your lived experience outside the gender binary, and there’s an attempt to indoctrinate you with “traditional” gender roles as a means of gaining or using magickal power, it’s a slap in the face!

Am I saying these binary forces don’t exist?

Not at all. In magick, the idea of unifying opposing or distinct types of energy, especially within oneself, is incredibly powerful!

An animated gif of Raven and Starfire from Teen Titans GO joining hands, raising them in the air, and they begin to crackle with magical power.
We’re better together!

But I believe we should immediately decouple the concept of binary, opposing types of energy from the concepts of “masculine” and “feminine,” because keeping those concepts together is 1. inaccurate, 2. confusing, and 3. harmful. There’s no good reason to tie these types of energetic patterns to patriarchal ideals of gender.

How about some alternatives, then?

First of all, let’s talk about labeling: Why not be more specific? Instead of using “masculine/feminine” as shorthand, why not simply call these types of energy by their more descriptive terms, like “projective” energy and “receptive” energy?

Secondly, there are other binaries you can work with that aren’t at all gender-based. Just to name a few:

  • Noise/silence (like clapping or drumming)
  • Inhale/exhale
  • Push/pull

Not to mention all the non-binary and multivalent means of raising energy:

  • Music
  • Dance
  • Resonance of “like” things
  • Multiple elements interacting
  • Circulation/flow

(For an excellent article on multivalent energies, I’d recommend Ivo Dominguez, Jr.‘s “Redefining and Repurposing Polarity” piece in the anthology Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries.)

We can and should do better

If we want to grow our magickal communities and, more importantly, help empower people who have been disempowered by society, it’s critical that we examine, in collaboration with a wide variety of people (people of various gender identities, races, heritages, physical abilities, sexualities, etc.), our language, our rituals, our symbols, and our belief structures. “We’ve always done it that way” is not a valid reason for alienating people and reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

We must work collaboratively to co-create spaces and structures that are welcoming and affirming, not ones that rely on outdated concepts that aren’t reflective of this wonderful mosaic of a world. It’s time we rethink how we use the concepts of “masculine” and “feminine” energy, as just one small piece of that critical work.

Several different-colored game pieces are in the background of the quote, "We must become co-conspirators rather than allies, and seek to co-create spaces that are radically different and transformative." -Susan Harper, Ph.D.: "For Thou Art Goddess: Creating Affirmative Goddess Community"

6 thoughts on ““Masculine” vs. “feminine” energy: Why is this still a thing?

  1. You have probably read it already, but I’m reading an excellent book called Queering the Tarot, by Cassandra Snow, which addresses this problem among other things. (You will probably turn out to be Cassandra’s partner, for all I know, lol.)

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