Actor and director Justin Baldoni’s new book, Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity, is remarkably honest about its limitations. “I’m not sure if there is anything really revolutionary in this book,” he writes in the opening line of the introduction. “Unique maybe?” he asks, even as he appears to question that. The book is, Baldoni writes, “a messy, vulnerable exploration of manhood,” in which uncertainty is a selling point. Best known for playing reformed womanizer Rafael on Jane the Virgin, Baldoni has recently emerged as a celebrated figure of masculine vulnerability—and Man Enough is the packaging of that ethos.
During the 2o17 TEDWomen, a conference meant to highlight “the power of women and girls,” Baldoni stepped onstage to announce that he had been living in a state of conflict “with who I feel I am in my core” and “who the world tells me as a man I should be.” He was fed up with our “broken definition of masculinity” and tired of trying to be “man enough.” Baldoni confessed to the audience, “I’ve been pretending to be strong when I felt weak, confident when I felt insecure and tough when really I was hurting,” he said. “And I can tell you right now that it is exhausting trying to be man enough for everyone all the time.” Vulnerability was a key part of his prescription.
Men, he said, needed to learn to “embrace the qualities that we were told are feminine in ourselves.” As he put it: “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?” The speech spread far and wide, with women’s magazines profiling Baldoni’s attempt to “redefine” masculinity. On YouTube, women commenters applauded his sensitivity, occasionally offering up the sentiment that real men express their feelings. Men weighed in with their own struggles with repressing emotions alongside the dictum of “boys don’t cry.”
Man Enough is the inevitable outgrowth of this viral speech. At points, it movingly details his struggles within the straight-jacket of masculine expectation, including being exposed to porn under intense social pressure as a confused 10-year-old. In a heartbreaking passage, he describes a traumatic encounter with a teenage girlfriend who violates his clearly stated sexual boundaries (what he describes reads to me as rape, although he does not use the term). Baldoni details his experience with body dysmorphia while being routinely asked to appear shirtless on TV. He writes about telling his castmates that he felt too insecure to take his shirt off and being laughed at in response.
The book honors emotions and tenderness in ways that are often devastatingly cut off for men. Man Enough is valuable as a masculine counterexample, but it ultimately vaunts feelings at the expense of meaningful analysis. Although Baldoni has identified himself as a feminist—and the TED website calls him an “outspoken feminist”—the book isn’t interested in the movement and distances itself from what he calls “political agendas.” Trapped within the narrow confines of self-help, where feelings reign supreme, Baldoni’s approach to masculinity is a reminder that sensitivity can be a way to pre-empt critique; vulnerability can be a shield. Emotional appeals set the terms of debate (often, that there isn’t one). He’s already announced his insecurity, as well as the high stakes of his self-exposure, so any outside criticism may appear excessive or inappropriate. (Jezebel requested an interview with Baldoni, but his team “politely” declined.)
Feelings do not exist in a vacuum, though. The apolitical reclamation of emotion seems a way to make masculinity slightly more bearable for men. The potential for harm is especially pertinent in the Trump era, which through a certain lens is defined by the political enactment of men’s emotions to the detriment of women and other marginalized groups.
Baldoni admits that the book is “written by someone who sits at an intersection of power and privilege and who historically probably wouldn’t willingly choose to get this vulnerable, as there would seemingly be no benefit.” Then he asks: “Why try to tear down the walls in a system that has benefited me my entire life?” Among his answers are that it feels like the right thing to do. The very phrasing of the question is telling: tearing down the walls in a system implies an interest in maintaining that very system. Baldoni positions himself as purposefully apolitical: “I am not pushing any partisan belief system or agenda here. As a registered Independent, I don’t subscribe to any political ideology, and though I absolutely vote and participate in elections, I don’t talk publicly about who I am voting for.”
He wants to ensure “this book does not jump into what is currently considered ‘woke’ for the sake of wokeness” and believes we must “separate the masculinity conundrum from political agendas to do the nuanced self-work and necessary healing to successfully create space for the conversations to be had.” Although Baldoni dedicates a chapter to the subject of race and exploring his own white privilege—a chapter he admits that he wrote last, seemingly in response to the murder of George Floyd—he does not appear to appreciate how that privilege allows for the book’s foundational illusion of being able to separate “the masculinity conundrum” from politics.
