A Dream of An Ideal Fatherhood
By Thu Ngo
The success of ‘Dad, Where are We Going?’ (WWG) in my opinion is attributed to the construction, or to be more exact, the reconstruction of fatherhood among the audience not only South Korean ones but also those in other Asian countries.
Regarding the definition and symbolisation of fatherhood in pre-modern East Asia, Confucianism has been the most influential. The system was in fact spread to other East Asian countries including South Korea thanks to China’s invasion throughout the region in the pre-modern era. Joseon Dynasty of Korea (1392-1910) was the most heavily influenced by Confucianism of all dynasties in East-Asia (Taga 2005:130). One of the most influential concepts constructing East Asian masculinities including the image of a father in the family that Confucianism presents include patriarchal authoritarianism (Jung 2011).
Confucian patriarchy emphasises that men are supposed to occupy the public (outer) space when women the domestic (inner) one (Taga 2005:130). This in fact suggests a gendered division of labour between father and mother in the family. Fathers were expected to work outside the home, playing the role of breadwinners while mothers take care of children (Kang 1993). Traditionally, it is reinforced that a good Korean father is the one who works hard and earns a lot of money for his family. This ideology also suggests that the traditional Korean father to have more power over his wife and children.
However, this traditional ideology was collapsed and rebuilt because of the radical change throughout the Korea society. In her Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption (2011), Jung argues that the deconstruction of Confucian masculinity in Korea stated in the early 1990s when the IMF catastrophe occurred; men lost jobs and women participated more in the labour market (29). This deconstruction has been well represented first in Korean movies (Kim 2004 qtd. in Jung 2011:29). Using the story of Min-ki, the male lead of the melodrama Happy End (1999), Kim argues that it is Min-ki’s involvement in domesticity “represented by the kitchen and daytime soaps” that transgresses Korea’s traditional gender norms (2004:254-258 qtd. in Jung 2011:29). Additionally, a new trend towards portraying “soft and neutral masculinity” depicted by a “caring and gentle image” in Korea further illustrates the transformation (Cho 2004 qtd. in Jung 2011:29).
Similarly, the conventional image of father in Korea who is absolute authoritarian and strict also experienced its collapse. Instead, a new image of Korean father is emerging in the Korea society. This is the mature personality who “loves, counsels, advices, and is a friend to his children; competent with finances; is family centered; not only do the house chores, but also satisfy the emotional needs of his family” (Shwalb et al. 2010:359).
Yet there is a common fact that most fathers in Korea could not fulfill this image because of their excessive work. According to Olson (2008), Korean fathers even in the contemporary society are the family’s primary wage earner and they can hardly have enough time for their wives and kids due to authoritarian corporate culture. Meanwhile, due to the society’s strong emphasis on social status and belief that one’s success is closely associated with the prestige of the university he enters, children in Korea are put into a highly competitive environment which requires them to start their academic training in early age instead of playing (Shwalb et al. 2010:351). Consequently, it would be difficult to have father-children time in Korea. In fact, 42% of the children spent less than 30 minutes daily with their father, even though 87.7% of the children need a father who does the active involvement with them (Shwalb et al. 2010:359). So, it seems that Korean contemporary society is facing an inevitable irony where both fathers and kids want to spend time together but they cannot. The Korean fathers remain simply the breadwinner to their kids.
Against this context, such shows like ‘WWG’ and its opponent, ‘Superman‘ offer the audience a fairy tale or a dream of an ideal image of fatherhood that is too hard to achieve in the real family life. The celebrities in the first episodes are representation of a stereotypical Korean father who is not used to deal with the needs of their children. In Episode 21 of ‘Superman’, actor Jang Hyun-sung said, “It’s about 10 times harder than what it seems on TV…. There’s a big difference between just playing well with your kids and taking care of their everything for 3 days.” The fathers have to cook for their children, bathe them, teach them and resolve conflicts between the children.
Yet throughout the show, the male celebrities are seen gradually to change into the ideal image of father as Koreans dream of. They win their children’s hearts; they know how to care for their children even with the most detailed things; and especially they appreciate and feel thankful for moments they spend with their children.
The “growing-up” process of the fathers in the show is identifiable with audiences of all ages and thus easy to touch the right chords. The audience, especially male ones who have children can understand the hardship they have been through, and identify themselves with those celebrities. Regardless of their successful career, the male celebrities have difficulties handling their kids, just like most fathers in Korea do. Meanwhile, young audiences, including adolescence and twenties, see the kids and celebrities and might think about them and their father. Positive and admiring comments are flooding whenever a new episode is uploaded on YouTube. For example, a nick named Yaffa Dinar commented on Tablo’s performance as a father in the ‘Superman’ show, “Tablo, you are the superdad. Love your wonderful interaction with your daughter. You feed her with lots of imagination. You enter her world and that is good communication with children. I’m glad to see such a dad.” The shows moreover seem to affect and change some viewers’ attitudes towards family and children. For example, a viewer nicked RayisOkay wrote, “I’ve never wanted to have kids, but this show always changes my mind.”
Such shows appear to offer a new representation of fathers in the modern time – who are more exposed to child-rearing and taking a more active role in taking care of their children.
Due to the socio-economic changes, Korea’s ’masculinity’ in general and its image of ‘father’ in particular have been changed accordingly. Today, being masculinity is no longer associated with being patriarchal and authoritarian. Instead, a new generation of machos and fathers are in need. They are supposed to be “physically healthy, economically competent, and take good care of his wife and family” (“New Machos Dominate TV programs” 2014). However, reality has shown that it is hard to achieve such an ideal man, an ideal father in the modern life. That explains why programs like KBS’s “The Return of Superman” or SBS’s ‘Dad, Where Are We Going?” which construct an ideal representation of fathers in modern time who are more exposed to child-rearing and taking a more active role in taking care of their children enjoy positive reception among the audience, both local and foreign.
[to be continued]
DongA Ilbo. New machos dominate TV programs. 25 March, 2014. http://english.donga.com/srv/service.php3?biid=2014032506928. (Accessed April 13, 2014)
Ha Thanh Van. Reception of Vietnamese young people for Korean culture – Some viewpoints from a cultural-sociological survey. 2012. http://www.hanquochoc.edu.vn/cps/nghiencuu/vanhoahanquoc_nghiencuu/2014/2/881.aspx. (Accessed 13 April 2014).
Jung, Sun. Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Old boy, K-pop idols. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. 2011.
Olson, Parmy. “The World’s Hardest-Working Countries.” Forbes. 21 May 2008. http://www.forbes.com/2008/05/21/labor-market-workforce-lead-citizen-cx_po_0521countries.html. (Accessed 26 Mar, 2014)
Shwalb, David W., Jun Nakazawa, Toshiya Yamamoto, and Jung-Hwan Hyun. “Fathering in Japan, China, and Korea.” The Role of the father in child development. 5th ed. New York: Wiley, 2010. pp.341-387.
Taga, Futoshi. “East Asian Masculinities.” In Handbook of Studies on Men & Masculinities. Ed. Michael S. Kimmel, Jeff Hearn, and R. W. Connell. Sage Publications, 2005. 129-38.
The Return of Superman, Ep.2, “They’re Just Like Me”, Aired Dec, 15, 2013.
The Return of Superman, Ep.12, “If we haven’t met then…”, Aired Feb, 9, 2014.