Can Justin Baldoni Save Men From Themselves?

Written by Amelia McBride
Photography by Tim Gibson

The men are not alright. Around the country, men are hurting—and all the more because they often won’t admit it. Propped up by the idealization of the “male breadwinner1” throughout history, much of society still glorifies the idea of “a man’s man” (i.e., rugged, stoic, aggressive, dominant), leading 8 in 10 men to feel pressure to “be emotionally strong,” according to a 2017 Pew Research Study. While subscribing to this concept of male toughness has been shown to put men at risk for poor mental health2, it’s also the very thing keeping them from reaching out3 for support, while also reducing their likelihood4 of having any close confidants.

It’s no wonder, then, that male isolation has become its own microcosm within the larger loneliness crisis. How can any man be expected to form genuine connections in a culture that’s rewarded—if not demanded—male self-reliance?

Of course, we won’t pretend that men aren’t still thriving from a societal perspective. Men—specifically white, heterosexual, cis-gendered men—still make the majority of the decisions in this country. Of the 116 supreme court justices we’ve had in the United States, all but eight have been white men. White men fill 90 percent of C-suite roles. Even during the recent awards season, men made up 68 percent of the total Oscar nominees (the lowest it’s ever been since the inception of the Academy Awards). With so many men at the helm of society, one can’t help but think: What would the world look like if they were allowed—and learned how—to feel a little more?

Thankfully, the old adage, “You’re never too old to learn something new” rings true as we watch the cultural conversation shift around masculinity. In the past decade alone, we’ve seen the rise of “health masculinities” programs, like The ManKind Project and Rethink Masculinity (both designed to help men embrace stereotypically “feminine” qualities, like vulnerability and self-reflection), along with men’s retreats like Evryman and Sacred Sons (each focused on teaching men to find healthy outlets for their emotions and build community with other men).

Even male celebrities have joined the discussion. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Pete Davidson, and Elton John have all come forward in recent years to share their battles with mental illness, helping dismantle the idea that it’s “unmanly” to struggle with your mental health. Others, like Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Mescal, have rethought their own masculinity expression and have called on others to do the same.

Among the loudest voices on that list is that of 40-year-old filmmaker, producer, actor, activist, husband, and father of two, Justin Baldoni. While Baldoni might be most widely known for his roles as Rafael Solano in Jane the Virgin or Ryle Kincaid in the upcoming 2024 film adaptation of It Ends With Us, he’s also built a public presence distinct from—and yet, intrinsically linked to—his suave interpretations of male characters. 

What would the world look like if they were allowed—and learned how—to feel a little more?

In 2017, Baldoni released a TED Women Talk titled “Why I’m done being ‘man’ enough,” describing his struggle with reconciling the traditionally masculine characters he’d played on screen with the man he felt he truly was. In the years since, he’s made it his mission to personally unlearn—and then publicly dismantle—the masculine ideals that have kept him from true connection.

In 2021, Baldoni published his memoir Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity and launched The Man Enough Podcast shortly after, both exploring what “being man enough” might look like if we divorced masculinity from its basis of toughness and self-reliance. And in 2022, Baldoni published the guidebook Boys Will Be Human to help young men better get in touch with and express their emotions—a core skill he thinks is necessary to deconstruct masculine norms and diminish male loneliness along the way.

Challenging the traditional male role

Baldoni first began reckoning with his own expression of masculinity when he realized that the man he often portrayed on screen—the emotionally empty playboy—wasn’t so far off from the machismo guy he’d long been embodying in his real life. As a child, Baldoni’s seemingly conflicting passions of theater and sports made him a target of bullying at school. To fit in, Baldoni says he learned to suppress any aspects of his personality that could be seen as “feminine” by other kids. “I began to resent my dad for not teaching me stereotypically masculine skills, like woodworking, hunting, and fighting,” he says.

Baldoni’s father—an Italian movie marketer—didn’t fit the hyper-masculine mold either; he was softer, more emotional, and more creative than the other men in their small Oregon hometown, says Baldoni. But his dad did embody a different trope of traditional masculinity: the breadwinner. He shouldered the financial burden of providing for his family and adopted a similar emotional mindset. “He took it on himself to fix everything and take care of everybody,” says Baldoni, “and his worth was tied up in whether he was able to provide for everybody else.”

“We need [to be able to] express the energy and emotions that come from having testosterone, and the solution is not going to be to just push it all down.”

— Justin Baldoni

It was this particular role that Baldoni, like so many other men, would later cast himself in as well: the sole provider for his family who sacrificed—and suffered—in secret. There’s no time for your feelings, says Baldoni, when everyone is depending on you, “which is why men often don’t even have the emotional capacity to reach out to a friend and say, ‘I’m hurting,’ or ‘I’m struggling,’ or ‘I’m exhausted.’” To do so would also require some level of vulnerability and earnest self-reflection—two strikes against traditional masculinity.

It’s no wonder, then, that men’s social circles are shrinking. Whereas 30 years ago, 55 percent of men reported having at least six close friends, only 27 percent said the same in 2021. And even for the men who do find themselves in the 27 percent, it's unclear how open and honest they're truly being with one another. “They're probably not six friends whom you can call and be vulnerable with,” says Baldoni. “That’s probably just one, if you’re lucky.” 