Of course, the masculinity conundrum is fundamentally political. Restrictive, outdated notions of masculinity are informed by politics, including everything from parental leave to pay equity. Baldoni is clear that he takes issue with the “wage gap,” “rape culture,” and “domestic violence,” while emphasizing that such a stance is “not a liberal or a conservative opinion.” These shouldn’t be partisan issues, but they often play out that way. In the book, Baldoni calls himself an ally to women and has in the past called himself a feminist while noting that one of his favorite definitions of feminism is that it’s “the radical notion that women are human beings,” as the scholar Cheris Kramarae put it.
Public declarations of feminism alongside such stark pronouncements regarding women’s humanity feel more like a dodge than an endorsement. Historically, feminism is a movement that has paired that basic notion of humanity alongside concrete convictions around radical political change.
Baldoni hollows out that revolutionary ideology in service of positive masculine self-conception. At times, this rhetorical erosion can seem almost satirical.
He wrote in a 2018 essay about being a feminist father: “[D]o I consider my daughter to be a human being? The resounding answer is, and will always be, YES.” This has strong “dad feminist” or “father of daughter” vibes, wherein a man argues for gender inequality within the context of having a daughter and wanting better for her. It is feminism as patriarchal side-effect. As my colleague Stassa Edwards put it, “There’s nothing wrong with a father wanting equality for his daughter, but it’s an approach to feminism that chafes at the core of equality; namely, that men would only be interested in history-making if they too had some clear biological stake in it.”
Men’s limited, contingent feminist awakenings by way of fatherhood are routinely celebrated as much larger, and more politically meaningful, than they are in reality. In the wake of his daughter’s birth, Baldoni posted to Instagram about his “hopes and dreams” for her and, as he writes, “it didn’t take long for various (female-facing) press outlets to pick up my posts and to quickly label me as a feminist fighting for gender equality.” He is candid about just what an over-interpretation this was: “I hadn’t even realized that’s what I was or was trying to do.” Yet, this seems to have been the spark the led him to create the show Man Enough, wherein he sat down with friends and talked about manhood. Then came the invite to give his speech at TEDWomen.
Despite the celebratory response to Baldoni as a gender equality warrior, his book isn’t concerned with feminist thought, except for in fleeting, perfunctory ways (a bell hooks quote here, a Naomi Wolf quote there). There are possible hints of feminist influence: He thanks his family’s nanny in the acknowledgments and notes that “capitalism is an impossible system without women’s unpaid labor.” But then he objects to the term “toxic masculinity,” not because it’s become overused and poorly defined, but because it’s “too politicized.” He adds: “We cannot continue to lump all men into one group and label it ‘toxic.’” It’s unclear who the “we” is there. It seems a case of not only creating, but also identifying with, a straw man. Or perhaps it’s pandering to an imagined lowest common denominator.
His partisan distancing doesn’t just apply to women’s issues: In the chapter devoted to his white privilege, he supports the Black Lives Matter movement and gestures toward systemic oppression without taking a stance on, say, defunding the police. Mostly, he details his own racist blindspots, missteps, and micro-aggressions with friends. Similarly, Baldoni writes of his “addiction of sorts” to pornography, but fails to engage with the current political context of conservative, religiously motivated attacks on the industry which have been devastating for sex workers.
Porn addiction is deeply controversial within the scientific community and is unrecognized by the DSM and yet he casually mentions porn alongside opioids and alcohol. Baldoni notes the extreme shame he experienced around watching porn but fails to highlight research drawing a link between moral disapproval and personal feelings of “porn addiction.” Instead of exploring that rich territory, he gives nods to the app JoinFortify.com as a way to “beat” porn and cites information from Truthaboutporn.org, both of which are linked to Fight the New Drug, a Utah-based anti-porn organization that once ran a billboard campaign with a message reading, “Porn Kills Love.” Baldoni may lead with his personal feelings around porn, but he’s also tacitly promoting the political agenda of the anti-porn movement.
It seems Baldoni almost took a more explicitly and unapologetically political path. At the start of his masculinity journey, he considered the possibility that he “needed to dive in and research and educate myself on women’s rights and connect with leaders and organizations to help advocate for systemic change for women,” he writes. Instead, he decided that “this form of activism would be in vain” unless he did the “work of connecting with myself.” Women, he says, don’t “need another man jumping on the ‘woke’ bandwagon, wearing a feminist T-shirt, and tweeting and speaking out about social issues who isn’t willing to start by doing the hard work of introspection and self-reflection.”
