Who’s Your Daddy!: Korean Fatherhood and The Return of Superman

Return of Superman, Screen capture, Drama Fever
Song Il-gook, with Man-se, Dae-han and Min-gook, Return of Superman, Screen capture, Drama Fever

If you have been watching the KBS2 show The Return of Superman, you have been hit with the overwhelming cuteness of the toddlers.  However, the show also shows another side of Korean masculinity through the interaction between the kids and their dads.

The show thrives on showing how fathers cope with being left alone to take care of their kids without the help of their wives. Sometimes, that means showing how fathers are kinda inept in doing certain basic things. Hilarity often ensues, especially with Song Il-gook, who is the father of triplets (Man-se, Dae-han and Min-gook), and Lee Hwi-jae, father of twins (Seo-eon and Seo-jun). More kids, more fun!

At the same time, the show reveals more dimensions of Korean fatherhood.  We see a unique dynamic between fathers and their daughters.  One of the more unlikely pairings is Choo Sung-hoon, an MMA fighter, and his daughter Sa-rang. Despite the fact that his occupation often involves beating down others, Sung-hoon often finds himself enchanted by his daughter and has no problem participating in her songs and play-acting. Their interaction is made even more interesting in that Sa-rang’s mother is Japanese and they live in Tokyo. However, language does not seem to be a barrier to their antics.

Fathers simultaneously appear very protective of their daughters and unaware of their inner thoughts. When Hwi-jae comes to visit Uhm Tae-woong and his daughter Ji-on, Tae-woong readily admitted that he doesn’t know what his daughter wants, and feels slightly awkward in trying to entertain her.  As Tae-woong says in the “confessional,”  he was previously busy filming K-dramas, but the show gives him an opportunity to spend more time with his daughter. Since that time, Tae-woong has picked up tips from Hwi-jae, and appears more interactive. In a recent episode, Tae-woong put his carpenter skills to work and built Ji-on an outdoor play area, which she thoroughly enjoyed.

While Tae-woong grapples with his toddler daughter, former cast member Tablo (of the hip-hop group Epik High) had bigger issues with his daughter  Haru, who is older.  Tablo enjoys taking Haru on excursions, such as their search for the giant yellow duck. Because Tablo has the distinction of being in the music industry, Haru has had the opportunity to see K-pop idols like G-Dragon (of BigBang) up close and behind the scenes. I guess that was all well and good when such meetings happened at stadiums and recording studios, but things went out of control when Tae-yang, another member of BigBang, visits the house. Poor Tablo not only sees Haru give Tae-yang gifts from her room like stickers and stuffed animals, she quickly kicks her father to the curb for the opportunity to go out for ice cream with Tae-yang (without Tablo!). Well, it is Tae-yang. . . Haru is sorrynotsorry!  While Tablo takes it all in stride, it does illustrate the kinds of anxieties Korean fathers experience with their daughters.

In addition to the relationship between fathers and daughters, the show also reveals the emotional attachment of the fathers through displays of emotion that are not as prevalent in the West. Asian popular culture is filled with representations of men who are emotional.  We see this in wuxia dramas (or as I like to refer to them, Swordsmen With Problems) as well as K-dramas, where men readily express emotion.   In The Return of Superman, fathers often reveal their emotions.  In one episode, Il-gook takes the triplets to the eye doctor, and has an eye exam himself, which reveals some problems which, if left unchecked, could lead to blindness. Il-gook cries at the possibility of not being able to watch his sons grow up.

This emotion extends to the relationships the show’s fathers have with their own fathers. In one episode, three generations of Lees take an excursion:  Hwi-jae, the twins and Hwi-jae’s father. They visit the naval school that Hwi-jae’s father attended. During the trip, Hwi-jae’s father seems visibly awkward with the twins. He explains that it was not the norm during his youth for fathers to have as much interaction with their children as Hwi-jae does. This reveals a certain distance between Hwi-jae and his father, one that Hwi-jae attempts to bridge during this trip. While Hwi-jae watches his father get his picture taken, he breaks down with emotion. He realizes his father is getting older and cherishes this opportunity for all of them to be together and for Hwi-jae’s father to have a better relationship with his sons.

The fathers on The Return of Superman reveal a different dimension of Korean masculinity in particular, and Asian masculinity in general. It allows the men to be funny and avoids stereotyping them in the way they often are in Western media. In showing how they care for their children, it also grants them emotionality that is often lacking in representations in the West.

Image: “The Return of Superman.” Screen capture. DramaFever. Web.

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Who’s Your Daddy!: Korean Fatherhood and The Return of Superman by CeeFu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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