William Lakin’s study of masculinity explores the tension and discomfort of its performed gestures

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Informed by his experience as a millennial Western man, Lakin mediates on dated yet prevalent masculine stereotypes

Most millennials – the generation of people born between 1980 and 1995 – were raised in a society that believed in and imposed traditional gender roles. As babies, boys wore blue and girls wore pink, and as children, popularity hinged, in part, on how well one conformed to the favoured gendered stereotypes. But as millennials grew into adults, the notion of gender as a social construct gained momentum in the mainstream. Now, these gendered roles, and the systems that impose them, are being challenged more than ever. 

“Millennial men are caught between those two worlds,” says William Lakin, whose latest project, Five Minutes After Birth, responds to the social conditioning of masculinity in modern Western societies. “We’ve been brought up with a traditional sense of masculinity, and, now, we’re having to adapt. Obviously this is a good thing, but it does mean that many people have internal contradictions.” For Lakin, the contradiction lies between his fascination with combat sports, but his disdain for masculine traits such as aggression or bullying. “We become aware of these traits at school, which is one of the most obvious contexts for social hierarchies: the boys who are bigger and harder get the most respect. From then on, you’re aware of that hierarchy, even though you don’t make sense of it at the time.”

© William Lakin.
© William Lakin.

“I’m playing with how different contexts can shape how we view things. Take away one or two of the ingredients, and things can fall apart very quickly”

© William Lakin.

Lakin’s project, which currently takes the form of a dummy book, explores these dated, yet prevalent, masculine traits. While some images directly address hyper-masculine physiques, or traits such as aggression and control, Lakin’s research into gender theories informs other more conceptual images too. Excerpts from interviews with men, aged between 27 to 40, who were asked to define masculinity without using “shortcut terms” like man, woman, masculine or feminine, accompany the photographs. “None of them managed to do it,” says Lakin. “It makes you realise how difficult these things are to articulate.”

“I’m also trying to explore how ambiguous these things can be,” Lakin continues. There is a thin line between hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism, for example: “The muscular physique has traversed both of those worlds, even though people might think that they’re completely opposite,” he explains. So much of our gendered identities are communicated through visual signifiers, and Lakin shows how these can be distorted. Men in white underwear mimic poised and contorted bodybuilders and combat fighters. “Take away the muscles, the stage and the audience, and it looks faintly ridiculous,” says Lakin. “I’m playing with that, and how different contexts can shape how we view things. Take away one or two of the ingredients, and things can fall apart very quickly.”

Although the project is critical, Lakin regards it more as a study. “It’s certainly not a positive project… But I’m not necessarily trying to demonise all men, or masculinity completely. If we want to make long-lasting changes regarding social hierarchies, it’s important to understand how impermanent they are, and how made-up a lot of it is,” he comments. “That’s when you can start to tease it apart and show it to be performative.”

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.