Popaganda: I Saw the Sign

Do you believe what you read in horoscopes? In pop culture, we imbue the zodiac signs with certain stereotypical behaviors. Virgos are judgmental, Leos are always starving for attention, Geminis are two-faced. The general gist is that the sun’s position in the sky relative to 12 astrological signs at the time of your birth can tell you all about the kind of person you’ll be. At least, enough to receive the same advice once a week. On this episode of Popaganda, you’ll be hearing from two people whose lives are entangled in astrology. We’ll talk about finding yourself in horoscopes, zodiac pie, and how astrology might work alongside social justice.

First, we speak with Claire Comstock-Gay, a.k.a Madame Clairevoyant, who writes weekly horoscopes for The Cut. We actually covered her in Bitch last year! Then we hear from Candace Kita, a community organizer who attends the Portland School of Astrology, who explains what it means to “queer” the study of the zodiac. And she reads my birth chart! Cool!

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TRANSCRIPT

SOLEIL: This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by Buy Olympia, the original indie retailer, selling great things from independent artists since 1999. If you’re the kind of person who loves to buy cards, books, t-shirts, artwork, and just all-around cool stuff from independent creators, head on over to buyolympia.com and start browsing. We can’t promise that you’ll be able to leave our site without buying something, but we can promise that you’ll find something you unexpectedly love. Start the search today at buyolympia.com. 

Soleil Ho here, and you’re listening to Popaganda, a podcast by Bitch Media. Though last episode was all about the idea of the impostor, this one is about something totally different: astrology and its resurgence in the popular consciousness. I wanna get to the bottom of why astrology is having its pop culture moment right now. Maybe it’s just my Libra…Ascendant talking or something. But I’m sure you wanna know too, right? I hope you enjoy the show. 

[theme music] 

These days, it’s not so uncommon to hear people worrying about Mercury being in retrograde or to read horoscopes themed after social justice or even pies. Like it or not—even if you still can’t tell the difference between a Capricorn and Captain Crunch—astrology is everywhere. I’m not sure I believe in it myself, but it seems like a ton of other people my age do. At least, I don’t see the harm in it; from what I’ve read of Naimonu James, Chani Nicholas, and the Astro Poets, horoscopes feel almost meditative. They compel the reader to take a minute and reflect on how they want their weeks to go. That’s not too bad. 

So here’s my confession: though I consider myself to be logical, rational, and generally skeptical, I love those silly-ass zodiac sign memes. Stuff like, the zodiac signs as dogs; the ways each zodiac sign destroys their own life; how each zodiac sign would commit murder; how each sign would eat a bag of chips. 

[recorded clip from Chris Crocker’s official Facebook page] 

CHRIS: This is how each sign eats potato chips. Capricorn. [crunches lightly]. Aquarius. [giant sniffs…quick crunch]. Pieces. [bag rustles]. Aries. [shovels a mouthful of chips and crunches]. Taurus. [delicate crunching]. 

[lo-fi folk pop] 

SOLEIL: In pop culture, we imbue the zodiac signs with certain stereotypical behaviors. Virgos are judgmental, Leos are always starving for attention, Geminis are two-faced. The general gist is that the sun’s position in the sky relative to 12 astrological signs at the time of your birth can tell you all about the kind of person you’ll be. At least, enough to receive the same advice once a week. As, you know, a bunch of other people you don’t know. 

♪ I got a new life 

You’d hardly recognize me 

I’m so glad 

How could a person like me care for you? 

Why do I bother 

When you’re not the one for me 

Oh, is enough enough? 

 

Oh, I saw the sign 

And it opened up my eyes 

I saw the sign 

Life is demanding without understanding 

 

I saw the sign 

And it opened up my eyes 

I saw the sign 

No one’s gonna drag you up to get into the light where you belong 

But where do you belong ♪ 

SOLEIL: Horoscopes, those little passages of divination tailored to each sign, are supposedly meant to guide the members of those groups, advising them on romance, career moves, and just general self-awareness. Most people who read horoscopes don’t go beyond checking out what’s going on with their sun sign once in a while. Others get really hardcore, and finding out how their signs interact with the heavenly bodies on any given day can be a serious hobby for them. 

CLAIRE COMSTOCK-GAY: So, one of the things I really love about astrology is the way it kind of expands or contracts to meet you where you are and where your interest level is, right? You don’t need to go deep, but you can go deep. You can know nothing but your sun sign and find meaning in just regular sun sign horoscopes. And that’s fine, and that’s good. Or you can really go deeper into so many levels, really. There’s so many pieces, and there’s so many elements. There are all of your own personal planets, and there are the houses. And all of these things are interacting with each other. There’s really so much depth to go into if you want to go there. 

