Actor Justin Baldoni on ‘Un-Defining’ Masculinity
Actor Justin Baldoni, best known for his starring role on the hit TV show “Jane the Virgin,” is co-founder of Wayfarer Entertainment, a cause-driven media studio focused on creating content that highlights inspiration, unity, and the power of human connection. In addition to developing projects from ideation through release, Baldoni created the dinner conversation series, “Man Enough,” which dives into traditional masculinity while focusing on topics like body image, relationships, and fatherhood. His 2017 TED Talk “Why I’m done trying to be man enough” went viral.
We spoke with Baldoni about family, gender roles, and his own personal journey.
1. You've said you realized after 30 years that you were in conflict with who you felt you were in your core and with who the world was telling you as a man you should be. Tell us a bit about that revelation and how it unfolded for you.
I’m not sure I would call it a revelation as much as a gradual unfolding or realization that I was having this sort of internal civil war far more often then I would have liked. This is a battle I’m still fighting. There are so many layers to this—I am still unfolding them, and I think I might be for the rest of my life. I don’t really see it as work that just ends one day, as this is stuff that has been burned into the innermost workings of my subconscious. Growing up, we get all these messages–positive and negative–from our family, the playground, our peers, and the media about who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act, talk, walk and look in order to be considered a man or to be accepted as being “man enough.” After being in the entertainment industry for several years I started really looking at the roles that I was getting offered. They were all for characters and storylines that were the exact opposite of how I saw myself. I was far more insecure than the men I was playing. I’ve always found it odd that people saw me one way, but I felt so differently about myself. While part of what I love about acting is being able to dive into a character and live inside someone who is very different from me, over time I made the connection that even off-screen I was pretending to be a man that I am not. I found myself taking on the role that was prescribed to me by all the messages we tell boys and men, the messages passed down to me by my own father who inherited them from his. I pretend to have it together when I am falling apart. I pretend to be confident when I feel wildly insecure. I pretend to be tough when I am hurting, both emotionally and physically.
I don’t know what came first–the revelation that I was trying to be man enough for everyone else all the time, or the exhaustion that comes when you’re trying to be man enough for everyone else all the time. Either way, that was the beginning of me leaning into this journey and leaning into the conflict that I felt in myself.
2. Many boys and girls are told from a young age that boys are tough and girls are weak. How do we change what you call a broken definition of masculinity? How can we in our own communities and households help move the needle?
First and foremost, we have to be aware of it, but I really don’t think we should be trying to define it. If anything, we should be un-defining it. It’s in the definition that we end up hurting ourselves and excluding, and it’s that exclusion that perpetuates and breeds that fear and anxiety that we aren’t enough just as we are. We have to be aware that it is a problem—that the box of masculinity that we are praised and policed into is not working from a holistic standpoint, or really for anyone. And it doesn’t just include men, it includes everyone.
I don’t have the answers on how to fix this. I’m not an academic or a socialist (it’s a miracle I even have a TED Talk), but I think it comes down to awareness and accountability. Personally, I often talk about taking the journey from my head to my heart and how I have to be consciously taking an inventory of what’s going on in my head and how it relates to what’s going on in my heart because, for me, that’s often where the conflict lies. My heart may be feeling overwhelmed or depressed, but my head is telling me to “man up,” so being conscious of that is the first step for me. That said, even the language of being able to listen to your heart isn’t something we as men are taught by the other men in our lives, so it has to start with our children. Raising our boys to grow up to become full, dynamic, emotionally intelligent human beings must become a priority.
In the meantime, I think it’s just allowing that inner work to ripple out into your other relationships, be it your partner, children, a parent, colleagues, etc. It’s one thing to allow ourselves as men to show our emotions, but it’s an entirely different thing to allow ourselves as men to be vulnerable. We have to get past the idea that it’s weak. It’s not.
3. You often use your platform to share personal stories of vulnerability. How do we give permission to other men to be openly emotional and to ask for help?
