Are astrology memes key to a postcolonial future?

In a world dominated by white heteropatriarchal thought, the zodiac and its many memes could provide us with a liberating, alternative language.

by Isabel Ling
17 August 2021, 1:11pm

Collage by Douglas Greenwood

A cat in a gold chain sits sprawled across stacks of crisp dollar bills, the words “Capricorn Sun” written beneath it; a screengrab from Carrie of the titular blood-soaked prom queen is labeled “Scorpio Moon”; an image of Miss Piggy wearing a nun’s costume, tagged “Virgo Rising” — these were the pictures that were peppered across social media as a viral meme trend took over Twitter timelines last month. In an online landscape where memes are headed the way of the nonsensical shitpost, this reorganization of internet fodder under zodiac categorization saw a return of the meme, courtesy of the human desire to know and be known.

From first dates to job interviews, astrology has increasingly provided us with a new language to understand one another and our inner emotional lives. But for what is arguably the most astrologically literate generation yet, astrology memes are no longer an offshoot of the cosmic practice, but the primary medium through which the majority are interacting with an entire field of study. Astrology memes, and the repurposing of astrology’s archetypal language for humour, shade and flirtation, first rose to popularity as a mode of communication for queer and marginalised communities.

In a recent interview, the astrologer Chani Nicholas attributes the popularity of astrology amongst queer communities over the past few years to a desire to be recognised, that cannot be satisfied or articulated by religious institutions or tradition. “We need alternative ways of seeing ourselves or being witnessed… When we grew up in a culture that doesn't see us, that doesn't witness our gender, that invisibilises us, that makes us into something that we're not, we need ways of being reflected that feel true.” By serving as the main entry-point to astrology, astrology memes — which originated as an in-joke for those overlooked by existing hierarchical systems — are upending the power dynamics of a way of knowing that has historically been dominated by white, patriarchal thought.

For Paris Parker-Loan, who runs the popular Instagram account for social astrology app Co-Star, the merging of astrology with memes was a natural progression, “Memes are the lingua franca of our time… [They have] created this accessible, entertaining entry-point into the more technical concepts of astrology,” she writes via email. In Co-Star’s distinctively minimalist meme templates, any topic is fair game, from the movie genres each sign embodies to their particular emotional walls

“It’s a perfect shortcut for the things that people really want to talk about: their opinions, their emotions, their family history and their romantic history.”

Courtney Perkins, the writer and mastermind behind the prolific astrology meme account @notallgeminis, believes that astrology has furnished us with a language to circumvent clunky societal conventions. “It’s a perfect shortcut for the things that people really want to talk about: their opinions, their emotions, their family history and their romantic history. People use it in different ways but for example, when someone goes ‘Oh I dated a Leo, I know what this is like,’ what you actually get to hear is their experience with an ex-boyfriend.”

While we’ve seen a larger cultural shift toward astrology in the mainstream, Alice Sparkly Kat — a Brooklyn-based astrologer, and the author of Postcolonial Astrology who also goes by Ace — attributes the origins of how we use astrology today to queer communities and, particularly, queer dating. “You go on queer dating apps and everyone’s talking about their sun, moon and rising [signs],” they tell me over a recent Zoom interview, “It’s given people a way to describe who they are and what they’re looking for. Regardless of what astrology is, language changes when people use it for different things. When queer people use astrology to flirt with each other it becomes such a fun and erotic language.”

Astrology hasn’t always had this reputation, though. An excavation of its past reveals a practice that is inextricable from the systems of white supremacy, capital and labor that have contributed to the political construction and upholding of the West, with figures such as Ronald Reagan and J.P. Morgan following in a long tradition of power-brokers who looked to the stars as a blueprint for the aggregation of power. The practice was particularly popular with political groups like the Confederacy and Nazis who used astrology as a way to predict and thus control the future, reproducing the language of astrology as a tool for maintaining power and sustaining systems of oppression.

In Postcolonial Astrology, Ace points out that historically, the conservative right has had a much longer relationship with astrology than the progressive left. According to Ace, a large part of this is a result of the centering of Ancient Rome and its mythologies as a paradigm for power by Western governments and leaders. Practiced by Roman thinkers, astrology was a way for right-leaning leaders to tap into a practice they believed would usher in a return to a glorified past. 

