The old school image of Aussie males is now out fashion

The great Aussie male stereotype, the strong, stoic, square-jawed package of muscles and manliness we know so well, may not be dead, but he's extremely unwell.

The data is in. Both in Australia, and internationally, there is a perceptible shift in what we understand masculinity to be, and what we want it to be. The insight didn't come from government census information or a funded-up think tank.

Instead, it's the images we chose, to tell our stories, that show us who we are becoming.

Our own image

With more than a billion searches last year, the data from Getty Images and iStock shine an extraordinary light on our changing attitudes, revealing what we're really looking for, in a deeper way.

In the last year, there has been a 53 per cent increase in searches for "gay dads", a 126 per cent increase in images of "man meditation" and a 60 per cent increase in "single father" searches.

"We've also seen an increase in searches for 'men crying', which shows people are using words to try to get to the more emotional side of imagery. There's also been an increase in searches for quieter moments, men contemplating, thinking, meditating, not necessarily 'doing'," says Rebecca Swift, Global Director of Creative Insights at Getty Images.

That's part of the bigger shift, a fascinating trend away from traditional masculinity and a desire for more images showing men being soft, caring, loving and emotional.

Insightful choices

Swift has been part of building the "insights" service provided by Getty for more than 20 years.

"Our role is to look at the content and meaning of the imagery choices over time, beyond simply filling space on a page," she says.

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"The data gives you a rationale and an argument in a commercial environment. I can't talk about the things I'm seeing in a 'fluffy, fashion-y' way. The data we have gives me a foundation to build these strategies and ideas," she says.

It was a collaboration with Australia's national mental health charity, SANE Australia, in 2016, that focused thinking around men and how they are visually represented.

The collaboration revealed how powerfully imagery influences our perceptions.

Busting stereotypes

"While community attitudes towards the way we speak about mental illness, along with the Australian media's reporting of this complex issue, are among the most responsible in the world, the way mental illness is visually portrayed remains a concern for many Australians, especially associations with violence," says Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia.

"Male mental health is a global issue. Male suicide and domestic violence data shows something is terribly wrong," says Swift. (In Australia, on average, six men commit suicide every day, compared to two women.)

"We came to the point of view that masculinity needs to be less stereotypical, through looking at men's mental health. Men need to be able to show their emotions and discuss their feelings. So, understanding that, global brands are taking on male mental health and gender stereotypes as their mission."

She says companies like Unilever and Proctor and Gamble, some of the biggest advertisers in the world, with brands like Lynx and Gillette, understand that by showing men as diverse, emotional and vulnerable, they create a deeper connection with hard to reach male consumers.

Social becomes visual

Advising clients on the changing face of masculinity – and other social trends – is a core element of Swift's job.

"We look a social trends and how they become visual trends.  How you photograph your breakfast for instagram right now might have an impact on food photography, many years down the line, for example," she says.

It is brands that "stand for something", rather than the ones trying to "sell us something" that will be successful in the future, she says.

She sees a strong element of social responsibility in her work.

"We are encouraging communities, and individuals, to reflect themselves, to give representation to the unrepresented," she says.

See it, be it

"We have a saying internally, which is 'If you can't see it, you can't be it'," she says. "It's our responsibility to make sure people can "see it."

She would love to see people in media and advertising who select pictures for their day to day work, use the same intuitive, emotional mindset they would in choosing an image for their personal Instagram. "We try to encourage that same mentality in image choice in branding, or storytelling," she says.

"I'd love to be some kind of evangelist, just travelling around, telling people to be kinder to human kind in their image choices."

It's the same for women, cultural diversity and even depictions of age.

Picture of the future

In 2007, Getty's top-selling image of a woman showed a "model", naked in a bed covered by a sheet. Just five years later, she's instead leading business meeting, working in engineering and science or an athlete.

But we've got a long way to go before the world's websites, media, marketing and advertising start depicting masculinity as something other than a one-dimensional stereotype.

"I think we're seeing the start of challenging stereotypes," she says. "Then comes questioning, then come answers and, then, a big step forward."

It's the brands that understand this, and offer a more broad visual depiction of what a man is in the future, that will be speaking to their consumers with authenticity, and, ultimately, success.

The pictures we chose to represent ourselves today are, ultimately, showing us a picture of who we will be tomorrow.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher Allen & Unwin. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

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