‘We’re all suffering’: How to be a man in the #metoo era04/27/2021
Most of my life I have been told men are in crisis. Perhaps we finally are. The hashtags that have of late been in our pursuit – #MeToo, #TimesUp, #EverydaySexism – send us in the dead of night word-searching the transcripts of our lives for transgressions.
We may beerily protest that woke has gone too far, but how carefully we now phrase our opinions of women. We know the truth. Out in the world, women’s physical violation by our gender is running wild.
Yet, and just as doggedly, the 21st century targets the male with advertisements for a robust masculine ideal that would have us preen our bodies, chase material success, strive for the qualities of “leadership” (aka dominance) and unwind to bespoke pornography.
Should you wish to examine the consequences of the culture clash as it descends from opposite directions on a young male head, read Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity by Justin Baldoni.
Victim, sage and exploiter of this cacophony, Baldoni is a 37-year-old Hollywood actor turned producer-director who is most famous for a brilliantly executed TEDWomen Talk in 2017. Watched some 6.6 million times, it may well be the performance of his career. In it, he announced that he was through with trying to be a conventional man, and the women in the audience went mad for him.
Known on the American comedy-drama Jane the Virgin for his upper torso’s frequent nude cameos, Baldoni has since sworn never again to pose shirtless on social media. His “brand”, he has explained, is now predicated on his heart and mind, not his pectorals.
It is a big heart. He has set up a non-profit to help his “unhoused neighbours”. He has made two lachrymose feature films about terminally ill people. On a programme called My Last Days, he interviews the soon-to-die. On the marginally more upbeat Man Enough, he hosts exquisitely lit soirées at which alpha males sit around a salad dishing their insecurities.
So in theory, he is Baldoni, the Reformed American Man. In practice, as he repeatedly acknowledges in Man Enough, he struggles, and with his appetite for pornography for one thing.
When we Zoom-talk, it is 8am in his kitchen in Ojai (encouragingly pronounced “Oh, hi!”), an ecologically correct town 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Baldoni, hirsute, with his hair up, is dressed in a lumberjack shirt. Jane the Virgin’s termination after five seasons in 2019 has morphed him from clean-shaven and ripped Latino adulterer into Joe Wicks.
It has been a mixed few days for him. On Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen’s podcast, the former president has responded to his question, “What does it mean to be man enough?” with a considered reply that parenthetically refers to Baldoni as a “leader”.
Instagram shows Baldoni rushing downstairs to share the “cool” video with his wife, Emily, and their children. The older of the two, five-year old Maiya, charmingly refers to her father’s new fan as “Oblama”.
On the deficit side, Baldoni has been upset by recent events in Britain: Everyone’s Invited’s exposure of our schools’ rape culture and the murder of the young Londoner Sarah Everard.
“Then,” he says, once he has sorted out which of three competing Bluetooth devices he will talk on, “I saw men responding with this NotAllMen hashtag. So I made a video about it on my TikTok, basically telling people to shut up. I don’t understand why, as men, we cannot sit in the discomfort and just listen.”
A post shared by Justin Baldoni (@justinbaldoni)
Listening yes, but shutting up is hardly Baldoni’s speciality. His book is a geyser of personal history and opinion. Its 360 pages essay a traumatic move in childhood from LA to blue-collar Oregon, Baldoni being bullied (and bullying) at school, an unlikely struggle not to lose his virginity and the wooing of his wife, who is initially resistant to his physical beauty.
At other points, Man Enough is a deep dive into his self-confessed tendency towards performative superficiality, a superficiality so profound that when he directed his first film he wore a pair of non-prescription glasses to enhance his credibility.
Mainly, however, it is an account of turmoil within. He describes himself as having been “an emotional and sensitive boy wrapped inside an energetic, testosterone-filled, creative tornado that can’t sit still”, a youth who dived 20ft into a raging river, but only to appease his jeering friends.
He was an unscholarly pupil, but finally discovered that by speaking his essays on video, he could start “operating in [his] genius”. In his continuing battle with his nature, there are defeats and there are victories – among the latter, learning to “lean into the shame” of his porn habit.
So it must have been a hard book to write.
