Two Fathers 《两个爸爸》

Two Fathers 《两个爸爸》Title: 《两个爸爸》 Two Fathers
Actors: Lele, Yang Yizhan, Lin Youwei, Lai Yayan (Megan Lai), Liang Jing
Genre: Comedy, Family, Contemporary
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ | 2.0 of 5.0

[spoilers, but they’re pretty much forgone conclusions]

So like, not to be a hipster, but I was into this drama back when it was popular (in 2013). But then I completely forgot how much I loved it, or that it even existed, until I saw one of my friends posting on Snapchat about it, and she told me that it was on Netflix. And I can’t read and do my homework at the same time, right, but I can watch Netflix and do my homework. Which is exactly what I did.

Two Fathers follows the story of aspiring lawyer Tang Xiangxi (Yang Yizhan) and student horticulturalist Wen Zhenhua (Lin Youwei)––college friends who find out that a girl they both slept with, Su Wenwen, has had a baby––one of theirs, but she doesn’t know whose–and then promptly skipped town because she was unable to give up her dreams, leaving the child in their care. Fast forward eight years, and Xiangxi has his own firm, Zhenhua has a flower shop, and they’ve made their own unique family with their daughter, Tang Wendi. The series takes place between the winter break and through the summer vacation of Wendi’s first grade, when the two fathers meet her new teacher, Fang Jingzhu (Lai Yayan), which sets in motion a series of events that allows three families––the Tang/Wens, the Fangs, and the Wus––to find their own happiness.

I have very mixed feelings about this series because, while I love it and while it means a lot to me, and while I want to package it so it’s nice and shiny and glossy and perfect, it’s also a highly imperfect series. The ending felt very rushed, Wendi at times felt much too perfect, they didn’t go over the logistics of the thing that happens at the end of the series finale, which makes me feel like they were planning a second season but never got around to it.

More seriously, however, the series also pulls a lot of “no homo” moments & especially in the beginning, when they are setting up the family dynamic, there are also certain queerbait-y moments that were deeply uncomfortable. On some level, I understand it––one of the key themes of the series is found families, and that families do not necessarily have to be related to care deeply for each other and to take care of each other––and Taiwan only recently introduced the first marriage equality bill in East Asia. But on the other hand, it was also kind of disappointing that they would use queerness as a joke, because oh no, they’re not that way and lol as if they would love each other romantically.

There is also an entire arc that was incredibly fatshaming––one character in particular, Jia Meiren (Chinese is fond of puns, and “Jia Meiren” is a homophone for “fake/false beauty”). Her entire characterisation is a fat joke––she’s always associated with eating and with food, and she’s seen as Zhenhua’s abhorrent admirer. Her weight is often the subject of visual jokes. On one level, she is treated with a little more empathy than an American comedy show might give her, yet this “gentleness” is a plastering over of the deeply violent way in which we think of fatness, especially because thinness is extremely valued and because of the pervasive myth that East Asian women simply “aren’t fat.” Her relationship with Wu Yongjie could have been developed much better, but once she’s served her purpose in the narrative (to make Yongjie feel bad about herself, and then later, when necessary, to bolster her self-esteem), she disappears. She never exists for herself, she’s always a corollary to other characters, be it Zhenhua or Yongjie.

I also had some issues with the relationship between Jiang Yingfan (Xiangxi’s partner) and Fang Feizhu (Jingzhu’s brother), even as I liked Yingfan’s arc overall––she could very easily have been made into the “romantic rival” character, but she ultimately deals with her feelings in a very mature way, and finds her own happiness. I liked the initial direction of Yingfan’s response to Feizhu––calling him a stalker and threatening legal action–because it was a realistic portrayal of the ways women respond to men who refuse to stop approaching them romantically even after they’ve asked multiple times to stop.

But this veers south almost immediately, because she ultimately develops feelings for Feizhu, because of how “considerate” he is, as he calls the office almost incessantly asking after her mood, and delivers breakfast to her. We’re meant to ultimately see this as romantic because, as he’s the elder brother of the main romantic lead, he is framed as a good person, but in the real world this behaviour translates into extreme obsessive creepiness.

