A Queen Within: Understanding Femininity From a Unique Perspective

“How did it make you feel, being in the presence of so many different kinds of femininities?”

Privileged. Misplaced. Proud. Enduring. Inspired. Like I was a stranger in a strange land.

For the Yesler and Projectline employees who visited MoPOP’s “A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes”—a Seattle exhibit exploring the relationship between contemporary fashion and six female archetypes—describing the experience revealed a shared understanding: that femininity isn’t a sparkling Swarovski crystal shirt. It isn’t a pointy pair of black suede pumps, or the heavy-lidded gaze of an old Hollywood starlet.

It’s more. It’s less. It’s everything, and nothing. It’s—complicated.

“A Queen Within” focuses on the way contemporary fashion designers characterize six different female archetypes: Heroine, Enchantress, Mother Earth, Sage, Explorer, and Thespian. Each archetype exhibit features outfits and accessories from fashion houses like Alexander McQueen, Prada, and Chanel, as well as a description of the archetype and its symbols within pop culture. The exhibit encouraged attendees to consider ways that femininity manifests in their lives.

“I realized that femininity is both what the word means to us as individuals and it’s how other people react to it,” said Riana Manuel, Marketing Operations Program Manager. “It’s never the same thing all the time.”

“Nobody has it all figured out yet, and maybe we never will. Maybe we don’t have to—maybe that’s the point,” added Maggie Jurges, Project Manager.

The group visited the event as part of Empower Play (ePLAY), a womxn’s affinity group at Projectline and Yesler that builds strong communities of and for womxn. Founded by a small group of Marketing Operations employees, ePLAY maintains a safe space for womxn to talk about issues they face at work, in an industry historically dominated by men. With its two-year anniversary just around the corner, ePLAY now welcomes close to 75 active members for outings, panel discussions, and seminars that help promote a diverse and inclusive culture at work.

Discussions of femininity and its expressions are central to that safe space—but as it turned out, finding their places among the archetypes at “ A Queen Within” posed an unexpected (but not unwelcome) challenge for the attendees. Each related differently to the space, bringing their own unique histories and experiences to bear, asking: “What does femininity mean for me, and how do I draw power from it?”

For some, the answers to that question were surprising.

Riana thought she would most closely identify with the Heroine archetype, the tenacious warrior, but found herself connected to the Enchantress—the femme fatale, the sensualist. “The Enchantress is very alluring and I’ve never thought of myself that way at all,” Riana said. “There was a disconnection between what I thought I knew about myself and what I felt at that moment.”

She added, “Growing up, all of my interests weren’t really ‘feminine’ things—like video games. I never felt like one whole person because I could never be fully myself in any of those spaces, and that informed how I thought of myself as a girl. Because I wasn’t a girl—I felt like I had to be five different girls, and I needed to decide how I wanted to perform them.”

Sarah Hamer, Project Manager, felt similarly: “I didn’t feel like I belonged in any of the archetype descriptions,” she said. “I liked bits and pieces of all of them, but none of them really fit me.”

Instead, Sarah said that if she could create her own archetype, it would be infused with color, texture, whimsy, and wonder. Hers would be a playful representation, a little bit of everything. The description would depict a womxn always on-trend, fearless and full of life. It might borrow from the exhibit’s archetypes, but in the end would be something totally new—totally her, feminine in a way that felt true for her.

For Alyssa Jorgensen, Data Process Manager, the relationship between fashion, performance, and the self was likewise powerful, with real-life results: “What I wear can make me feel more daring, like Alexander McQueen’s style,” she said. “I want to draw inspiration from him. His designs went big and bold. I want to carry that with me while I’m at work as I’m trying to assert myself in front of clients and my team. It’s easier to feel and be bold when I dress bold. Lessons learned from fashion!”

Visiting “A Queen Within” was far from ePLAY’s first entry into dialogues regarding femininity and its many representations. Last August, the group held a company-wide Lunch & Learn focused on intersectionality and its role at work, featuring panelists with distinguished and diverse backgrounds. Earlier, in March, ePLAY tackled the gender wage gap with a panel on salary negotiation, led by Sage Quiamno, cofounder of Future For Us, an organization dedicated to the advancement of womxn of color.

But though the exhibit wasn’t the first—and certainly not the last—of the group’s events, its power still resonated with ePLAY members, especially Sarah.

“It made me really proud, seeing all the different ways womxn can express themselves through what we wear now,” she said. “It reminded me how far we’ve come. I left feeling hopeful and inspired. Whatever femininity is—it’s awesome.”