“It was really hard,” he says. “I tried to get out of this book a bunch of times. I tried to back out a lot of times, just like I tried to get out of the TED Talk. I might be 37 years old, but I’m still that 12-year-old boy who seeks acceptance and validation from men, from boys in my class, right?
“Look, this is not an attempt to get famous. In fact, I’m losing followers. I’m losing them as we speak. That’s a good thing in many ways.”
The book is making him less popular?
“I have no doubt that that might happen, but it’s only because what I’m talking about is confronting.”
The pithiest and fairest review of Man Enough comes near its end when Emily, his wife, having read the last chapter, responds: “Wow, baby, this is really good. But I think you need to read your own book.”
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In this spirit, and since he has bothered to detail his failings, I feel entitled to ask how fully he has “undefined” himself as a traditional male, how his evolution into a decent human being is going.
“I write this book,” he replies, “from the perspective of somebody on the journey. I am not on the other side of it. Everything I talk about in the book I continue to deal with today. I still interrupt my wife. I still have pulls to porn. I still…”
I was about to ask whether he still man-spreads.
“The answer is yes. The difference is I come back faster. I catch myself. The difference is that where I am now, most of the time, I have enough awareness that I can catch myself and redirect it in the moment.”
So let’s get to the porn use, his addiction as he diagnoses it. It was bothering him sufficiently that a few years ago he organised a weekend away in Mexico with male friends just to discuss it. I say I am a little shocked that the father of two young children – Maxwell is three – is still “pulled” towards it.
“And that’s the thing. It doesn’t discriminate, right? There are a plethora of male feminists and spiritual leaders and world leaders out there who are secretly battling a porn addiction. Just because you’re married and have children doesn’t mean that the neuropathways that were formed when you were 10, 11 years old, prior to puberty, prior to ever having an erection, prior to even knowing really what sex was, that triggered these dopamine responses, are not something that you still battle with.
“I could be out in the world championing female voices, fighting for gender equality, go home, have this amazing conversation and dinner with my wife, especially early on in our marriage, and still feel this strange pull towards porn. It’s not rational.”
But there are family filters that can be activated on home internet hubs, I say. Apply them and the pull goes away. He says I am lucky because I am older than him. My adolescent neuropathways were not corrupted by the internet, but by Playboy. Less damage was done. My resistance is stronger.
“We’re now talking about thousands of images of sex available, all kinds of things that are essentially dumping into our children before they’re ready.”
I know. I wrote a feature on cyber porn last year and saw the ease with which images of sexual violence could be accessed. I hope he is not into that.
“No. I’m very, very lucky in the porn that I consumed as a young boy. And because of the deep work that I’ve been doing for years and years and years, and luckily because of my spirituality and my faith, it never progressed. So when I have a pull to look at porn, it’s the same porn that I looked at when I was 10 or 11.”
His relationship with his own male body is almost equally tortured. His problem is not most people’s. He does not catch himself in the mirror and think, “Oh dear.” He stares at his reflection and generally admires it. But should he?
He points out that Hollywood only began to fetishise men’s bodies in the early Eighties with the rise of stars such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger (when Sinatra took off his shirt, there was nothing to see).
By the time Baldoni launched his acting career 16 years ago, the gym-perfected six-pack was a casting criterion. Indeed, among his early credits are his portrayals of Shirtless Medical Student, Steroids-Using Con Man and, more chillingly, Shirtless Date Rapist. On days Baldoni had insufficiently fasted, his Rafael, Jane the Virgin’s suitor, sometimes hid his tummy behind a plant, Austin Powers-style.
Having admitted his complicity in the objectification of male bodies, he pathologises his narcissism as “muscle dysmorphia”. When he looks in a mirror, the first place his eyes head are his shoulders, he writes. Yet he boasts in the book: “I have a pretty nice ass. Why do I feel weird typing that as a man?” He admires fathers who relax into their “dad bods”, but is chagrined to read a GQ article that identifies Rafael as a character who shames paunchy paters.
Does he have a dad bod now?
“I haven’t worked out in the past two years.”
I want to shake his hand, but my congratulations may be premature.
