From soccer dad to diaper dad: the changing representation of fathers in the media

Early next month Kiwis will be celebrating Father’s Day. The one time of the year where dads (if they’re lucky) they will get toast in bed, maybe some chocolate and hopefully a lashing of affection and appreciation from the family. This is also the time when a lot of dad-inclusive advertising comes out, often promoting things like lawn mowers and DIY renovation equipment. But the idea of the dad is changing, and gradually this is being reflected in our advertising. Dad is no longer just into power tools, he also likes staying in and reading books with the kids, cooking and taking on what has traditionally been considered ‘feminine’ roles. Here’s Getty Images’ vice president of creative content’s take on the evolution of the dad and what this shows about our shifting perceptions.

The taunt, ‘my dad’s stronger than your dad’, has been uttered in New Zealand school playgrounds for decades. Increasingly though, the image of the archetypal father resonates less and less with a modern audience, as society evolves the traditional stereotypical gender roles are being questioned. Strong New Zealand dads are no longer only good for sports days and DIY, but as supportive caregivers too.

One of the most interesting parts of my role at Getty Images is looking at how cultural, social and visual trends impact on and influence each other. Last year Getty Images partnered with Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.Org to create a collection of thousands of authentic and powerful images of women, girls and the communities who support them. Now we’ve turned our focus onto creating a new collection showing the shift in perception around what it means to be ‘masculine’. The findings reveal a clear change in how society views men, and, more specifically, the role of the father.

In 2007 the most downloaded image of fatherhood was a dad watching soccer with his son. That undoubtedly reinforces the stereotype and is now beginning to feel a little clichéd, it comes as no surprise then that the most downloaded image of a father in 2015 shows a dad reading a tablet with his daughter. As a reflection of a more, let’s say ‘functional’ part of fatherhood, we also noticed that over the last five years there has been a sevenfold increase in searches with the keywords ‘dad changing nappy’!

So, as a father myself, and knowing what the real world brings to being a ‘Dad’, it’s reassuring to see a more genuine visual representation of parenthood emerging.

However, I can’t help but question whether the shift in perception seen within our images is being mirrored enough across the wider media we consume. One step towards this is Dove’s ‘Real Strength’ advertisements that celebrate what it really means to be a father based on research looking at how men perceive masculinity within the media, and in particular, masculinity in relation to fatherhood.

Dove’s findings echoed the idea that the media and marketing industry at large needs to catch up with the perceptions that New Zealand fathers have of themselves to reflect their changing attitudes: 86 per cent of Kiwi men agree the concept of masculinity has changed since their father’s generation, and nine out of ten believe showing care is a sign of strength. Despite this, only 7 percent of Kiwi men say they can relate to how masculinity is depicted in the media.

Our culture is reflected within the media and images have the power to drive change; therefore it seems only right that if our perception of fatherhood is changing in society, the images we see should also. Although Dove’s ‘Real Strength’ campaign was a great start, its message needs to be wider spread. As consumers, we’re more influenced by visuals that speak honestly and realistically to us and we’re increasingly drawn to products that are marketed to us in authentic ways that reflect our values.

 As this trend in imagery leans more towards the softer side of fathers, perhaps New Zealand fathers can embrace ourselves as story-tellers and nurturers, as well as the dad that can build the tree-house. We should be questioning the depiction of dads as football crazy and calamity cooks!

The changes we’ve seen in the most downloaded images of fathers in the last few years supports the fact that an evolution is occurring. Businesses, brands and corporations are responding to the change in the portrayal of fatherhood.

 It’s important that media challenges the perception of modern day gender roles more. The images we’re surrounded by, from morning television to the billboards seen on the way into work, should speak for the culture we live in and are striving towards. If we keep moving in the direction of change then that is exactly where we will end up.

It’s one small step for challenging visual stereotypes, one giant leap for dad-kind.

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