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In ‘Boys Will Be Human,’ Justin Baldoni invites boys to ‘undefine’ masculinity

‘I wrote this book for 12-year-old Justin, for 16-year old-Justin, for 20-year-old Justin,’ the filmmaker and ‘Jane the Virgin’ star told RNS.

Justin Baldoni and his new book

(RNS) — Before he was a New York Times bestselling author, a filmmaker or an actor portraying the charismatic Rafael in the hit series “Jane the Virgin,” Justin Baldoni was a teenager with major insecurities.

In his new book, “Boys Will Be Human: A Get-Real Gut-Check Guide to Becoming the Strongest, Kindest, Bravest Person You Can Be,” Baldoni, 38, is startlingly honest about the struggles he faced growing up, from his mortifying experiences with puberty to being pressured into having sex before he was ready. With tenderness and humor, Baldoni draws from his life lessons to invite readers to unlearn the assumptions they’ve inherited about what a “real man” really is.

The book is one of Baldoni’s many masculinity-related projects, along with his earlier book, “Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity,” the “Man Enough Podcast” and his viral 2017 TED Talk on the topic. Baldoni, whose Baha’i faith anchors his understanding of what masculinity ought to be, told RNS he chose to write a book for younger audiences to “reach boys at the most awkward and insecure time of their lives,” before they learn to shield their emotions from others and from themselves.

“I really wrote this book for me,” Baldoni said. “I wrote this book for 12-year-old Justin, for 16-year old-Justin, for 20-year-old Justin. I really needed this. I didn’t have anything like it.”

Religion News Service spoke to Baldoni about masculinity and his faith, childhood and experience on “Jane the Virgin.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book is about undefining masculinity, not redefining it. What’s the difference?

What I learned early on was that redefining masculinity would create the same problem. The problem is the definition. I think we can have an idea of what masculinity is; the problem is when we enforce that on other people, and ourselves. That’s how you create generational trauma. The whole idea of undefining it is to take masculinity out of this rigid box that says, “This is what a man is and if you’re not these things, then you’re not a man.” We teach our young boys at an early age to hate the parts of themselves that look like girls. We’ve been socialized to have a disgust for the feminine not just in ourselves, but in one another.

If you look at the Bible, the Qur’an, the Baha’i writings, the prophets of God have always been the example of a balance of masculine and feminine. Jesus is deeply sensitive, empathetic, compassionate, forgiving, right? There are stories of Jesus weeping in the Bible. And yet he also had all these traditionally masculine qualities. Isn’t being strong having the full gamut of feelings and emotions and attributes that God created for us? If it is, then why are we doing something different? The reason is because of socialization. So we need to undefine masculinity to make room for anybody who is a man to be a man without policing.

What are some of the biggest ways your Baha’i faith informs how you’ve come to understand masculinity?

In my faith, (the prophet) ʻAbdu’l-Bahá tells us that “the new age will be an age that’s less masculine and more permeated with feminine ideals, or to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization be more properly balanced.” And this is really the impetus for all my work, this idea that God created us to be two wings of a bird. One wing is male and the other wing is female, but it’s not until the wings are equivalent in strength that the bird can fly.

What I love about my faith is it’s not about disregarding the masculine. It’s about finding balance. I love being a man. This is not a book about man hating. I believe that the rigid definition of masculinity has hurt a lot of people. But more than anything, it’s hurt men. Men are struggling and we need to open ourselves up to all of the parts of us that make us human. I want to teach boys early on that their sensitivity, their empathy, their compassion are not just feminine qualities. These are embodied in the masculine as well.

What are some of the lies about masculinity that you encountered growing up?

Oh goodness. The idea that I always had to be strong. That I couldn’t let anything bother me. That I had to keep everything inside, and if I let people know how I was really feeling that I would be rejected. That I had to pledge allegiance to my gender, to “the guy code” at the expense of my own morality. That I couldn’t stand up to other boys or men when I heard things I knew were wrong because that would make me a traitor to my own gender. I could go on and on. There was a lot of lies, and anytime you lie, there’s a consequence. I’ve been lying to myself for a very long time. I was taught masculinity was a performance, and I’m just tired of performing. I just want to be who I am, and I want boys and men all over the world to be allowed to be who they are.

Did you ever find yourself confronting false notions of masculinity while performing as Rafael for “Jane the Virgin”?

I found myself confronting it every day. Rafael was a man that was very damaged and hurt and had a tough family growing up and had a terrible relationship with his father and never felt loved. He thought wealth was the only way you would ever be seen and could have power. Absolutely, I felt that. I was raised with similar messages. And that’s why it’s my job to pay attention and to unlearn. My goal here is never to be perfect, but to pay enough attention to my actions and to my thoughts and my feelings and to why I do the things I do, so when I do make mistakes or put on that armor and put on the mask of masculinity, I can come back faster. I can pay attention to the reason behind some of these actions, whereas for most of my life, I just chalked it up to being a man. Boys will be boys. Which is why I wrote the book. We have to do away with the excuses. Instead, we have to empower our young boys to realize there’s so much more to being boys. Boys will be human.

RELATED: Man or robot? Justin Baldoni takes on masculinity in a new book

You wrote that something almost spiritual happens when you admit you don’t know something. What do you mean?

There’s a magic in not knowing, right? It’s in the act of not knowing that you humble yourself and that’s where faith comes in. That’s where I think God is able to come into our lives and animate us and use us in incredible ways.

When I make my movies, as an example, I don’t always know how I’m going to get from point A to point B. But throughout the process, I know I’m going to make it and I’m open to figuring it out on the journey. And because my soul is open and my spirit is open, I’ll be able to hear God’s whisper, and it might cause me to completely pivot. And that has saved me so many times in my life. I have pivoted careers. Entire movies have been made because I didn’t know. Even my TED Talks and all this work on masculinity was because I was out searching. I was trying to figure out what was wrong.

(The Baha’i prophet) Bahá’u’lláh  says, “You are the fruits of one tree, the leaves of one branch.” You are part of something greater. Open yourself up to the collective idea that’s more than you could possibly understand. And then allow yourself to be used as a tool of service.

How do you think having a book like this growing up would have impacted your experience with masculinity?  

I wrote this book for the 10-year-old me who found porn for the first time before he was ready to see those images, and who would then compare himself to images for the rest of his life. For the 13-year-old who was bullied relentlessly, for the 16-year-old who was put in sexual situations far too young, for the 20-year-old who wasn’t ready to have sex but unfortunately was put in a situation where it was forced on him. I wrote this book for all the parts of me that didn’t have any outlet. I think this book would have helped me feel like I wasn’t alone. It would have let me know there are other boys who are struggling, who feel the same way I do. It would have given me an understanding of what porn does to the brain, and that women are people, not objects. It would have helped me release a lot of the fear, anxiety and frustration that I had instead of repressing those feelings. But it’s never too late. I’m seeing it in my dad who is 74 years old, who is adapting and opening up. I’m seeing it in myself. We can be cycle breakers. Every one of us can.

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