Jane The Virgin’s Justin Baldoni: Men Need To Redefine The ‘Guy Code’

The actor talked to Chatelaine about not feeling ‘man enough,’ his struggles with body image and why he’s trying to redefine masculinity.

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justin baldoni, pictured here in a white shirt and black pants, on how to be a man

In his viral 2017 TEDTalk, “Why I’m Done Trying to be ‘Man Enough,’” actor Justin Baldoni joked that he played some of the greatest male role models on television — “Male Escort #1. Photographer Date Rapist. Shirtless Date Rapist. Shirtless Medical Student. Shirtless Steroid-Using Con Man” — before he landed the role of (the only occasionally shirtless) Rafael Solano on the hit TV series Jane the Virgin.

These might be some dubious dudes, but in real life Baldoni appears seriously woke. Through his social media following and his web series Man Enough, he’s aiming to redefine masculinity in a more positive, inclusive way.

Whether it’s encouraging other men to open up about their vulnerabilities, or calling out guys who treat women with disrespect, Baldoni feels men have an important role to play in the fight for inclusion and gender equality. As he says in his TEDTalk, “it’s time we see past our privilege and recognize that we are not just part of the problem, we are the problem…. And if we want to be a part of the solution, then words are no longer enough.” He spoke to Chatelaine as part of The Man Survey project about the importance of truly connecting with other men, his struggles with self-esteem and why men need to redefine the “guy code.”

I’m curious about what led you to think about masculinity and how to be a better man.

As I’ve gotten a little older and more introspective, I realized that my earliest interactions with other boys had a lot of pain associated with them. I remember trying to be like other boys and trying to fit in, and getting made fun of. And there are times even now when I feel uncomfortable around other guys, that I’m not enough of a man. I wanted to understand where that came from.

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For Man Enough, you’ve created a circle of men who’ve had similar questions about masculinity, including Hamilton star Javier Munoz, who is gay and HIV-positive, and Aydian Dowling, a transgender activist and men’s fitness model. How did you bring them all together?

In 2018, being a man looks like a lot of different things. One of the biggest pain points in my life was that for so long was that I compared myself to the standard Marlboro Man model and couldn’t live up to it. I think that’s true for a lot of men, and the biggest insult you fear is being called “fag” or a “pussy.”

I wanted to make sure that in these conversations about manhood, there were gay men and trans men at the table, as well as black men and Latino men. I grew up in little white town in Oregon, and I knew very few gay people and I didn’t meet a trans person until I was in my 20s. What I hope is that young men who watch the series will see our group of men, of all different backgrounds and experiences, connecting with one another and learning from one another. Men don’t have a lot of spaces to do that.

What have you learned from these conversations?

From Aydian and Javier, I’ve learned a lot about how being masculine relates to safety. If you’re gay or trans, violence is a very real threat, and so acting hyper masculine or butch can be about survival. African-American men, like [spoken word artist] Prince EA, talk about how negative stereotypes of black men affect how they feel about themselves and how they’re perceived in the world. As a white man, I’m afforded all kinds of privileges that I’ve taken for granted my entire life, and these conversations have really opened my eyes and understanding.

You have a two-pronged mission it seems. One is encouraging men to be vulnerable with one another and have more meaningful conversations about masculinity. The other is encouraging men to address issues of sexism and sexual violence. How do these two areas — getting men to open up and encouraging men to be feminist allies — connect?

It can be very lonely to be a man. We isolate ourselves, we act like we’re good and we have all the answers. We don’t typically talk about the deep things — we’re more concerned about living up to the guy code. And that code is often about showing your allegiance to men over women, by talking about women as if they’re less than men: Bros before hoes.

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One of the most transformational experiences I’ve had in my journey have come from direct, honest, vulnerable encounters with other men: bouncing ideas off each other, supporting each other, or even calling each other out. If we can make male interactions about intimacy and accountability, rather than competition, we can start teaching each other to be better men. We can encourage each other to talk about women with respect. If we’re bystanders to sexual harassment or assault, we can intervene.

One of the episodes of the series is devoted to men and body image. I was struck by how painful an issue it was for each of you. For someone who is often cast as the “hot shirtless guy,” what’s that struggle about for you?

I was an ugly duckling when I was young, then when I got into my twenties and played sports and worked out, people started to find me attractive and suddenly I was auditioning for the hot guy roles, which led to an identity crisis. I had to reconcile the fact that the world now saw me as attractive when for so long I felt like I wasn’t. That came with the fear that I was only liked for what was on the outside and that I would be rejected one people got to know me.

You’re also conscious that there might be men out there who look at you and they feel bad about themselves in comparison.

What’s screwed up about this, is that I think people assume that I just wake up always looking good and I don’t have the same issues that they have. I have an ego and I want to look good — I’m taking my shirt off on national television and this is part of my livelihood. But once I got to this place where my topless picture is being plastered everywhere, I realized that there are men and boys comparing themselves to me. Now I’m the guy setting an impossible standard.

The way I deal with it is to talk publicly about my own struggles with body image, particularly as I get older and as my looks change and I have to put in twice the work to look good without a shirt. By being honest, I hope I can give other men permission to talk about their own struggles and insecurities about their looks.

I can’t let you go without asking you about Jane the Virgin and about Rafael. You’re part of a show that celebrates the female gaze. Jane the Virgin is all about female desire and is told primarily from women’s points of view — it stars a woman, it was created by a woman, and there are a number of women writers and directors. How is it to be part of a show like this, as a man?

The female gaze is a really wonderful thing because it tends to be more thoughtful, empathetic and sensitive. As Rafael, I get to play a character that has started out as a kind of playboy and has transformed over time to be a better human, a better father and a better partner for Jane. I think it’s rare to see the evolution of a man through a woman’s perspective, and what it means to be a good man through a woman’s eyes.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Watch: Men on what they thought it meant to “be a man” when they were kids.