Actor Justin Baldoni has crucial advice for men who’ve offended women, but still want to be feminists

Actor Justin Baldoni has crucial advice for men who’ve offended women, but still want to be feminists
Image: Justin Baldoni
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Justin Baldoni, best known for his role as the muscly baby-daddy Rafael Solano in Jane the Virgin, was previously cast as: “Male Escort #1,” “Photographer Date Rapist,” “Shirtless Date Rapist,” “Shirtless Medical Student,” and “Shirtless Steroid-Using Con Man” in TV shows and movies like CSI: Miami and The House Bunny, he said in his 2017 TED Talk.

“Now, these roles don’t represent the kind of man I am in my real life,” Baldoni continued.

“I’ve been pretending to be a man that I’m not my entire life. I’ve been pretending to be strong when I felt weak, confident when I felt insecure, and tough when really I was hurting. I think for the most part I’ve just been kind of putting on a show, but I’m tired of performing. And I can tell you right now that it is exhausting trying to be man enough for everyone all the time,” he said.

Baldoni, age 34, has become one of the most prominent men in Hollywood who is actively working to end traditional masculinity. He’s the co-founder and chairman of Wayfarer Entertainment, the production company behind Man Enough, a social movement that says it “invites all men to challenge the unwritten rules of traditional masculinity that have caused us to disconnect from one another, created the foundation of men’s violence against women and prevented us from taking the long journey from our heads to our hearts.”

Central to Man Enough is a video web series directed by Baldoni, in which he unpacks the many ways in which men are paralyzed by traditional masculinity. The series features episodes with titles like “Why don’t men talk?” and “The ugliness of body image,” on which Baldoni opens up about his own experiences with body dysmorphia.

In refusing to follow “masculine” script, and speaking openly about his insecurities as a father, husband, and public figure, Baldoni is helping to rewrite what it means to be a man in America today. From his TED Talk:

“Your strength, your bravery, your toughness: Can we redefine what those mean and use them to explore our hearts? Are you brave enough to be vulnerable? To reach out to another man when you need help? To dive headfirst into your shame? Are you strong enough to be sensitive, to cry whether you are hurting or you’re happy, even if it makes you look weak?

Baldoni answers these questions and more in an interview with Quartz, explaining how he initiates difficult conversations with other men, and why all men need to question whether their assumptions and actions are offensive.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

The Me Too Movement has really opened my eyes. I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing so many women I loved share their #MeToo stories online, and I am so grateful to the brave women who came forward to open this dialogue. I recognize that sharing one’s story can be triggering and extremely difficult in that they must re-live their trauma.

It’s hard to pick just one thing I’ve learned from the movement. But if I were to distill it all down, I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is just how important it is for us men to actively listen in this conversation. And by active, I mean listen to the point where we truly hear and acknowledge so that action can come from it. I also think it’s important for us men to realize how crucial a role bystanders can play in stopping and preventing assault and harassment, how we must be a part of the movement and call for respect and equality for women, act upon that call to action, and continue to perpetuate positive behaviors among ourselves and our communities.

In terms of thinking about it and being aware of gender inequality prior to the movement… I would say both yes and no. On one hand, I was raised as a Baha’i and grew up believing that gender equality is crucial to the wellbeing and unification of humanity, and on the other hand I have to acknowledge that I am a straight, white man. And all I mean by that is that I have been in a process of discovering my own privilege and what it has afforded me. There have been many times where I just simply wasn’t aware that I was in a room full of men and no women were at the table even though there were plenty qualified to have a seat. It’s a tough pill to swallow but it’s been so important for me on this journey, and I’ve been so blessed to be surrounded by so many strong, powerful women who have been extremely patient with me and my shortcomings and who are also actively fighting for equality—they have been a massive influence on me.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

One of my best friends, Noelle, recently passed on a quote to me that has become one of my favorite definitions of feminism. It comes from Cheris Kramarae, a women’s studies scholar, who says: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.” So now, when I get asked if I identify as a feminist, I feel what I am really being asked if I consider women to be human beings. The answer is, and will always be, a resounding yes—I am a feminist.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

When I really started to actively learn more about gender equality, I felt like I had experienced a kind of Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. But instead of it being a physical or material thing I was seeing everywhere, it became this idea of equality, inclusivity, and parity, or the lack thereof, that I would start to notice randomly throughout my day in ways I had never seen before, whether it was walking into my own company and realizing we had a lot of work to do in this particular area or taking notice of the roles I see women playing on television. When your heart and mind become open to something, you realize that it is everywhere or that there is a need for it everywhere.

 So on a daily basis the answer is that I try to be as conscious as I can about my own unconscious biases while actively using my platform, my resources, and my privilege to level the playing field anyway I can. As an example, I am actively looking for women in leadership roles in my film productions and in my own company.

