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Julia Molony: Knickers to nauseating niceties: we're ditching decorum and getting real

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Romola Garai at the 2013 Arqiva British Academy Television Awards at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

Romola Garai at the 2013 Arqiva British Academy Television Awards at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

PA

Romola Garai at the 2013 Arqiva British Academy Television Awards at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

PERHAPS it started with Bridesmaids, maybe it continued with Girls. But something has changed among women recently. It's in the way they address each other collectively, and the things they are now prepared to say.

It was crystallised in a moment at the Baftas last Sunday night when Romola Garai, the beautiful, bright and glamorous movie star with a face like an angel, made a hilarious joke in front of a television audience of millions about the vaginal tear she sustained when giving birth to her daughter.

Stepping up to announce the winner of the category of best male performance in a comedy programme, Garai's opening gambit went like this: "After the recent birth of my child, I had the misfortune of having 23 stitches in my vagina. So I didn't think I'd be laughing at anything for a long time – but tonight's nominees have proved me wrong."

In that moment, something cracked. The long history of women in public life seeming restricted by the expectation to appear primarily decorous and decorative was joyfully swept away.

And thank God. Because decorum doesn't wash any more. We live in a world where it's commonplace for paparazzi to drop their cameras as famous women get out of limos in a bid to catch a shot of camel toe. There's little gentility out there any more. Behaviour that in previous times would probably have been classed as a kind of sexual assault (not only for celebrities but for all women everywhere who are photographed and exposed in such an intimate way without explicit consent) is instead a growing internet trend. And it's fair game for men with telescopic lenses to stick their camera where they want outside awards ceremonies, because nothing says publishing pay dirt like a stolen shot of celebrity labia.

With such a premium on pudenda pictures, it stands to reason that the finest form of rebellion against this is for women to reclaim that entity for themselves.

It's happening elsewhere too, of course. On Girls, Lena Dunham deconstructs our obsession with female bodies, putting hers out there without ceremony or self-consciousness. It is offered neither as an object of desire nor a stick to beat herself with but rather simply as a point of fact – almost mundane in its relentless exposure. It's the sheer unblinking reality of her body that is so revolutionary. And so it was with Romola Garai too, as she punctured the fashion and entertainment industries' obsession with female desirability by conjuring with surgical detail, an image of her traumatised genitals. Not vajazzled, not waxed and buffed, but torn and bruised by childbirth.

Other women in the public eye race to shed any hint of postpartum untidiness, breaking the bank on personal trainers and special diets in order to be glamorously desirable in record time. Perhaps they are anxious not to miss so much as a day of their sex symbol dollars. But not Garai, who is clearly more interested in being nonchalant, daring and witty. Of course, in the process she ended up winning herself thousands more fans and seemed eminently desirable. Not just because of her beauty, which is self-evident, but because she's not so precious about her femininity that she can't laugh about it. And above all, because she's smart and clearly a hoot to be around.

There's plenty yet to retaliate against. For every step of progress that Lena Dunham makes, there's another cultural pull in the opposite direction. Most recently, it was a television show in Denmark, the format of which is that a woman enters a studio and drops her robe to allow a panel of men to appraise, criticise and scrutinise her naked body. The rationale behind the concept has been described by the eponymous host Blachman thus: "The female body thirsts for words. The words of a man."

The ensuing controversy has been huge, which almost seems surprising when you consider that all this show has done is take an accepted aspect of our day-to-day lives – the public scrutiny of female bodies – and structure it into a television format. We absorb reams of this stuff daily: the internet is full of it, as are many magazines, not to mention so much of the casual, day-to-day conversations held around the kitchen table, in the office, down the pub.

It's because of this that we've so much need for voices like those of Garai and Dunham, female voices that are loud and explicit and spare no details in their jokes. These are the voices that will take the subject of their own bodies and talk back, in direct rebellion against a wider culture that focuses on women's importance as ornaments rather than people.

Irish Independent