What’s really wonderful about astrology is that you don’t have to go there; you don’t have to go all the way to the depths to find some kind of meaning, to find something good there for yourself. 

SOLEIL: I recently got to talk to Claire Comstock-Gay, who writes horoscopes as Madame Clairevoyant. 

CLAIRE: So, my name is Claire Comstock-Gay, pronouns she/her, and I write horoscopes for The Cut. 

SOLEIL: Madame Clairevoyant’s weekly horoscopes aren’t like the others. Rather than usual curt prescriptions—like focus on this, watch out for that—her horoscopes are wordy, asking the reader to think deeply about their emotions and come up with their own plan of action. If horoscopes mean to paint a picture of your life, hers are definitely Impressionistic: blurry, rhythmic strokes that add up to a deep, indescribable feeling of ease. Here’s Madame Clairevoyant reading for Virgo: 

CLAIRE: You might notice that other people’s attention makes you bristle this week, or it makes you squirm, or it makes you wilt, drained and depleted. You don’t have to share your whole self with the whole world, and you don’t have to perform for every audience that asks to see you. Remember the stories of the people who came before you, powerful and strange. 

SOLEIL: Reading different writers’ horoscopes kind of feels like choosing a map. Sometimes all you want is a street sign, to get a sense of your coordinates. Other times you might be looking to meet someone nearby, so you pull up Grindr or Happn to see who’s around. Or maybe you just wanna wander around and take the chance that you’ll end up somewhere interesting. There’s all sorts of ways to situate yourself, and perhaps that’s why the zodiac holds such appeal to us during these really uncertain, chaotic times. 

CLAIRE: Right, astrology is a really welcoming space in the sense that there aren’t professional gatekeepers, really. There aren’t degrees that you need; there aren’t student loans that you have to incur to be able to use astrology or appreciate astrology. 

I don’t think that millennials are qualitatively different than any other generation. All generations have to kind of make their own sense of the world, and right now, part of making sense of the world means making sense of some really horrible things going on. It’s really hard to be a person in the best of circumstances, and right now, there’s so much violence and chaos in the world. And astrology offers a place to understand your place in the world without asking too much in return of you. It’s really accessible to people who don’t have access to a lot of our dominant cultural or political institutions. 

SOLEIL: Yeah, especially in a time when it’s really hard to be vulnerable because—and maybe this is just me, this is on my end—but it’s hard to be vulnerable, especially in online spaces, because you’re worried about just being sort of picked on for that or attacked or just having someone see the part that can be hurt and using that. 

[mellow music] 

CLAIRE: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you’re so right. It’s not something I’ve really thought about before, with kind of the vulnerability in online spaces in particular. But in the world too, right? This is something I’ve thought about kind of personally for myself, too. It’s so hard to just be OK with the weird parts of ourselves. It’s really hard to be like, oh, there’s just this bad thing about me that I don’t like. And astrology, with the signs, can kind of offer a worldview where it’s OK that people are just different than other people, also. And so, at its best, it can kind of help people, it can help you be generous with other people’s just—I don’t even wanna say flaws, but just—the ways that other people are. 

It can help you be generous with your own, you know, astrology calls it the “shadow side.” I’m a Sagittarius, and part of our shadow side is that we’re a little bit flaky, and that’s something I really feel a tremendous amount of guilt about in life. It’s like, OK, I don’t need to just let this totally rule my life, but I don’t need to feel all this guilt either. It’s fine. People are different from each other, and that’s fine. 

SOLEIL: Yeah. I think what you’re telling me, also, makes me think of how we tend to think of personalities as binaries. With the signs, one side is bad, one side is good. Sometimes we color it with morals. There’s not even just 12 possibilities, but there’s like infinite possibilities when you think about the rest of the chart, and there’s really no judgment unless you’re talking about Geminis. 

CLAIRE: [chuckles] 

SOLEIL: And then— You know what I’m saying, though? It expands the way you think about personality and about who a person can be and how they can be in a way that accommodates for all the various aspects of what all of that means. 

CLAIRE: Yeah, totally. Totally. And Geminis get such a raw deal. 

SOLEIL: As I talked to Claire about what horoscopes mean to people on a symbolic, emotional level, I got more interested in the mechanics of the zodiac. Why do we associate personalities with celestial bodies? And how can we think about astrology as a political practice? To find out, I spoke to Candace Kita, a community organizer and current student at the Portland School of Astrology. Did you even know there were schools for astrology? That’s wild, right? 

