Sometimes I feel really in-touch with America’s youths.
Like when I read a headline about how they don’t care about Joe Biden. “I, too, don’t care about Joe Biden!” I cry, pulling off my readers, rising up out of my Chesterfield, knees cracking, brandishing the physical copy of the newspaper, feeling positively nineteen again!
One of the trends I find a little mystifying is the return of interest in astrology. You know. Them little amminals that live in the sky and make us impulsive or conflict-avoidant or whatever. These proto-Pokemon (Capricorn = the Water Goat Pokemon, don’t @ me) are part of an ancient tradition of what we now call woo.
Woo (also called woo-woo) is a catch-all term for pseudoscientific models of thought that don’t hold up to much logical scrutiny, but are popular nonetheless because they simplify the world and appeal to the base human predisposition to find patterns, connections, and order in our extremely strange world.
The term woo can encompass a lot more—everything from the belief in ghosts to the belief in chem-trails. But I’m focusing today on types of woo that are meant to guide adherents through an understanding of the future and/or themselves, like astrology. Because consumption of those beliefs are growing rapidly.
From The Atlantic:
“Callie Beusman, a senior editor at Broadly, says traffic for the site’s horoscopes ‘has grown really exponentially.’ Stella Bugbee, the president and editor-in-chief of The Cut, says a typical horoscope post on the site got 150 percent more traffic in 2017 than the year before.”
So why is astrology making a comeback? I have no judgements, but many theories! And some recommendations for astrology-adjacent ideas that young people might find a little bit more rewarding.
Let’s get into it.
Astrology doesn’t ask us to change
Ask anyone who’s been in therapy for a long time: making progress requires incredibly hard work. It also requires time, money, energy, direction, and the fortitude to deeply examine a lot of unpleasant ideas. If you only talk about easy, surface-level things with your ‘pist, you probably ain’t making a lot of progress toward whatever goals you’ve set for yourself.
Many people use systems like astrology to gain self-knowledge and personal growth. But unlike therapy, astrology frames your life and personality as the product of external influences that are often outside of your control. And taking ownership of internal influences is an enormous amount of never-ending responsibility.
Humans LOVE external causes! External causes ain’t our faults!
“I snapped at my partner because I am an adult who can’t manage her own hanger” becomes “I snapped at my partner because Mars.” It’s easier to write Mars off as an immutable fact of the universe, instead of recognizing your shortcomings and proactively working to slowly shift your lifelong habits.
Also, yes, I am the mysterious unnamed woman who can’t control her hanger in that hypothetical—which is not hypothetical, it’s just my life.
Young people have had to cope with a lot of unprecedented changes. Is it any wonder they’re drawn to a system that doesn’t expect them to be a highly motivated change-agent for every single flipping thing?
Astrology has a low barrier to entry
There are lots of models that people use to understand more about themselves. Some are based on complicated conceptual theories of human psychology, like Myers-Briggs Type Indication. Others are silly and shallow and fictional, like contemplating what Divergent faction you might belong to. (Wow, that series really died a silent death, huh?)
Astrology is low-commitment TV for self-understanding. It’s something you can get into either shallowly or deeply. You can get your information from a supermarket checkout aisle rag or create customized star charts aligning the entire universe with your exact personal point of origin.
There isn’t really a wrong way to do it, which is honestly pretty relaxing to think about.
Astrology puts us where we want to be: at the center of the universe
Millennials, as we well know, have personally committed A Homicide on a long list of products, services, and abstract cultural concepts.
One of the murdered parties? Religion.
At no point in American history has religion polled so low. Young people are substantially less likely to believe in a god than their elders. Almost half of all people under the age of thirty list their religion, when asked, as “none.”
As a nonreligious person, this works a-okay for me! I think there are a lot of benefits to life in a secular world.
But there’s babies getting thrown out with that bathwater. Religion is a longstanding delivery method for a lot of good things: community, care-giving, charity, meditation, unity, purpose, justice.
What I miss most about being religious is the feeling of always having a safety net. It was nice to know that if I spun out on black ice on my way to Cincinnati on a snow white Christmas Eve, someone would be there to take the wheel. Like! That’s a real thing! That’s a real comfort.
Over the centuries we’ve learned that we aren’t all that special as a species. We used to think we were the center of the universe, but we aren’t. We used to think we were being benevolently watched over, but now we don’t. A system like astrology grounds us in an ancient human need to see ourselves as special and important. And it’s really nice to think that the stars hang in the sky just for us!
Astrology has adapted well to new modes of communication
Millennials invented memes; Gen Z perfected them.
Memes are Peak Culture. And systems like astrology are super well-adapted for memeification.
Here’s a random horoscope, rather typical of the variety that was popular from the 1930s to the very recent past:
“This is a tricky day with finances. Make friends with your bank account. If you are in big debt, the posse could be after you. Surprises with anything you own jointly with others could erupt today.”-Georgia Nicols for The Province
Hardly compelling by today’s standards.
