What Makes K-Dramas So Popular?

TV Features k-drama
What Makes K-Dramas So Popular?

At last month’s World Hallyu Conference in Seoul, the keynote speaker—a white, male sociology professor from Penn State—gave his musings on the rise of Korean content in global pop culture. “I don’t think people really saw [Squid Game] coming,” he said, a sentiment I saw expressed over and over again following the global success of the Netflix drama. Instead of pointing to Hallyu’s more than decade-long history in our culture (“Hallyu” refers to the popularity of Korea’s entertainment exports), the mainstream conversation centered around the “out of nowhere” success of Squid Game, leaving other recent popular dramas like Crash Landing on You or Itaewon Class—not to mention iconic TV benchmarks like Boys Over Flowers or Coffee Prince—out of the conversation, ignoring the waves of Hallyu that have come before. “Did it come out of nowhere,” I wrote in my notes at the World Hallyu Conference, “or were white men just not paying attention?”

Angela Killoren, the CEO of CJ ENM America, has been paying attention. She referred to K-drama and K-pop as “female gaze entertainment,” earlier this year during the “K-Pop, North Korea, and the Korea Program at Stanford” conference, saying: “I think it’s the greatest example of providing something to the market that doesn’t exist.” Killoren broadly categorized Hollywood film, TV, and music as “very male gaze-driven.” She continued: “It’s often all about ‘How sexy are the girls,’ ‘How bad-boy am I?’ I often have talked to fans of K-pop and Korean dramas and [they say] the same thing: ‘I love [Hallyu] because it rekindles a sense of romance. It’s something that feels different than all the other entertainment that I have.’ So is it less weird that Korean entertainment serves this purpose around the world, or the fact that nobody else thought to make content for female audiences, especially for younger female audiences?”

Korean content contains diverse genres and kinds of stories, but the romance-driven, female-centric “K-drama” format that has been successfully exported to countries around the world for decades has been integral to Hallyu, and it has been driven by women fans. K-dramas started becoming popular around the world in the mid-1990s and into the early naughts, when Korea began to invest more heavily in its entertainment industries as an economic strategy coming out of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Much of the early export successes of Korean pop culture came from other East Asian countries, which is why the term “Hallyu” comes from a Chinese phrase, meaning “Korean wave.” While Korean exports to China have significantly decreased since the latter implemented a tacit ban on Korean content in 2016, the growth of the Korean entertainment industries relied heavily on the Chinese market in its early years. At this time, China was on the economic rise and looking for content. Korean entertainment—which was deemed more in line with Chinese values, compared to American pop culture—was ready to meet the demand. In 1997, What is Love? became the first K-drama to ever officially be exported to China, and ranked second in all-time imported video content at that point.

It took a bit longer for K-dramas to break into Japan, which had its own developed, culture-exporting industries. But, when a K-drama did hit, it hit big. In 2002, Winter Sonata became incredibly popular in Japan, especially amongst women; the drama is credited with driving a 35.5 percent increase in Japanese tourists in 2004, and even today you can easily find Winter Sonata-themed tours. The Japanese prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, famously said “[series star] Bae Yong-joon is more popular than I am in Japan.” For many, this drama is considered the beginning of Hallyu, though K-dramas were popular in many parts of Asia before its success, as global audiences processing collective traumas like the Asian Financial Crisis found solace in the emotion-driven narratives.

I first came upon K-dramas in 2010, when the format was beginning to gain momentum in Western countries outside of Asian diaspora communities. I was fresh out of college, unemployed, and looking to escape into a story set far away from the poor, rural community I had moved back to during the recession. Back then, before Netflix or Viki, video streaming website DramaFever was the major online hub for the distribution of K-dramas and other East Asian content around the world. It was my access point for series like Boys Over Flowers, Playful Kiss, and Secret Garden, unabashedly sentimental dramas about poor girls falling in love with rude rich boys, disapproving chaebol families, epic tragedy, bouts of amnesia, and main characters realizing they met and/or loved one another as children. In other words: melodrama (or, as the most extreme examples of this genre are known in Korea, “makjang drama”).