It wasn’t until Baldoni was struggling with a personal issue a few years back that he realized he, too, was terrified of vulnerability—so much so that he wrestled for days with how to ask his friends for the support he desperately needed. But when he finally did, his perspective changed. As he shared in his TED Women Talk: “As soon as I found the strength and the courage to share my shame, it was gone.” To Baldoni’s surprise, his friends didn’t judge him for being weak or insecure; they opened up about their own struggles and connected over common ground. By the end of their talk, they found themselves validating one another and offering helpful advice.

Such a seemingly neutral experience—asking your friends for help—forever changed Baldoni’s view of what masculinity could mean. It had been ingrained in him that men are predisposed to be in competition with one another, and that men should be “man enough” to deal with life's trials on their own. But being vulnerable with his friends didn’t make Baldoni feel any “lesser than.” Rather, it made him feel more in touch with himself and his friends, who took his honesty as permission to get vulnerable too. Baldoni realized if he could open up to an even broader audience of men, perhaps they, too, could change their approach to manhood for the better.

Sharing the new scripts for masculinity

Over the past several years, Baldoni has taken to his Instagram account, helping to create a vulnerable space by example—something increasingly rare in the world of social media facades. He has shared what the messy side of his spiritual healing looks like (tears included) and opened up about the connection between his physical and emotional pain. He’s also chronicled his more fun adventures in tending to his well-being, like the time he and The Office actor Rainn Wilson hung out in a sauna and did cold plunges together while donning Viking hats (and, uh, not much else). With more than three million followers, Baldoni hopes that his acts of vulnerability “will encourage and give other men a safe space to do the same."

On his podcast, Baldoni also hosts candid discussions about the male experience, particularly the topics that defy or challenge traditional tropes of masculinity, like male body-image issues, men’s sexploitation of women, and how men can learn to be emotional with other men. Alongside his co-hosts, Baldoni has posed the question, “What does it mean to be man enough?” to special guests like rapper Jidenna (who credited OutKast’s Andre 3000 for teaching him how to develop his own flavor of masculinity), and Jackass alum Steve-O, who used the podcast as an opportunity to get vulnerable about his fear of aging. 

In starting these conversations, Baldoni aims to encourage other men to question whether their pursuit of masculinity might be hurting them—and whether they might benefit from embracing the “feminine” qualities they’ve been ignoring. In his TED Women Talk, Baldoni challenged men not to view their acceptance of the “feminine”—of vulnerability, sensitivity, and tenderness—as a rejection or a weakening of their masculinity, but rather as a reimagining of it. 

“I challenge you to see if you can use the same qualities that you think make you a man to go deeper into yourself: your strength, your bravery, your toughness,” he said. “Are you brave enough to be vulnerable, to reach out to another man when you need help? Are you confident enough to listen to women—and actually believe them?”

Male isolation has become its own microcosm within the larger loneliness crisis.

Motivating men to acknowledge and embrace their “softer” traits is what Baldoni believes will help them foster the genuine connections they’ve so desperately been missing. And his own interactions with men are proof: In the seven years since going public with his masculinity revamp, Baldoni says he’s been able to connect with countless male followers and podcast listeners on similar journeys, thus creating his own growing community of modern men.

The necessity for such male-focused communities is catching on, says Baldoni. “[More] men are realizing we need help, we need connection, we need community, and we need the sense of primal tribal relation,” he says. “We need [to be able to] express the energy and emotions that come from having testosterone, and the solution is not going to be to just push it all down.”

Raising a different kind of strong male lead

For Baldoni, embracing a life beyond the confines of machismo has allowed him to enjoy all the aspects of who he is as a human being. “I like that in one moment, I can go be the shadow of a punching bag, and then in another moment, be able to hold my wife as she’s in tears after a hard day, or be a gentle pillow for my daughter, Maiya, who needs her daddy,” he says.

Raising his eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son with his wife Emily has also given Baldoni the chance to break a generational cycle of male isolation in his family. He and Emily work to actively support their kids’ interests, regardless of whether they fall in line with societal norms for their respective gender identities. Baldoni also impresses upon his kids a theme that comes up often on his podcast: Your worth as a person is innate; it cannot be taken away, and it isn’t tied to any particular expression of masculinity or femininity.

Becoming a parent has also given Baldoni insight into how future generations might leave behind harmful gender stereotypes, including the self-reliant mentality he once inherited. “It's about creating well-rounded humans that have a healthy sense of masculine and a healthy sense of feminine, and that can only come from them having a healthy sense of self,” he says.

Baldoni makes it clear that his goal isn’t to get rid of masculinity, but rather to dismantle all the aspects of it that take men away from who they truly are. In fact, he actually agrees with the common sentiment that the world needs strong men: “We just need to change our definition of strong first,” he says. In Baldoni’s ideal world, men won’t need to be “strong enough” to do everything by themselves—because men will be strong enough to ask for help instead.

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  2. Wong, Y Joel et al. “Meta-analyses of the relationship between conformity to masculine norms and mental health-related outcomes.” Journal of counseling psychology vol. 64,1 (2017): 80-93. doi:10.1037/cou0000176
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  4. Campos-Castillo, C., shuster, s.m., Groh, S.M. et al. Warning: Hegemonic Masculinity May Not Matter as Much as You Think for Confidant Patterns among Older Men. Sex Roles 83, 609–621 (2020).