A swoon-worthy proposal with more than 11 million YouTube views. A primetime TV role as the love interest you can't help but root for. A series of Instagram posts dedicated to his young daughter about equality and other vital life lessons. Sure, Justin Baldoni may seem like a woke feminist unicorn among a jungle of ghosting antelopes and "u up?"-texting hyenas. But in reality, the Jane The Virgin actor feels "uncomfortable" being put on a pedestal just for being a decent human being.
"I started using my platform to talk about things like feminism, loving my wife, and, of course, I have a daughter," he tells Bustle over the phone. "Women were talking about me in a way like I was an anomaly. Like I was so rare, like one of those Bengal tigers that are on the verge of extinction on some foreign land they'd never seen before."
But, Baldoni admits, "I don't want to be an exception to the rule." He knows he's not the only person with a Y chromosome capable of being vulnerable, which is why he's starting a conversation on that very topic. "I believe there are so many men out there that are way better men than I am, that are expressive and open — or that want to be, but they just don't have permission."
Baldoni wants to redefine the modern concept of masculinity — not by himself, but with a group of men on his upcoming talk show. Originally titled The Men's Room (a new name will be announced soon), the online series plans to dive into the expectations and stereotypes surrounding gender. Baldoni says they're aiming to release two episodes online by the end of November.
"At its core, I believe the show is a feminist show. Because, at the end of the day, we want to create a generation of men that do empower women and support gender equality," he explains. "These conversations are instrumental both in men's lives and women's lives."
"The one thing I know is what I don't know, and I'm constantly learning everyday about my own gender biases."
Orange Is The New Black's Matt McGorry is already down to help, along with Dr. Michael Kimmel, who's given a TED Talk and written books about men and masculinity. When it comes to dream guests, Baldoni rattles off a list ranging from Daily Show's Hasan Minhaj to John Legend. Or Prince Ea, a rapper and poet who makes videos about topics ranging from environmental issues to society's technology obsession. Baldoni's also open to suggestions and enthusiastically encourages fans to let him know who they want to see.
But before you even utter the word, Baldoni knows the territory the show risks falling into. "We want to do the opposite of mansplaining," he says. "The first thing we've done is made sure that we have an incredible support system of equal partners and producers that are women on the project. Because the one thing I know is what I don't know, and I'm constantly learning everyday about my own gender biases and my own unconscious biases."
"We need men to be vulnerable. We need men to make the journey from their head to their hearts."
He's even hosted focus groups, talking to college-aged women about what topics they believe are most valuable, which includes the prevalence, and prevention, of sexual assault. "I want to create conversations that push the envelope," Baldoni says, such as aiming to create an entire episode about consent and dive into porn in another.
His a-ha moment about the show came a few years back when he was at the gym. A gigantic, muscular guy came over and asked, "Are you Justin?" He was soon told, "I watched your proposal with my girl last night. You made me cry." Baldoni received a fist bump, along with a reminder that being vulnerable helps break down walls.
While the video garnered comments ranging from "I have high expectations for my proposal now" to "relationship goals," here's the thing: treating women with respect shouldn't be a rarity. And no, not every woman needs an elaborate 27-minute proposal, complete with a serenade of *NSYNC's "God Must Have Spent A Little More Time As You" to be happy. (Although yes, it's beautiful to watch.) The true takeaway from Baldoni's proposal video should be that he put his heart on display, not caring what others think — or, rather, caring what others think, but expressing those emotions anyway.
"What I found was that men were secretly loving the video," he says. "It gave men permission to cry with their girlfriends when they watched it." That ties in perfectly with the goal of his talk show: "We need men to be vulnerable. We need men to make the journey from their head to their hearts."
And, quite frankly, there's no time like the present. In 2017, our own president dismisses comments about grabbing women without permission as "locker room talk" and mocks male leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer for shedding a tear. Letting this generation of men — and the next — know that they don't have to fit in a stoic box couldn't be more relevant.
"We've got to do this now," Baldoni says. "This is not a political show at all, but, at the same time, you can see that masculinity is taking us in a pretty scary direction. Men and women all over the world are ready to have a new conversation about masculinity."
The conversation is timely for the actor as well; his wife is expecting another baby, a son, who Baldoni wants "to grow up from a very early age understanding that women and men are equal, and to support and to be proud of and to love his sister, Maiya. And vice versa." Another vital lesson for his future child? "Daddy is not a superhero and Daddy is human," he says. "And Daddy is doing his best and he's going to make mistakes, but one thing he'll always know is that his daddy wants to learn and his daddy loves him."
As fans may know, Baldoni already shares the trials and tribulations of parenting under the hashtag #DearMaiya. He's open about his struggles in an effort to help others. The same can be said of his approach to his new show. "I am not an expert in masculinity. I'm not trying to be," he explains. "What I am is I'm open and willing to share my story and be vulnerable, and share my insecurities and my fears and my concerns and my doubts on my own journey to be a man. I just hope that will give other men permission to do the same."
His talk show hasn't even aired yet, but Baldoni is already starting a conversation and opening the floor to others to chime in. That in itself is a step forward.