Sarah Gill explores the gendered perspectives of literature, media and pop culture.

"You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure."

Emily Ratajkowski used this quote as an epigraph, setting the pace for her new essay collection entitled My Body, almost 50 years after art critic John Berger made the initial observation in his 1972 book Ways of Seeing.

British film theorist Laura Mulvey put this particular phenomenon into words in the mid-70s, establishing that the male gaze refers to the objectification of women in media, which serves to highlight the dichotomy that exists between an active male lead and a passive female support.

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Whether it's describing its presence in art history dating back centuries or investigating its potency in modern personhood, the male gaze has thoroughly embedded itself in our culture, society and mindset.

Trickling down from the pages of books and big screens into our subconscious mind, the ubiquitous male gaze informs conventional beauty standards, perpetuates a binary view of gender and is probably responsible for that thing you’re insecure about.

The idealised version of a woman has been seen in many varied iterations, but usually manifests in the form of a devastatingly gorgeous woman whose skin, cleavage and body go well-documented, yet whose backstory is rarely explored. Allowing for the character development of the protagonist and adding just the right amount of sex appeal to keep people interested, the zeitgeist is littered with this one-dimensional version of womanhood.

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As with all things that are rife for a lampooning, the internet stepped in to comically castigate the literary greats. In 2018, one Twitter user challenged her followers to describe themselves like a male author would and - thousands of responses later - the universal perception seems to be that these writers have never actually met a woman.

From Twitter to Reddit, where one user parodied the phenomenon with "She breasted boobile to the stairs, and titted downwards" - which I actually think is quite beautiful - the conversation has since re-emerged on TikTok.

Soundtracked by Portishead’s Glory Box, videos creators pout all wide eyes and arched backs as they satirise the way women #WrittenByMen would, let’s say, sweep the floor when home alone. Now I don’t know about you, but there’s no way I’m doing even one piece of housework without a curly blowdry, full face of makeup and a pristine white négligée.

When a man writes a woman on her very worst day, they’re usually elbow deep in a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, lounging on a couch with smudged mascara and unbrushed hair. The worst part? Her heaving breasts have been swallowed up by some hideously oversized jumper is a display of dire despondency. To me, that sounds a lot like some well-deserved me time.

In a 2013 essay, Ester Bloom wrote that "it's not impossible to find good female characters in male writers' books… it's just harder than it should be." A microcosm of a patriarchal society, the male gaze has become internalised by pretty much everyone, regardless of gender.

Margaret Atwood calls it being your own voyeur, and it’s something that we’re all battling to detach ourselves from. It’s made women feel that they have to conform to an idealised standard of beauty and has made men feel as though vulnerability and femininity are signs of weakness, all while creating a binary gender lens.

Over the last ten years or so, we’ve seen the emergence of a female gaze within art, literature and pop culture, which subverts that which came before it and signals an emancipation from the monotony of the male gaze.

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While the name suggests that it may be a game of tit for tat (pardon the pun), the female gaze is not concerned with a glistening set of abs riding off into the sunset, but with the emotions and experiences felt by real, multi-faceted characters.

Shifting the perspective through which we consume media, the female gaze engages with energies - both feminine and masculine - and revels in the complexities that make each story unique.

Far from the stereotypical versions of women we’re used to, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Lena Dunham’s Girls are among those who have heralded in a new kind of leading lady; the unfettered, messy, complicated, flawed protagonist.

These works of millennial art deal with the varied intricacies of female life and the ramifications of their choices. They explore intoxicating highs and extremely low lows, the extraordinary and the mundane, and the myriad of other characters and love interests don’t just exist on the periphery, but contain multitudes that both compliment and challenge our protagonist.

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Bridgetron author Julia Quinn told The Telegraph that the sex scenes viewers called racy and raunchy were fundamental in the Netflix show’s subversion of the male gaze. This purposeful portrayal of prioritised female pleasure became revolutionary this time last year because the 'feminisation of intimacy’ was shown so scarcely on our screens.

While the male gaze prompted sardonic derision, the female gaze tends to have the opposite effect. Online, to be thought of as someone who might have been written by a woman is now the ultimate compliment.

Speaking to a person’s innermost workings, the likes of Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet fall under this umbrella for their perceived understanding of the nuances of femininity while falling beyond the stereotypical remit of masculinity. Is the bar on the floor? Maybe, but I digress.

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As with all good things, infallibility is an impossible expectation. Most of the people who are credited with having ushered in this new kind of female characterisation - Sally Rooney, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Lena Dunham, the list goes on - are white, privileged women from a middle class background.

While this does not diminish the impact of their work, being celebrated as an everywoman can have an othering effect on those who lie outside this realm of relatability. Should every work of art be made to reflect every single person’s varied lived experience? Absolutely not.

We’ve been calling out for ambitious female leads that paint women as three-dimensional beings for years, with perhaps the earliest coming in the form of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, in which she writes; "All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple... I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends… But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men."

The Bechdel Test exists to measure whether two fictional women are capable of talking about anything other than men, and a surprising number of movies still manage to miss the mark. While bestowing someone with the title of ‘the voice of a generation’ is ripe for an unpicking, these works of art are important steps in the right direction.

Being written by a woman allows men to lean into their feminine sides and show vulnerability in the same way that the female gaze allows women to feel seen and understood in a real way.

While there is still a ways to go, which involves more varied mainstream portrayals of alternative perspectives and a greater inspection of who falls under the universal ‘we’ of womanhood, these works of fiction based in our reality have marked real turning points in our culture.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.