Now, behold: a meme I made myself, in about three minutes!
See? See how easy it is?!
Funny. Recognizable. Relatable. Shareable. Content for our time! I bet you anything this image will get reposted somewhere and end up outperforming this article!
In researching this topic, I found on overwhelming number of blogs, apps, Pinterest boards, and Instagram accounts dedicated solely to creating and distributing horoscope information via memes. Even when they only use the written word, they’re still leaning into the kind of language and tropes that resonate with young people.
What does your zodiac sign say about you if you’re Taurus? In a nutshell, you really like to treat yo’ self.-Rebecca Lake for Chime Bank
What a poppin’ fresh Parks and Rec reference. The crazy thing is—Rebecca Lake is a real finance writer, with real expertise! And Chime Bank is a real bank, with real money! I kinda can’t believe this exists!
It goes to show you how adaptable astrology is: a belief system that fits in with Buzzfeed Quiz: Your Chipotle® Order Will Reveal Which Marvel® Avengers® Store-Bought Cake You’re Most Likely to Cry into When You Realize These Quizzes Are Nothing but Free Market Research with Random Outcomes!
Astrology is always right
Ah, confirmation bias. The odd quirk of our big monkey brains that causes us to lean on the scales when weighing new information. If it confirms what we already think is true, we hear it loudly; if it contradicts, we filter it out like we never read it at all.
Horoscopes are usually a list of loosely-related suggestions. And the ideas that seem “right” jump out to us, while the stuff that’s obviously wrong fades to the background. So they only need to get a small portion of things “right” for us to register them as true and correct in their entirety.
But objectively, study after study demonstrates that there is no link between the month you are born and the personality traits you possess. And thank god for that! I much prefer the sexually-charged tango of nature and nurture.
When I was reading descriptions of my own sign, I found myself nodding along and saying “yeah, sorta, I guess that’s true.” So out of curiosity, I ran a small experiment. I wrote down twelve traits I thought summarized me as a person.
Kitty describing Kitty: Efficient. Strategic. Witty. Assertive. Charismatic. Loyal. Insightful. Decisive. Protective. Arrogant. Domineering. Lazy.
Then I collected twelve traits commonly ascribed to my astrological sign (Pisces).
Astrology describing Kitty: Sensitive. Imaginative. Kind. Compassionate. Intuitive. Selfless. Idealistic. Romantic. Escapist. Weak-Willed. Fearful. Lazy.
We’re in agreement on laziness, and I’ll give them intuitive, but everything else is all over the place. Many are in direct opposition. (Weak-willed? Fearful?—I? MON DIEU!) Yet my general impression had been vaguely affirmative! Curse my human brain and its strange, illogical foibles.
There’s nothing wrong with liking astrology. Whether you hardcore believe in it or casually follow it, who cares? It’s pretty harmless. And a lot of the hand-wringing over its silliness is probably rooted in sexism. Because remember! Everything is dumber if wimmin like it!
That said, three caveats!
- Don’t make important decisions based on horoscopes. A lot of horoscopes nowadays seem to be written as general affirmations and platitudes. That’s awesome! Draw all the inspiration you want from them! But if you’re ready to date someone, or change jobs, or buy a house, or sit inside and eat cheese until you break out in Cheese Sweats, you are the only expert on what you need. Don’t let whatever’s written in a horoscope deter you from doing what needs to be done.
- Don’t climb into boxes built by other people. I’m struggling to think of what kind of life I would have today if I honestly believed myself to be what a Pisces is described to be: sensitive, kind, and weak-willed. No one ever used words like “ambitious” or “strategic” to describe me as a young person. I spent a lot of years of life discovering those words, and when I did, it brought me peace and clarity. Which I wish for all of you.
- The rate at which you acquire and spend money has nothing whatsoever to do with the distribution of other suns burning billions of light years away. No matter how much those suns sorta look like an aqua!goat when you squint on a clear night. If you’ve told yourself “I’m bad with money,” I am here to gently pry that label out of your hands forever. Handling money is a learned skill, not an indelible character trait.
Alternatives to astrology
Astrology is nothing more than the application of a system to try to understand more about yourself and your place in the world. And I have good news: there are so, so many choices of systems you can investigate!
Therapy isn’t available to everyone, and it isn’t necessarily for everyone. But it’s also the best tool we have for helping people understand who they are and why they act the way they do.
Friends are excellent mirrors to help us see our strengths and weaknesses. I’m happy to have found friends who respect me and expect good things of me. Out of curiosity, I asked three close friends to describe me in four words.
Kitty’s close friends describing Kitty: Insightful. Ambitious. Determined. Powerful. Considerate. Noble. Generous. Genius. Stunning. Fierce. Manipulative. Cunning.