There were also certain questions I had about the portrayal of Yongjie––she is treated by almost everyone almost as a kid, even though she’s 25. This is, yes, younger than most of the other characters (who are in their late 20s and early-to-mid 30s), but the only person who treats her truly like an equal is Fang Qingzhu (Jingzhu’s younger brother, who is 20; had there been a second season, I’m almost sure he would have been her romantic interest).

I’m neurotypical, so I can’t say for sure that there is anything wrong with the way she’s characterised, and I also don’t know if she’s explicitly meant to be framed as neuroatypical––her character is largely explained by an extremely overprotective family background with a mother who wouldn’t let her talk to other people, which is why she is socially awkward and doesn’t understand social cues––but it still felt very strange to me, particularly given the way she’s almost constantly infantilised. (Jingzhu, for example, is only three years older than Yongjie, but she’s treated with respect by Wendi––this is largely owing to the fact that she’s a teacher, but even as Wendi calls Yongjie “jiejie,” the implication is still that Wendi needs to “take care of” Yongjie, or that she needs to “help” Yongjie or “teach” her. Wendi is all of 8 years old.)

There was also a disability storyline that was introduced fairly late into the show, and to be honest, I don’t know how they handled it. My impression is that they did a fairly okay job of portraying some of the dangers and in/accessibilities of deafness––she doesn’t hear a motorbike beeping at her, for example, or can’t hear the kettle boiling. But I was also uncomfortable with how touch-and-go it felt––her hearing was inconsistent, and only really an obstacle when it served the plot, and the ultimate takeaway, while she does become independent from a stifling and overprotective biological family that takes away her freedom, is that she needs to be taken care of by abled people. And I’m not sure what to feel about this, if it was done respectfully or realistically, because I am abled, so I do want to mention it here for your own assessment.

They also introduced the “mom” arc way too late into the storyline to do anything substantive about it––instead it was reduced to a platitude. I loved that Wenwen was never demonised for leaving Wendi in order to pursue her dreams––she does express regret, but neither Xiangxi or Zhenhua assert that she was in any way wrong for valuing her dreams, although they are extremely wary about the sorts of waves she will make in Wendi’s life. But on the other hand, I don’t know that Wendi’s main source of angst about a mother who left her with her fathers in order to pursue her own dream is not, for example, the complex feelings of abandonment or blame, but rather the idea that her fathers will be upset if she likes her mother.

So then why do I love this drama so much? It does so many things wrong and there are so many things that are questionable??? Some of the actors are extremely stiff and only like, four of them can act? The production value isn’t all that high? Nora I thought you wrote reputable reviews.

And I don’t deny that there is so much wrong with this series, but what it does right it does do quite well. Very quickly, there is a roughly even split of male to female characters, and they are all given complexity and depth, and their motivations and characters vary in realistically diverse ways. Jingzhu, for example, is tough and tomboyish, but she’s also an exceptionally nurturing teacher who values her students and likes to look pretty. Zhenhua is the “奶爸”––soft and gentle, loves to cook and clean and look after flowers––but at the same time he has very deep abandonment issues because his parents died when he was still young, and is constantly terrified of losing Wendi and Xiangxi. Xiangxi seems like a playful child, but he’s also nursing a broken heart––he was born out of wedlock, the product of an affair, and he has never been able to forgive his father for leaving him and his mother––but at the same time, he was also deeply influenced by the father he both loves and hates, going into law after those footsteps.

And because the series is about two fathers who co-parent a child together, it was important to see a variety of men embodying a spectrum of behaviours. Feizhu is the sort of stereotyped blue collar “tough man” (硬汉子), but he’s also incredibly gentle in his relationship with Yingfan, and she leads him around by the nose (if, god, you can forget how they got together, which, okay, I am unable to overlook). Qingzhu is the youngest of the Fang family, but he’s also the most clearheaded and emotionally mature. Uncle Fang seems like the traditional patriarchal old father, but what he wants is the best for his children, and he’s very devoted to his wife.

Meanwhile, Zhenhua is caring and giving and soft, and he does most of the nurturing throughout the narrative, and he’s framed as the “perfect man”–who cooks and cleans and is kind, which is a real step away from the idea of the emotionally detached masculinity both in the West and in Sino cultures. (It could be said that this is because he does a lot of the more feminised work within the home, and provides a lot of emotional labour, but I also kind of want to push back against this because he is, after all, a man, and him filling up that space of performing emotional labour does mean something.) Xiangxi, on the other hand, is the more headstrong, spirited, and childish, but he’s also very emotionally acute––when Zhenhua is about to come back from a ten-day business trip, he deliberately trashes the entire apartment with Wendi and Yongjie because he knows that Zhenhua needs to be needed, and that if Zhenhua comes back to a pristine apartment, he will feel superfluous.

