Swooning for Korean dramas
Broadcasting clean, romantic fun, K-drama grows in popularity in the United States
While scrolling through Netflix last year, Wright Doyle and his wife Dori clicked on a show with an interesting premise: A South Korean heiress accidentally paraglides into North Korea and drops into the arms of an attractive North Korean soldier. Within minutes, the Texas couple in their 70s was hooked on the 2020 Korean drama series Crash Landing on You (see “Love Beyond Borders,” March 27).
The Doyles are among millions of Americans who have added Korean dramas, also known as K-dramas, to their entertainment diet as pandemic restrictions have closed theaters and streaming platforms have released more international fare for American audiences. Even though the shows require non-Korean viewers to read subtitles, K-drama viewing on Netflix nearly tripled in the United States last year, according to Time magazine.
And while American shows often push the envelope in depicting sex, K-dramas remain a relatively tame affair featuring longing gazes and rumpled bedsheets. Some hark back to an earlier era of romance: lovers locking lips to schmaltzy theme songs or couples buying matching promise rings.
One reason for K-dramas’ cleanliness: They air on South Korean TV networks subject to government decency regulations. (Korean movies aren’t held to the same standards.) Yet even these shows aren’t immune to the culture wars between traditional Korean culture and the liberalized younger generation.
The popularity of K-dramas began expanding in the late 1990s when viewers in China started tuning in. Chinese media dubbed the K-drama craze the Korean wave, which now encompasses Korean cuisine, clothing, beauty products, and of course the music known as K-pop. The Korean wave reached the rest of Asia with the popular 2002 romantic drama Winter Sonata and 2003 period piece Jewel in the Palace. The latter, which follows an orphaned kitchen cook who becomes the king’s physician, played in over 90 countries, earning $103 million.
Today, the Korean wave has entered the U.S. mainstream with Korean thriller Parasite winning the 2020 Oscar for best picture. Netflix recently announced it invested $700 million in Korean productions from 2015 to 2020 and is investing another $500 million this year.
Viewers connect to K-drama emotionally even if they don’t understand it all, said Grace Jung, a Ph.D. student at UCLA who teaches a class on K-dramas. “I know plenty of people who watch K-dramas without subtitles and without knowing any Korean,” she said.
Tiffany Nichols, a 38-year-old in Somerville, Mass., said listening to K-pop was her gateway to K-dramas. She found them refreshing because characters express affection in ways besides sex. In U.S. shows, she found that often “the whole series is really just about their sex life.”
Although K-dramas aren’t squeaky clean, in the 50-plus K-dramas we watched over several years, none showed any nudity and all contained significantly less explicit language and violence than a typical Netflix show.
Still, some series are changing with the times: The 2012 romantic comedy Reply 1997 includes a gay teenager in a love triangle, while the 2020 series Itaewon Class featured a transgender character trying to run a restaurant in Seoul’s nightlife district. The 2020 rom-com Backstreet Rookie faced backlash from viewers and a warning from government regulators for using sexually explicit language and depicting a high-school girl kissing an older man.
K-drama viewing on Netflix nearly tripled in the United States last year.
Critics point to the negative effects of K-dramas, such as perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards that lead some impressionable fans—both male and female—to turn to plastic surgery to look like their idols. Others note the shows often depict their male lead character as an unrealistically perfect package of brains, brawn, and boyish charm.
But for some Korean Americans, the rising popularity of K-dramas in the United States has helped them better appreciate their cultural background. Growing up as a minority in Richmond, Va., Paul Kim, 42, remembers trying to blend in, knowing it wasn’t cool to be Asian. He even started looking down on his ethnicity. But after watching K-dramas during the pandemic, he said seeing Koreans in a positive light on the screen showed him “a lifestyle, value system, and heritage I can finally appreciate.”
Back in Texas, Wright Doyle said he’s found redemptive arcs in some of the K-dramas he’s watched. For instance, in 2011’s Heaven’s Garden, a broken marriage brings a hurting woman to the countryside where she must repair her relationship with her father. But her father isn’t the only one experiencing restoration—the entire village transforms too.
“It’s a great example of how God uses broken things and broken people to bring healing,” Wright said.
The Doyles say the 30-hour series was so good they’re watching it all over again.
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