It’s true that all social justice movements could benefit from participants being self-reflective and adequately therapized, but Baldoni constructs a false, individualistic, and self-interested binary in which a man chooses between either superficially performing wokeness or engaging in self-reflection. The reality is that meaningful, critical self-reflection around masculinity doesn’t happen without direct engagement with the systemic nature of gender inequality. Masculinity can only be “undefined” within its political context. Absent that, there is just feel-good self-improvement and milquetoast women-are-humans feminism. If we’re talking false binaries, I would rather a mob of woke men posting selfies in “feminist T-shirts” and jumping on the vastly overestimated bandwagon than a movement that depoliticizes critical masculine self-reflection and allyship with women.
Man Enough seems yet another reflection of familiar neoliberal ideologies that depoliticize systemic problems and cast them as individual dilemmas. The many institutionalized blockades of patriarchy are turned into a self-help obstacle course, rather than a project of collective bulldozing. Where neoliberal feminism tells women to just lean in at the office, Baldoni instructs men to lean into their feelings. In fact, Baldoni frequently emphasizes the need to “lean in” to discomfort, shame, fear, inadequacy, and “those tender places.” This would merely register as common, and sometimes extremely useful, therapy-speak if it weren’t for his emphatic disavowal of partisan politics.
Much of this apolitical positioning appears to arise from the critical response to that TED talk. He writes of a social media post from a white man in the Midwest who called Baldoni a “‘man-hating’ feminist” and an “example of what’s wrong with ‘The Left.’” When Baldoni privately reached out to this man, explained his viewpoint, and encouraged him to actually watch the entirety of the TED talk, the man apologized for criticizing him. Other similar interactions gave him hope, he says. “My deduction: most men, regardless of our actions and beliefs, what side of the political aisle we sit on, want the same thing,” he writes. “We want to become the best version of ourselves possible, to simply become better men.” This seems to entirely ignore the Trump presidency. Not to mention: setting aside actions and beliefs is quite the concession. In fact, that “setting aside” is a key component of contemporary feminist backlash.
Scholars have argued that antifeminist online communities— contrary to their frequent insistence on men’s rationality and women’s emotionality—actually rely on the exchange of men’s feelings. In a paper on the sprawling network of message boards and blogs known as the manosphere, professor Debbie Ging writes of the “political assemblages that coalesce around emotional involvement and empathy rather than political principles.” The sociologist Michael Messner warns of the threat from a “kinder-gentler” antifeminist approach that “skirts analysis of structural inequalities in favor of a common-sense celebration of individual choice.” This isn’t to equate depoliticized feminism with the avowed antifeminism found in extremist online communities, but rather to highlight the broader backdrop and potentially destructive ends of apolitical, individualized, feelings-first approaches to masculinity.
Although Man Enough is framed around masculinity, it lands on a fundamental human need for belonging. Through most of the book, Baldoni had been “reframing the traditional messages of masculinity to be more inclusive and holistic.” That was the work of grasping for a sense of being “man enough,” but in the process, he discovered that “what I had mistaken for a desire to be man enough was actually a fundamental need to belong.” So he gave up on “man enough,” instead finding that “there are no prerequisites for worthiness.” He adds, “There are no boxes I have to check or rules I have to follow before I can be enough. I already am simply because I am.”
It is clear that Baldoni is man enough, human enough, person enough. His vision of masculine “undefining,” however, is not remotely enough. There is only so far that the depoliticized approach can take anyone. Baldoni writes that after reading a draft of the final chapter his wife told him: “Wow, baby, this is really good. But I think you need to read your own book.” He was still struggling with that search for feeling “enough,” despite his written declaration that he, and every man reading his book, is already “enough” as-is. Admitting this is counter to the optics of a traditional self-help guru, but, once again, it is consistent with Baldoni’s brand of masculine vulnerability. That tenderness, the exposing of the soft underbelly, is fundamental.
In an Instagram post the day before his book launch, Baldoni told the camera, “I’ll tell you, I never thought in my wildest dreams I would write a book called Man Enough, yet battle with feeling enough to have written it. It just goes to show I am in the journey. I am not on the other side of it.”