I’ve said a lot about emotional maturity, and indeed, this show is very emotionally mature. There is a scene even in the second episode where Xiangxi confronts Jingzhu after she asks an inappropriate question about who Wendi’s “real father” is––he says, “If I used a knife and stabbed you and said sorry after, would you think it was okay [that I stabbed you]?” The show stresses communication––if there’s something wrong, they always say to each other, you should tell me because I’m your family instead of keeping it bottled up inside. And the characters (with the notable exception of Fang Feizhu) seem to realise that unrequited love is just that–unrequited love. And that’s your business, your problem to work through, and if you can take it up, you can also put it down.

For example, I enjoyed the way Yongjie’s romantic plotline was wrapped up. She spends most of her arc depending on Zhenhua to take care of her, and she develops a crush on him, and I would have been very angry if they had ended up as a couple (even though that seemed like the way they were pushing and the marketing indicated that it was a possibility). But there is such a vast power difference between them that it would have been incredibly gross if he had reciprocated her feelings. But because her confession to Zhenhua is portrayed as an end in and of itself, it’s a progression of her character growth rather than the beginning of a paternalistic romance.

The relationship between Zhenhua, Xiangxi, and Wendi, was also among the most tender of parent-children relationships I’ve seen depicted on television. Zhenhua and Xiangxi are always working to validate Wendi’s emotions, to put her needs first (even when it’s hard on them), and to take her seriously as an individual, which I rarely see either in real life or on television. They recognise that she is her own person with her own agency to make decisions, and whenever she does anything wrong, they reason with her because they recognise that she is a reasonable person.

But as parents, they also do their best to defend her from other people’s judgements and protect her. And I especially loved that the show doesn’t buy into the idea of blood relations as being any more or less real than found family––there is mention of a DNA test in the first few moments of the show, but it’s ultimately unimportant, and Zhenhua and Xiangxi might be the only ones who know the result––because it doesn’t matter. They both put in the work to raise Wendi, and they are both her real fathers. Babi is Babi, and Diedi is Diedi. There is no “real” dad and “adopted” father.

Zhenhua and Xiangxi also have one of the most respectful relationships I’ve watched, platonic or romantic. There are times when they keep things from each other because they are complicated people who might not be able to find all the words or want to let other people know their weaknesses, and Zhenhua might play the exasperated nagger to Xiangxi’s childish prankster, but at the end of the day they have a deeply loving, mutually supportive bond that extends to more than their shared responsibility to Wendi–they formed this family together, and even though they started out the journey with emotional entanglements to Su Wenwen, they are friends and co-parents first and foremost.

There were many others things I really enjoyed about the drama––Qingzhu and Zhengxiong’s paralleling arcs about the suffocation of parental expectation and the pressure to receive a narrow definition of a “good” education, even at the expense of a good childood, the fact that Xiangxi’s father’s cancer wasn’t used as an easy plot device to guilt-trip him into reconciliation, the emphasis on family being about the people you like who like about you, the people who care about who also care about you (especially with Yongjie’s mother being her biological mother, yet her finding happiness with an adopted family).

Despite its length (73 full-length episodes, and I wish it was longer because it really lost steam in the last few episodes as it tried to wrap everything up too quickly), this was an easy rewatch. It pairs great with dinner, and it’s genuine and light, even as at times it tackles difficult topics. And despite the emphasis on family, it’s far from reductive about what that word means, and how loaded it can sometimes be.

For me, I think a lot of my positive emotions about the show is largely tied up with the fact that I am not one of the people represented poorly within it. But not everyone is me (thin, abled), so if you are fat or disabled you may have a much different experience watching the show than I did. Ultimately, this is a very flawed show that also has many good qualities––it’s not my place to say, nor do I honestly think that what good the show does balances out the bad––but I want to lay everything out there for your consideration in case you were interested in watching the show.

And if you do/did watch it, definitely lmk what you thought!

ETA: I also really enjoyed the codeswitching between Mandarin and Hokkien throughout the series.

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