Something that I continually remind myself of, and I am lucky to have an incredible wife and close friends who remind me when I forget, is that I have to be willing to get comfortable in the uncomfortable. Being vulnerable is really, really uncomfortable. Asking for help is uncomfortable. Sharing about shame that you feel or a deep-seeded fear you have is uncomfortable. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but it sure as hell is for me. But here’s what I’ve learned—if I am experiencing shame around something in my life, then it means l better not ignore it. I can then take that paralyzing feeling of shame as an invitation to dive straight into it, no matter how scary it is. By diving in, by being vulnerable, it takes the power away from it and it inevitably invites others to do the same. It gives people permission to share their shame stories, to share their fears and to ask for support.
One way to look at it is in the gym, which is an analogy that a lot of us men can relate to. When you are training for a sport or working out and you get injured, you can either just keep going and suck it up and not tell anyone about it, or you can listen to it. Nurse it. Rehab it. If you pay attention to it, then you dive into the pain and fix what’s actually wrong and strengthen the injury. If you ignore it and push through it, nine times out of ten you re-injure it and risk causing permanent damage. This is how I think about vulnerability. Having an injury doesn’t mean you’re weak, it just means you found an area that needs a little extra work and support. If we as men could think of our inner emotional lives in the way we think about our bodies and train just as hard, I think one by one we would see men giving each other permission. The problem is we haven’t created a balanced society where the inner parts of ourselves are as publicly celebrated or rewarded as the physical and material accomplishments. Until we start to weigh our inner work on the same level, we will more than likely have imbalance.
To simplify, I think we give permission to other men to be open about their emotional lives and to ask for help when we ourselves are open and ask for help. It has to be modeled.
4. Part of your message about redefining masculinity has been focused on your family — showing young men that “being a man” can also mean loving and prioritizing your family. How has fatherhood changed or contributed to your perception of what it means to be “man enough?” How do you plan to speak to your children about masculinity — and femininity, for that matter?
Having children is like holding a giant mirror up to yourself. ALL. OF. THE. TIME. So, becoming a father has been a catalyst and an inspiration for the depth of this journey for me. Your kids don’t care if you’re successful, or famous, or man enough. Your kids care that you’re present, that you’re there. And for me at least, simply being present is one of the most difficult things in the world. I am constantly moving a hundred different directions, working on so many different projects, so I’m constantly working (and failing and trying again) at getting out of my own way and allowing myself to see what they see in me: that who I am, as I am, is enough.
Right now, our kids are still really young, so we aren’t directly talking about masculinity and femininity as much as we are just affirming all of their unique traits, regardless of where they fall on society’s gender spectrum. We tell Maiya she’s brave and strong, and we let her wear the princess dresses that she LOVES to wear. We tell Maxwell it’s okay to cry, and while we also tell him he is brave and strong, we first tell him he is kind, sweet, and loving. We name emotions that he might be feeling while letting him be who he is. And, if Maxwell wants to wear his sister’s tutu, he can rock it, too.
For us, it’s not a one or two-time conversation, it’s going to be ongoing and continually unfolding as they grow up and experience different messages. We are just doing our best to provide a foundation where they have the awareness, the language, and the security in their own worth, so that even when they get shaken by a competing message, they still can fall on that solid foundation of being enough, which Emily and I hope to model in our actions far more than teach with our words.
5. You started a production company that aims to “create disruptively inspirational content.” How important is it that the entertainment industry play a role in shattering traditional gender stereotypes?
Entertainment plays a massive role in the messages that we, as a society, consume, so it’s incredibly crucial that we are responsible creators with integrity in what we put out.
Representation matters. It matters for kids to see people on TV and in movies that look like them and in roles that they want to be in. And who are we kidding, it matters for grown-ups, too. It matters that we see women CEOs and men who are stay-at-home dads or caregivers, and it matters to see stories centered around people who unfortunately have been left out of the narrative for years. Anything we can do as creators to broaden the definition of “normal” matters, because it allows people to see themselves in the art and to know that they matter.
The really encouraging thing is that we are seeing that it’s mattering more and more to audiences. When we first started Wayfarer, we got a lot of doors slammed in our faces because people didn’t believe that social good or uplifting content was commercially viable. But we had amazing people who believed in us and took a risk on us, and what we are seeing now is that the audience is proving to networks and studios that there is a demand for the kind of content that celebrates and elevates the human experience. We need it now more than ever. As far as the industry goes – while it won’t change overnight, and it’s still predominantly run by fear and ego – it’s changing. It will change. Things are looking up.
This Q&A was featured in the Oct. 13th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.