CANDACE: My name is Candice Kita. I am a cultural worker at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and I use she and her pronouns. 

SOLEIL: And so, I’ve heard that you’re also super, super into astrology. 

CANDACE: I am. When you asked about your profession, it’s kind of hard to just narrow down to one thing. But in addition to my cultural work, I’m also a student at the Portland School of Astrology, where I’ve, officially, since last October. But I’ve been studying astrology through there and also just have done a lot of my own self-study over the past year or two. 

SOLEIL: So, OK, what does it mean to study astrology? What are your texts? Who are your teachers? 

CANDACE: Astrology is over 10,000 years old. So, there’s a lot to study. We study the ancients. So, you can look at Ptolemy and Hippocrates and all these folks who really had a certain cosmic perspective on the things that they did and the things that they studied. We also study modern astrologers. There’s folks out there like, of course, the wonderful Chani Nicholas. There’s Joanna Macy, who does some spiritual work. There’s folks like Steven Forrest. 

There’s a pretty big community of astrologers in Portland, and we really have the only in-person astrology school in the nation, from what I understand. And we have three local teachers who all have very different kinds of astrological backgrounds. There’s so many different kinds of astrology too. There’s everything from astrology that’s intertwined with herbalism, so how you make certain remedies based on the cosmic timing of when you make them. There’s medical astrology. There’s mundane astrology, which is all about the astrology of events. So, there’s so many different things to explore in astrology is what I’m saying. And at our school, we do a lot of focus on studying birth charts, which is a really foundational part of astrology. 

SOLEIL: Right. So, what made you wanna do this? 

CANDACE: I had actually been pretty anti-astrology for most of my life. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

CANDACE: And it’s kind of funny because I never thought I would end up in this place. One of the reasons why I was so anti-astrology for so long is because my mom is really into astrology. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

CANDACE: And she would always typecast me when I would do certain things as being like, “Oh! You’re such an Aries. You’re so Aries! Everything is Aries.” And I’d be like, “No, I’m not! I am more unique than that!” 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

CANDACE: Or like, “You can’t put me in a box!” So, I was actually really frustrated by astrology in that sense, in that a lot of horoscopes that are out there are kind of predictive and kind of really fixed and feel like they’re boxing you in. So, I was, yeah, really against that for a long time. And it was really only when I started reading modern astrologers, like the Chani Nicholases, the Naimonu James, who have a really strong social justice focus and an intersectional framework, that I really began to appreciate the kind of nuance that astrology offers. You know, it’s not only just about your sun sign, but it’s about so many different kinds of influences. And it’s really a tool to kind of look at your own life and not think of it as such a, oh, because I am X, this means I will do this thing or act this way, right? There’s so much more gray area, and that gray area is really the fascinating part for me within astrology. 

SOLEIL: So, OK, what does astrology have to do with social justice though? That’s really interesting. 

CANDACE: Yeah! Well, I think astrology can be used as kind of like a healing tool. It’s been very healing for me in kind of providing a framework through which to understand your own identity or to ask kind of relevant questions about things that are happening to you in a particular moment in time. I also think that astrology and social justice, astrology can be used for empowering purposes. It can help show you different kinds of gifts, maybe, that you hadn’t articulated or noted, but kind of point them out for you. And I really think that astrology can be really positive as well. It’s been helpful for me in the social justice world in that it can be really optimistic and help you get through challenges because it can recognize challenge as opportunity. 

People talk about different kind of pop culture astrology moments like Mercury retrograde, which has a really, really negative identity. People tend to fear it, but it’s also a moment of great positive opportunity to kind of reflect on your life. So, it’s a lot of storytelling, and I think within storytelling, storytelling and social justice go hand and hand, right? If you wanna change the world to a vision that you see, you can change the story about it. And astrology is kind of one way to help change the story, if that makes sense. 

SOLEIL: Hmm. That’s really interesting. Because I think a lot of the critiques of astrology are rooted in it being a pseudoscience; it’s not scientific, or it’s not real or whatever. But you’re saying this more about sort of a self-reflection, therapeutic sort of thing. 

CANDACE: Yeah, totally. I’m definitely personally in the camp that we give meaning to what we wanna give meaning to. And I think of astrology as an interpretive art because it’s all interpretation. I can’t look at anyone’s chart and be like, “When you are 47, this will happen to you in this area of the country in which you’re living.” I don’t think it’s like, it’s not that precise in that way. It’s really looking at the bigger energies that are at play. 