“Well, and here’s the thing, it’s not because I haven’t wanted to.”
Writing the book, parenting, being sequestered at home by the pandemic, these all ate into his exercise time. To demonstrate the consequences, he pulls up his shirt for me and pinches together a strip of stomach flesh. “This is not perfect,” he says, although I’d settle for it.
“A week ago I hired a trainer, but when I hired a trainer I said to him something I’ve never said before: ‘My body will change and I will eventually get back in shape, but I want you to work out the muscles that nobody can see, so I can feel good. I want to be able to run with my kids and not hurt my back, not pull a muscle. I want to throw my son up in the air and not have my rotator cuff hurt.’ “
Cars add to the list of problematic relationships Baldoni endures. Man Enough relates how he leased his first BMW when he was just 24 and, while it gave him pleasure, he knew it was a plaster concealing a problem. His self-worth was tied to external trappings. So what does he drive now?
“I drive a Model X, a Tesla Model X.”
An expensive electric car?
“It’s an electric car. I think it looks really cool. Honestly, part of why I drive it is because I believe it’s better for the environment, but it’s a very cool car. I feel good driving it and I don’t have to bend over when I put my kids in the back seat because it’s got these falcon-wing doors.”
A Tesla Model X costs £82,000 ($157,565) in Britain.
“And I’m not saying we have to give these things up. That’s what I think is so confusing and people don’t understand.”
He is right. I don’t, not really. Here he is, a vocal feminist, yet it is his wife who has given up her job in acting and now runs the company they started together selling shawls for breastfeeding mothers (based on what Baldoni’s mother, a clothes designer, wore while she suckled him).
“We actually talk about this a lot. As I write in the book, capitalism is not possible without the unpaid labour of mothers. It’s something that we struggle with. Again, if I’m preaching anything in this book, it’s awareness. That’s it. It’s awareness. It’s being f***ing aware, right? If you are a man and your wife has a child – or your wife gave birth to a child – and her career dies while your career flourishes, be aware of it. Right? If you’re aware of it, that’s the first step.”
And, to be fair, he does most of the cooking.
Much as I enjoy talking to this personification of modern male dilemma, I would equally love to interview Emily about their marriage. The book plots their courtship as a slow-moving rom-com, a story of accidental meetings eventually followed by an avalanche of love enough to bury him. The cascade was not, however, matched by an eruption of sexual desire in Emily.
“Just to be very candid,” he writes, “Emily simply struggled with her attraction to me. Now, as I write that, part of me wants to put it in all caps and say something like… TO ME? SERIOUSLY? SHE SHOULD BE SO LUCKY!”
It is not exactly clear in the book what put her off. Now, though, as he talks to me about the patriarchal assumption that men must flex their superiority over women, and how women buy into that, I realise he is talking about her.
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So when Emily discovered that Justin was giving and emotionally open, it was a slight turn-off?
“It absolutely was.”
The incessant candour of the book so opens Baldoni to ridicule that it must be regarded as, apart from everything else, a sustained act of courage. I am simply not man enough, however, not to laugh at times.
One passage relates how, three months into their relationship, he wrote for Emily “a way too serious spoken poem”, which he then read aloud at “an event with a few hundred people attending”. Emily, he writes, picking up “on the need beneath the need” was “not having it”. He consoles himself that when nearly 18 months later he came up with a proposal of marriage, he “tailored” it to her.
“All she really wanted was me, not my public performative version of what I thought I should be for her.”
The proposal was a performance, however, a 27-minute video that Emily was required to watch on a television wheeled to a table at the LA restaurant where the couple had enjoyed their first date. The tape, entitled The Proposal, included a spoof radio interview, a parody of a borderline homoerotic boy-band video, a flash mob sequence and a whacky action movie trailer starring Baldoni as the hero.
It concluded with his live appearance in the restaurant and a proposal of marriage conducted in front of his family and Emily’s mother, who had been flown in from Sweden. His closing argument’s big idea was that Emily had made him a better person.
Throughout, a hidden camera recorded Emily’s disbelieving reactions and these are inset on the film’s YouTube incarnation, which has had more than 13 million views and much female acclaim. The New York Post called it “the most cringeworthy marriage proposal ever”.
