02/06/2016 13:06 BST | Updated 03/06/2017 06:12 BST

Photophillia: What Our Reactions to a Family Photograph Say About Men and Care

In recent weeks, the photo below has circulated widely online. It was subject to extensive discussion, much of which was negative, and was even removed from several social media sites for its alleged explicit content. The photo was taken by a mother (who is a photographer by profession) of her husband and son, sat together in the shower when her son was unwell.


Photo by Heather Whitten

The photograph, (and others like it, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/torben-chris-a-bath-with-your-child-is-not-paedophilia-says-danish-comedian-a6775671.html;) has received widespread criticism, and it is the nudity of father and child in particular that has caused so much comment. Having raised a provocative, polarizing question about whether the photo was disgusting or beautiful, the BBC noted that, "for some people the image is inappropriate at best and at worst has undertones of paedophilia".

The article goes on to compare the response to this photo to that of a mother in a not dissimilar pose (with her small child in the shower). The response on social media to this photo was described by the BBC as "overwhelmingly positive"; a total contrast. In today's society it seems a mothers love, intimacy and nudity with her child is perceived as 'beautiful', whereas a fathers, is viewed as at best, unpleasant, at worst, seriously accusatory.

The debates raised by these images reflect a concerning reality that many men face. The authors have heard worrying anecdotes about experiences that men have had that reflect some of these negative attitudes. Some examples include friends reporting that it was ok for a woman to speak to children that lived on their street, but not for them as men. Similarly, tales of wives apologising on behalf of their husbands and saying they 'meant no harm', when all they had done was shown friendly interest in a small child. These attitudes bear out in research too. Across a number of studies many men have reported that showing interest in, or being kindly towards, children is not currently socially acceptable, and makes them feel anxious that they may be thought of as a paedophile. In a context of heightened awareness about historical, high profile cases of child sexual abuse perpetrated by men, we appear to be living in a society that conflates all men with the media's popularised portrayal of the 'unknown male stranger', as someone who could harm children.

Yet men care, and cherish and nurture, just as women do. This is what Heather Whitten's photo of her husband shows; a man caring for an ill small child. The fact that his child was unwell does not make this exceptional; caring happens in big and small ways each and every day, because loving others means wanting and doing the best for them. That a man was happy to share with others his example of caring and intimacy as a father should be seen as positive and unremarkable, just as when a woman chooses to do so.

Such ideas are culturally and historically embedded. Within society, women have historically been constructed as caregivers and providers of intimate love and attention for their offspring. Men's roles within the family have often centred on other, less intimate and embodied aspects or care such as providing, educating and disciplining. Despite the fact that families have changed in their formations over recent decades, and women are now more represented within the workforce, reactions to this photo demonstrate that views around the acceptability of men being caring and intimate with their children have not moved on very far (and certainly not far enough).

Such attitudes serve to further reinforce constructed gendered views about the roles of men and women within society. Reinforcement through 'disgust' and assumptions that it is unacceptable, or even unnatural, for men to be caring/intimate, further replicates the idea that care/child care is 'women's work'. Men's (naked) bodies are not seen as something that should be in proximity to children, whereas women's are. Therefore not only do men continue to feel 'locked out' of being able to demonstrate the caring and intimate aspects of fatherhood and family life, but women also remain 'locked in' to those aspects, as if they are 'their' domains or responsibility.

Responding equitably to visible representations of family life is an important part of moving agendas forwards and in supporting and allowing shifts in how we think about care and who gives, and receives it. This involves acceptance that care is something we all do in varied ways, regardless of gender.

By Dr Esmée Hanna, Dr Anna Tarrant and Prof. Steve Robertson.