Today, despite augmented perceptions on social media, astrology remains a field largely dominated by white practitioners. While formal astrology organizations like ISAR and NCGR (and conferences like NORWAC) are taking steps to incorporate non-white astrologers, the pace at which their efforts to include BIPOC voices is moving has yet to match that of a hungry audience that has grown increasingly diverse. While these institutions play catch-up, queer and BIPOC astrologers are continuing to foster and build community online through channels and mediums of their own making. Digital spaces facilitated by social media and astrology memes as well as platforms like Co-Star deconstruct jargon that previously served as a barrier of entry to many and introduces a level of transparency to the astrological practice. 

“You learn the verbiage through the textbook, but you learn the behaviors through human experience.”

Co-opted, remixed and reformatted, astrology memes are of course not devoid of their own pitfalls. A generative medium built off of the conveyance of a mood or a vibe, these memes often fall back on limiting zodiac tropes and categorizations in order to make the joke — often losing information in the process. 

For Courtney, who founded @notallgeminis in 2018 as a retaliation to the negative press that Geminis infamously receive, it is important to acknowledge the reductive nature of memes. “It’s frustrating when people assume the memes are the end when the memes are the introduction.” Courtney, who has grown a large following for her deft combinations of astrological know-how and humour with images drawn from celebrity culture, points out that her own account often includes content that has nothing to do with astrology or content that reveals bias specific to her tastes (followers will recognise the account’s admin as an avid Phoebe Bridgers fan). Instead, she says the value of astrology memes lies in the conversations they open up, “You learn the verbiage through the textbook, but you learn the behaviours through human experience.”

Astrology inadvertently benefits from a sort of collective pigeonholing that, left unchecked, could ultimately be detrimental to the communities that delight in it. When used without acknowledging the mantle of colonialism in its past, astrology becomes just another apparatus of categorisation that can reproduce harmful preconceptions of race and gender that reinforce violence against existing marginalised communities. In this, a greater question arises — how then, can astrology be repurposed for a postcolonial future? 

Ace likens the reshaping of astrology — as a language of emotional introspection and connection — to fanfiction, “I think a lot of astrology mirrors fanfiction communities. The thing in itself, like the media that is being fanfictionalised, might be really corporate, or patriarchal. It’s Hollywood sometimes. But then the community that is using the thing as a language changes the thing.” Similarly, Paris’s approach to meme-making as a way to establish context for astrology can be correlated with the act of world-building common in fanfiction, “Each sign becomes a character with their own distinctly human set of emotions, motivations, and needs. So even if a follower of Co–Star can’t articulate exactly what makes a Leo a Leo, it clicks when our meme sounds exactly like what their Leo friend would do or say in a given scenario.” 

Astrology’s past as a tool of colonisation and our present state of constant crisis cannot be changed. Nevertheless, how astrology is used as a language and how community is built in crisis can.

Fanfiction takes existing material and spins it, offering up new portals of thought and infinite ways of being. Astrology’s past as a tool of colonisation and our present state of constant crisis cannot be changed. Nevertheless, how astrology is used as a language and how community is built in crisis can. In an essay for the New Yorker, journalist Christine Smallwood argued that the rise of astrology can be correlated with a decline in organised religion, a way to make meaning in an era of uncertainty. In this way, “[astrology] posits that history is not a linear story of upward progress but instead moves in cycles, and that historical actors — the ones running amok all around us — are archetypes. Alarming, yes; villainous, perhaps; but familiar, legible.”

But Ace pushes back against the idea of the construction of an organised belief system around astrology. Instead, they see the postcolonial future that astrology is ushering in as something akin to kink or roleplay, a playful departure from the source material to create a new world, “I’m drawn to astrology because I love people talking about how it healed their interpersonal relationships, or built communities they hadn’t been a part of before. A lot of movement work depends on the quality and trust inherent to relationships. Despite Western astrology being this very patriarchal language, people are practicing it in a way where they are building relationships that are essential to a future in crisis.” You heard it here first: if there was ever a time to crack out your birth chart, it’s now.

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