“That proposal was 27 minutes of me looking like an idiot, and it’s a self-aware inside joke about our relationship. It wasn’t supposed to be released to the world,” he says a little defensively.
They married. They had children. Their births were lovingly prepared and lovingly observed. Emily become a reiki master during Maiya’s gestation. In the birthing pool, Baldoni noticed that the birthing positions that most relieved her pain “were eerily similar to the positions we were in when we made the baby in the first place”. Emily’s efforts were rewarded with placenta smoothies gurgled up by Justin.
I am convinced he is a splendid and present father. I just hope that Maxwell, in particular, is bright enough to untangle his dad’s messages about manhood. Baldoni’s relationship with his father, the man who brought product placement to the movies, was knotty. A particularly Gordian scene in Man Enough has Sam Baldoni teaching 13-year-old Justin, who has been bullied at school, how to throw a punch. The tutorial does not go well. Justin ends up landing “a pretty massive right hook” to his father’s jaw.
Is he going to teach Maxwell to fight?
“I have no issue teaching him how to fight. I have no issue teaching him how to throw a punch. I have an issue with him throwing a punch. It’s funny. There’s a quote in the Baha’i faith and I’m going to butcher it – this is a nightmare paraphrase – that true strength is not a weak man who uses his fist; true strength is a strong man who doesn’t.”
I have hopes of Maxwell, nevertheless. Every night the Baldoni family sings an anthem Justin composed. It begins: “Show me your heart. Show me your heart. I’ll show you, you are my heart.” Maxwell has taken to substituting “heart” for “penis” or “poo poo”.
There are reasons why British readers of Man Enough may find it hard to identify with Baldoni’s characterisation of the male gender. (Do “we” really generally believe, as he claims, that we are smarter and more capable than women?) Jock culture, I suspect, is more prevalent and more tolerated in the United States than here. Hollywood, and America’s obesity explosion probably accentuates its mental health problems around body image.
Baldoni is a hard and perhaps exceptional case, however. He was born into and takes seriously his parents’ religion, the above mentioned Baha’i, a 19th-century Persian invention that forbids alcohol consumption, demands 19-day fasts and believes that death leads to the afterlife.
Most arcanely, it forbids sexual intercourse outside marriage. This rule leads to an agonised account in Baldoni’s book of a treacherous girlfriend participating with him in “everything but”, when she inserted his 19-year-old penis into her. The violation, he writes, left a scar on his emerging sexuality, his faith and his sense of self. It is “similar to the one I had after tearing my hamstring”.
He doesn’t much like it when I suggest that his faith makes him particularly susceptible to injury in the culture wars.
“I don’t think it hits me any harder than anybody else,” he counters. “The difference was I was aware of the forces, so I understood them. There’s nothing that I was raised with that a born-again Christian or a Catholic or a Muslim or a Jew in a family that values spirituality is not up against.”
But I don’t know anybody, male or female, who wanted to be a virgin on their wedding night. The last one I met was my mother.
“I think there’s more than you realise. The difference is we live in a society that shames people for it. This is where undefining masculinity comes in. Let me be really clear here. I am not preaching one way or another. What I believe is that we should be free to make decisions that are in line with our own values without being shamed.
“I really want to help, not add to the noise. The one thing we didn’t talk about is that it’s so important men don’t feel attacked. The reason I don’t say the words ‘toxic masculinity’ is because I want men to be open to the conversation. I want to invite men in, not call them out. We have to invite each other in and recognise that we’re all suffering.
“Change starts with each of us, in our mirror. Nobody can dictate what the change looks like, but it begins with each of us and ends with each of us. And that’s really, really important to me, so thank you for writing about it.”
No, no. We should thank him for writing about it. Man Enough made me laugh, but it also made me think. The only problem was that, by the end, my clearest conclusion was that while Socrates shot a good line with “the unexamined life is not worth living”, the over-examined life that is Justin Baldoni’s appears hardly more endurable.
Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity by Justin Baldoni is published by HarperOne on April 29
Written by: Andrew Billen
© The Times of London
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