And within the kind of study that I do at the Portland School of Astrology, we actually use a queer intersectional framework. So, we operate on the assumption that everyone has free will at any given moment, right? The cosmos can kind of point you to what energies are at play at any point in time, but ultimately, it’s up to you what you do with that. And we’re really trying not to box people into different signs and being like, “Well, because you are a Gemini, this means this.” We believe that everyone has every sign in them in some way, and they can all kind of manifest differently at different points in your life. So, it’s a really open-ended, I think, tool as well, which maybe counters some of how astrology has been used in the past a kind of tool that tries to fix people in certain identities. Or it doesn’t allow for options and doesn’t allow the story to change, right? The story can always change in my take on astrology as an art and cultural form. 

SOLEIL: I guess, ‘cause you mentioned that your school teaches astrology with a very queer intersectional lens. So, I’d love for you to talk a bit more about what is so queer about astrology. 

CANDACE: Mm! Yeah. I mean, I think about the astrology books and resources I’d encountered in the ‘90s, for example, growing up, and my mom had books around. There was kind of this notion of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus kind of thing. Or like, “Here’s what you should look for in a man if you’re a Cancer,” right? 

SOLEIL: Exactly. 

CANDACE: Simply that really, really gender-binaric kind of framework for astrology is something that we question and don’t really even use at all. Because we’re not looking at that. We’re not looking at binaric gender when we’re looking at astrology, or we don’t wanna look at it in a way that boxes people into gender binaries. So, that’s one very, very clear way in which we kind of queer astrology, especially when looking at relationships. 

And there are even some terms within astrology that have been used for a long time, like certain signs are considered masculine or feminine. We also question those terminologies too, like what does that really mean, and try to figure out different ways of describing certain qualities that aren’t within a gender binary or aren’t necessarily framed by gender so that it can be most useful for everyone, regardless of how you identify. 

So, yeah. I think that piece, the free will piece, is also, I think, a huge piece in how we queer astrology in that I’ve talked to friends who have also refused astrology just because they’ve been told that certain things will happen to them at certain points in their lives, and it’s really predictive. And we want astrology to be empowering and help you feel like you can do things and get through things and, for lack of a better term, be your best self! 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

CANDACE: But in a way that really aligns with who you are and who you want to be. So, I think there’s just a lot of that empowerment element as well within astrology when we’re looking at it. It’s like, really, how can we use it for good and not for boxing people in or for disempowering people? Really, how do we use it as a tool to be more kind to ourselves, be more accepting, be more forgiving, be better to others, really understand and recognize areas in which we have to grow? I think those are just some of the ways that we’re trying to queer astrology. 

SOLEIL: It’s almost like a good way to have conversations about why am I like this, and why are you like this, without being tied to trauma, you know? 

CANDACE: Totally. I mean, I think being able to set some of your experiences within the astrology container really helps you be able to look at them. Or forgive yourself or be more kind to yourself when you do something. Like, “Ugh! There it goes with my moon in Aries again.” It’s like doing that thing, right? 

SOLEIL: [chuckles] 

CANDACE: Or why Mercury retrograde can be so powerful is when your phone dies or when your wifi isn’t working, you’re just like, “Ugh! Mercury retrograde.” 

But even just saying that helps relieve and release some of the tension around it, right? ‘Cause it’s bigger than you. And being able to see yourself as something not the entire center of the world and see yourself within the larger context, I think, is a really valuable perspective that astrology imbues you with if you’re looking at the world through an astro lens. 

SOLEIL: It seems like there’s a thin line, though, between forgiving yourself based on astrology and making excuses. [laughs] 

CANDACE: Oh yeah. Totally. [laughs] Totally! 

SOLEIL: Don’t feel offended that I’m being awful to you. I’m just a Scorpio. 

CANDACE: [laughs] 

SOLEIL: Right? 

CANDACE: Yeah! You could totally do that, you know? I think that leads us back to how are you using astrology for good and not evil? [laughs] 

[chill music] 

SOLEIL: So, moral quandaries aside, how does astrology work? To find that out, since birth charts are her school’s specialty, I gave Candace my birthdate, time of birth, and the general location of where I was born. But before we get to that, I asked her to explain the zodiac as a whole. 