I think perhaps the most important place I practice (and fail) to promote gender equality is in my own home with my family. Whether it’s confronting my own biases and digging into them with my wife, Emily; doing my best to put my phone away and show up for my kids; and just parenting them in a way that allows our daughter and our son to be themselves; I think that equality is something that is pretty much constantly on my mind now.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

In my opinion, I think the biggest threat to men in America is our inability to be emotionally intimate with each other; to reach out when we need help or when we are suffering and know that we won’t be made fun of, or judged for being “weak,” or Alpha enough.

I also think that we don’t have any real accountability system that can foster emotional and personal growth in a healthy and safe way. We are so afraid to challenge each other, even in loving ways, that often times when we witness problematic behavior or even the seeds of it via inappropriate comments, it’s easier to simply “let it go” or not say anything than risk our social standings or positions of power.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

Absolutely. I think it’s incredibly important for men to talk about sexism among ourselves. My team at Wayfarer Entertainment and I created a new show called Man Enough to have these conversations more publicly and normalize them within the male community. In each episode of the show, I have dinner with my male friends and discuss topics like sexism, the Me Too movement, mental health, and even why men don’t talk to each other. But, that’s not to say that I don’t have inhibitions or anxiety about having those conversations with my peers, particularly in front of a camera. I absolutely do!

And I get that I may seem like a guy who can just snap his fingers and be vulnerable and have difficult conversations, but that’s not the case at all. It’s uncomfortable, and I, like so many other men, have been socialized to feel awkward about sharing my emotions. But I know that’s just my ego talking, and my fear of having my thoughts or feelings be met with cruelty or rejection—so I try to push past it. In my experience, I find that men ultimately want that connection and conversation with other men. We just don’t always know how to get there. So by opening up and taking that risk, we are simultaneously giving permission for them to do the same.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

I think there are anxieties I have as just a human, and some I have specific to my place in the world as a man. Sometimes they intersect and sometimes they don’t. When I strip it way down and allow myself to be the hurt, lonely little boy on the playground, the anxiety would stem from a feeling of not being good enough. Overtime that has morphed into a lot of different fears and challenges: Not being successful enough. Attractive enough. Talented enough. Man enough. You name it. I think in general it just comes down to the way I unconsciously, and sometimes even consciously, compare myself to others and this overwhelming feeling of not being enough for anyone. But then I remind myself that the eight-year-old boy inside me who is still so hurt from being bullied, and teased, and who came home so broken, in reality has so much to offer this world, is loved deeply by many, and is more than enough. And when I can go there, I feel at peace.

7. What do you wish your female coworkers, and women at large, knew about you?

That I mess up. And that I want to be called out when I mess up so I can learn and grow from it. It is never my intention to say or do something hurtful, or offensive, or ignorant. Yet at the same time, I am human and it happens more often than I’d like it to. But I want to learn. I have so much to learn, it’s one of the most incredible and beautiful things about being alive… and while it’s not women’s job or responsibility to teach me, I am always open to being taught and corrected.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up,and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

Well, I would first tell them that I get it. I totally get that crippling fear or anxiety that keeps us from doing or saying anything, because we are afraid we will do or say the wrong thing. Here’s the deal: We are all going to do or say the wrong thing at some point! It’s just fact—nobody is perfect and this movement is deeply complex.

Maya Angelou says, “When we know better, we do better.” So every time I have done or said the wrong thing, and someone schools me on how I messed up, from there I learn. Then the next time, I know better, so I do better. It’s not easy—it’s a continual battle with my pride and ego. But it’s worth it.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why

Okay, first let me be clear that there is a lot more than one thing I wish I could take back or do differently. That being said, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t one thing but something that I am actively working on which is being a better listener. My mind moves at a million miles per hour and I’m learning that as a result of that, sometimes … often … I am not the best listener. I guess because I’m so often in my head, listening to everything that’s going on there even if I have the intention of listening and being fully present with who and what is right in front of me, sometimes the result is the exact opposite and I have found myself interrupting others or not fully hearing them.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

I think the best advice I’ve received from another man has been from my dad. It came in two parts, one in words and the other in actions. My dad once told me that every day presents us with a choice, especially when it comes to love, and that we have to actively and purposefully choose to love even when the easiest choice may seem like the opposite. In marriage, friendships, business, and just life in general, if we don’t choose love then we aren’t watering it and it can easily die. The second part of that was taught to me by me watching him live it, every day.

My advice to men is simple: Open yourselves up to the possibility that you have more to learn—that you don’t know the answers, may not be right, and in fact could be very wrong. Know when you’re lost and be willing to ask for help or a hand up. Take the risk of getting your heart broken, and when it breaks, know that the experience will help it grow back even stronger.

If you feel alone, reach out to someone—anyone—and tell them. Don’t suffer in silence anymore, as those days are behind us. And if a man reaches out to you to talk, or for help, show up for him in the same way you hope he would show up for you and acknowledge the risk he is taking. Being wrong, being vulnerable, and being open to feedback is scary as hell but on the other side of those fears is pure bliss. Let’s all meet up there.