Benchmarking American Men to Transform Tiger Dads

By Allen Kim and Karen Pyke

Asian MenIn South Korea, a movement has emerged that helps men to answer the fundamental question: What does it mean to be a man and father today? The Father School movement mobilizes fathers to become actively involved in their families. The movement enjoyed rapid growth following the 1997 Asian economic crisis, when many South Korean men lost their jobs overnight. With their breadwinning roles threatened, many fathers began questioning their identities and family roles, leading them to seek answers through participation in the Father School movement. Combining ethnographic observation with content analysis of organization and participant documents, we illustrate how movement leaders and participants glorify American manhood in attempting to forge a new Korean masculinity.

The goal of Father School, according to a brochure is to “help men recover their identities, return the father to the family, and reunify the family through the father role.” The movement draws upon various cultural influences and relies heavily on images and ideals of Western masculinity, which serve as the standard the movement advocates. Father School takes issue with what it constructs as a distinct Korean masculinity marked by workaholic fathers who are too gender rigid, uncommunicative and distant, and thus disconnected from their families.

father hugThe solution is a masculinity transformation into a nurturing “new father” closely modeled on an ideal type attributed to American men. In five week long training sessions that we refer to as “gender boot camps,” leaders attempt to transform participants from “distant Korean patriarchs” into loving family men. The training focuses on weekly seminars with small group activities, testimonials, lectures, and interactive homework assignments designed to help improve men’s emotional and behavioral performance in their families. The core of Father School conference activities involve the public sharing and discussion around men’s personal letters written to family members that disclose apology, regret and promises to be more loving, responsible, and involved husbands, fathers, and sons.

men huggingOn the surface, the Father School masculinity makeover seems a positive process for Korean men and their families. However, it relies heavily on stereotyping and denigrating a distinct “Korean” masculinity alongside the glorification of masculinity associated with white American men. Certainly Korean men could reconstitute their masculinity within an indigenous cultural and historical context without rejecting all of “Korean” masculinity. Instead, however, the Father School movement appears to have inculcated Western gendered racism, which casts Asians as in need of Western liberation from an antiquated gender order and the authoritarian “Tiger” dad. The perpetuation of Western superiority is a negative underside to the otherwise largely positive Father School movement.

By Allen Kim, International Christian University, Japan and Karen Pyke, University of California Riverside. Their article “Taming Tiger Dads: Hegemonic American Masculinity and South Korea’s Father School,” is published in the August 2015 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

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