Melodrama is an element of most dramatic work, but there are certain TV formats that are more purely melodrama than others: The soap opera and the telenovela, many series on The CW, and of course the K-drama. The word literally means “music drama,” but the term has evolved to refer to a genre designed to evoke strong emotion in its viewers. Ben Singer, an academic who studies early American cinema, suggests that the following five concepts characterize melodrama: nontraditional narrative structure, sensationalism, moral polarization, pathos, and overwrought emotion. While anyone can enjoy melodrama, it seems to especially appeal to people socialized as girls and women, and is often seen as a feminist genre because it doesn’t default to the male gaze. In melodrama, emotions are not treated as an inconvenience or an overreaction by the structure of the narrative; rather they are the point. For many women, watching melodrama is a space to feel and express those feelings without the negative repercussions that often come from women expressing emotion, no matter how “appropriate,” in real life.

Korean director Park Chan-wook doesn’t make K-dramas, but he is a central figure of Hallyu; his latest film, Decision to Leave, won him Best Director at Cannes and is South Korea’s entry into this year’s Oscars. Recently, he spoke to Entertainment Weekly about the popularity of Korean cultural projects around the world, saying: “I think it’s because Korean people are so emotionally expressive. There’s a wide dynamic range or spectrum of the emotions that they have. So in their cultural products, they really want to experience all of these different emotions. And these emotions naturally are emotions all people can resonate with, which is why people from other countries are sympathizing with themes or emotions in these works.”

I wasn’t the only person finding K-dramas during the 2010s. From 2012 to 2013, DramaFever’s monthly unique viewers quadrupled, growing from 2.5 million to 10 million. By 2014, the streaming site reported 20 million monthly unique viewers; demographically, the users skewed young, urban, and female. 85 percent of the streaming site’s audience was non-Asian, with 45 percent identifying as white, and 25 percent identifying as Latinx. The average viewer streamed 53.9 hours per month. (This same year, the Korea Creative Content Agency released the results of a survey finding that 89% of U.S.-based K-drama fans were women.) In 2015, shortly after DramaFever was acquired by Warner Bros., the website had more than 15,000 episodes from 70 international broadcasters on offer. Roughly 65 percent of the site’s users were girls or women, predominantly in the 18-34 age range.

Melodramas don’t have to include romance, but they often do. In the U.S., people only fall in love at Christmas. Or at least that’s what you might believe if your understanding of American culture came solely from mainstream film and television, which—since the heyday of the rom-com in the 1990s—pushes romance (a genre constructed by and for women, though that can be enjoyed by all) to the side of our culture like dirty laundry for most of the year, only to be brought out again for the next yuletide season. In the U.S., we’re obsessed with narratives about men (and occasionally women) who have massive amounts of socioeconomic power, either explicitly or as represented by literal superpowers, and who make decisions about how to wield it. The more violent—explic, implicit, or both—the better. This is the basic setup of most mainstream American stories, from Succession to Spider-Man.

Meanwhile, the Korean TV industry has perfected the one-and-done serialized love story; in usually 16 to 24 episodes, characters find community, purpose, and romantic partnership—and often get to hold onto it, too. It’s a different kind of catharsis—one based not on a decisive wielding of socioeconomic power so much as the fantastical negation of it. A story where emotional vulnerability and honesty isn’t something to be avoided at all costs, but an inevitable climax (usually a succession of many narrative climaxes) that must be faced to move forward.

Whether K-dramas center romantic love or not, they almost always prioritize emotional complexity—and not just the more “serious” kinds of emotions like anger, horror, sorrow, or regret. They treat experiences like feeling jealousy, awkwardness, a crush, anxiety, or adoration with the same respect and intensity, leading to a tonal complexity that goes largely unmatched by American TV dramas. For viewers socialized to understand, influence, and be sensitive to the complex, ever-changing emotions in any human group, melodramas make sense. They’re heightened versions of the world as we experience it—even if they sometimes involve people magically swapping bodies.

The rise in popularity of K-dramas is the result of many factors, but it’s hard to imagine K-dramas being quite as successful if Hollywood (which has more money and a massive head start) was doing a better job of building narrative structures for girls and women rather than stories that just give Strong Female Characters a gun or a superpower and watch them struggle with the same kinds of questions of power that white men and other people in positions of socioeconomic power seem to. Melodrama—as a story format, as a cultural artform—isn’t intrinsically less important than A Serious Drama or any less entertaining than the latest action blockbuster. It’s just a different kind of narrative structure, one built around the “female gaze.” It’s a kind of story that Hollywood tends not to take very seriously, and it’s a format upon which Korea built its Hallyu—and its exploding success.

Kayti Burt is a culture critic with bylines at TIME, MTV News, Refinery29, and Den of Geek. For more pop culture analysis, including K-culture context, you can follow her @kaytiburt and visit her website.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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