I didn’t agree with my partner who kindly described me as “considerate,” but I DID agree with Piggy who slipped that manipulative in there and immediately tried to claw it back with “strategic.” THE SHADE OF IT ALL!
All of that is super aligned with how I view myself! There’s no higher human social need than to be understood. So even the negative terms make me happy because <shrug> they true!
We’ve written a little bit about the intersection of Myers-Briggs personality types, and the differences in how they approach careers and money. The difference between a Myers-Briggs personality type and a horoscope is that the former is based on you as an individual across a number of selective traits, and the other is predicated on literally everyone who shares your birthday.
Reading about your type may lead you to insights about yourself you wouldn’t otherwise discover.
Myers-Briggs describing Kitty: Efficient. Energetic. Confident. Strong-Willed. Strategic. Charismatic. Stubborn. Dominant. Intolerant. Impatient. Arrogant. Ruthless.
Woo-hoo! YMMV, but for me, MBTI is #accurate. By necessity, it’s based on simplifications of human behavior. But those simplifications are magnitudes more complex than “what day were you born lol.”
Enneagrams are another framework for understanding personalities, similar to Myers-Briggs. What I like about Enneagrams is that their descriptions encompass people at their best and at their worst. I’ve definitely observed that when people are stressed out, they act less like their true selves.
Enneagrams describing Kitty: Energetic. Empowering. Direct. Confident. Inspiring. Resilient. Loyal. Compassionate. Protective. Loud. Domineering. Vengeful.
Right on, dude, right on.
I use the term “sorting hats” as a broad catch-all referring to fictional systems of personality categorization. They were really big in young adult literature for, oh, approximately 10,000 years.
- The Harry Potter fandom has Hogwarts Houses, but also Patronus tests and wand tests and god knows what else.
- A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) has its great houses.
- The Hunger Games had its districts.
- The Divergent fandom (hello—is there anyone alive out there?) had its factions.
- The Seventh Tower books have their color-coded social system.
- The Wind of Fire books have their castes.
- Graceling had its Graces.
There are tons and tons of fictional systems that are interesting to think about. And we’ll probably keep writing them! In a turbulent time like ours, young adults feel an understandable need to define themselves and join like-minded communities.
Don’t let anybody tell you it’s a waste of time! Thinking about yourself and learning about yourself are healthy habits, and you can arrive at them however you damn well please!
“Did this bitch really just shit on astrology as unscientific woo, then turn around and tout tarot cards as a legitimate alternative?” Why yes, I am That Bitch!
I’m an artist. A household name tech company pays me six figures to make art that positions their brand. When Piggy says I’m manipulative, this is one of the manifestations of that trait: I understand how to use visual symbols to whisper to your subconscious. If you walk past an ad I’ve designed, I’ve told you that my product is luxurious, or affordable, or ethical, even if all you did was glance at it without stopping to read a word.
That’s why I love tarot cards. I firmly believe that there is nothing magical, mystical, or supernatural about them. Yet something interesting happens when you present your brain with a random assortment of images loaded with potential meaning (like, IDK, a crawdad interrupting a tense conversation between a dog and a coyote).
Our brains have incredible processing power. We notice a lot, and consciously study only a tiny percentage of it. Those symbols can stir our subconscious and float new concepts up to the surface. The cards don’t “tell you” shit. Sadly, they can’t communicate, because they are bits of paper. But it’s just a fun way to organize all the thoughts you already thought.
Plus tarot artwork is a genre unto itself. Whether you like minimalism, abstraction, old stuff, trendy stuff, meditations on Asian diaspora… Tons of gorgeous conceptual artwork, often by under-appreciated artists.
I will say that the increasing popularity of astrology among young people does have me a little worried.
As they say in Animorphs: “Earth is a tough neighborhood.” The best defense is a good offense. Skepticism is your pal. You’re less likely to be taken advantage of if you think about things critically and demand extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.
I think the most comforting aspect of astrology is the idea that somebody out there knows what’s going on. They can read the invisible signs, and tap-tap-tap on their keyboards, and suddenly there’s a perfect forecast with all the answers you need. But life just doesn’t work that way. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Nobody. And that’s a thought to keep you cold on warm nights.
It makes me think of this line, from the highly underrated reprise of “Wicked Little Town.”
“You think that luck has left you there
But maybe there’s nothing up in the sky but air.
And there’s no mystical design
No cosmic lover, preassigned.
There’s nothing you can find that cannot be found.
‘Cause with all the changes you’ve been through
It seems the stranger’s always you.
Okay Bitch Nation. What are your thoughts on woo? Where do you stand with this kind of stuff? Have you found it helpful? Relaxing? Defining? Or do you roll your eyes at the whole thing? I mean, yeah, if it wasn’t clear, that’s pretty much where I’m at. But it’s respectful eye-rolling, I swear!
Tell us in the comments below!
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