CANDACE: The first things that I look at when I’m reading a chart are what we call in the astrology world the big three, which are your sun, moon, and rising signs. And your sun sign is the one that you’re probably most familiar with. It’s the one that’s like pop astro like, “What’s your sign?!” Most people respond with their sun sign. Your moon is the planet that really speaks to your emotions, your intuitive side, your inner life, your nourishment principle, like what nourishes you. And then your rising sign is literally the sign that was rising on the Eastern horizon when you were born. So, that’s why time matters with your rising sign. 

So, the sky, if you imagine, is divided into this delicious 12-sign pie, and— 

SOLEIL: Full of scorpions and crabs. 

CANDACE: [laughs] Full of scorpions and crabs and bulls and fish and all sorts of things. And each planet’s gonna reside in that slice for a certain period of time. And some planets exist in that slice for very, very long periods of time because they move super slowly. And some exist in that slice for very short periods of time because they move really quickly. So, yeah. The sun changes sign every month or so, which is why we have the 12 signs, 28 days-ish. Moon changes sign every two and a half days. And then rising is gonna change every two hours. So, again, that’s why sometimes the precision of your birth time matters, especially for your rising sign. 

And for you, your sun is in Virgo, your moon is in Libra, and your rising is also Libra. 

SOLEIL: I’ll post the chart on the episode page for all the other budding astrologers out there. Candace told me that I have a stellium, which is when you have more than three planets in the same sign. Virgo and Libra apparently inform a lot of things about me: my ambitions, my skills, and how I go after what I want. I guess I’m just really consistent! 

This is fun because it makes me think of what shit should I fix? 

CANDACE: [laughs] 

SOLEIL: My first instinct is oh god! How do I optimize all the things that I have to get the best outcomes? What’s interesting about the readings too is that they contextualize your behaviors and the ways in which you see yourself but in a non-judgmental way. 

CANDACE: Mmhmm. 

SOLEIL: You mentioned that there may be challenges or difficulties, but it’s not like saying, “You’re bad because of this,” or, “This is an awful part of you.” Or, “If only you did this, you wouldn’t be like this.” It’s very gentle. 

CANDACE: [chuckles] Yeah. No, I think astrology shouldn’t be used to place blame or criticize certain behaviors. I think, again, if we wanna use it as an evolutionary growth-oriented tool, it can be great for spotlighting different things that might be harder for you and things that might be easier for you. And so yeah, to be really gentle with yourself too and be like, “Oh, this makes sense, and this is how I tend to show up in the world.” And kind of see it reflected in astrology can be really validating and healing. 

SOLEIL: I also asked Claire to elaborate on that aspect of astrology. 

I think it can be hard for a lot of people to speak to their flaws and be honest. But maybe the signs give them a framework to talk about it in a way that isn’t judgmental or something that necessarily has to prompt self-loathing or hatred, but more just like, this is kind of my set-up. How do I deal with it? 

CLAIRE: Totally. I think part of it too, in addition too, there’s the not prompting self-loathing and also not feeling like you need to kind of sand down everything that’s weird or difficult about yourself, right? It’s just kind of part of your emotional landscape. And there are ways to deal with it, and there are ways to live with it. You don’t need to fix yourself. Fundamentally, everyone, deep down, everyone’s fine is kind of what astrology has given me anyway. And I think it’s something that people really need and respond to. 

[sweet, pensive music] 

SOLEIL: I wanna give a big thank you to Claire Comstock-Gay and Candace Kita for speaking with me for today’s show. 

This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by Buy Olympia, the original indie retailer, selling great things from independent artists since 1999. If you’re the kind of person who loves to buy cards, books, t-shirts, artwork, and just all-around cool stuff from independent creators, head on over to buyolympia.com and start browsing. We can’t promise that you’ll be able to leave our site without buying something, but we can promise that you’ll find something you unexpectedly love. Start the search today at buyolympia.com. 

[theme music] 

And thanks to you for listening to Popaganda. This episode of Popaganda was produced by Ashley Duchemin. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to atom tea for their cover of I Saw the Sign. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. If you have any thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email to soleil@b-word.org. Or just review us on iTunes. We love that! 

We’re also soliciting reader ideas for topics we could cover on future shows. So, please email your ideas for topics or even people you’d like to hear on the show if you’ve got ‘em! 

You can help make Popaganda possible. Become a Pollinator. Pollinators receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, and other great benefits. Become a Pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators. 

by Soleil Ho
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Soleil cooks for a living and writes sometimes. When she was in kindergarten, she reviewed a book for Reading Rainbow that she didn’t actually read. She cohosts Racist Sandwich, a podcast on food, race, class, and gender.

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