Korean dramas are taking the world by storm, and women are the flag bearers of this wave.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little smug when my partner asked me if I would be down to watch All Of Us Are Dead– the latest Korean drama on Netflix blowing up globally.
For years, we have binge-watched shows from all over the world together (courtesy of Netflix). But somehow, I’d always be by myself when watching K-dramas. And this has been a bit of a trend across my friend circle; an overwhelmingly large number of women seem to watch and appreciate K-dramas compared to men, who seem to be a little dismissive of it (as many are, of things that are eagerly adopted by young women).
So, when a man comes to me suggesting we watch a K-drama, I feel all kinds of happy. As an ardent K-drama fan, it’s my pride and joy to initiate new people into everything it has to offer. And it’s a lot. K-drama is not so much a genre as it is an industry, like Hollywood, covering the length and breadth of genres like thriller (Signal), crime (Stranger), romance (Our Beloved Summer), historical (Kingdom), comedy (Strong Girl Do Bong Soon), fantasy (Uncanny Counter) – you name it!
So why is it that most K-drama viewers outside of Korea are young women? What is it about K-dramas that appeals so organically to them? Let’s dissect.
The K-drama wave in India
It’s impossible for you to be a netizen and not have heard of Squid Game, Crash Landing On You, or Vincenzo– all of which released in the past year. But the global popularity of K-dramas is neither an accident nor a fluke. Let’s delve into the past – India’s past in particular.
If you didn’t grow up watching Doordarshan, then Ghar Ka Chirag (Jewel In The Palace) might not mean anything to you. But for millions of Indians, this show was a revelation.
It was a South Korean historical drama that aired on the network; it centred around the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Seo Jang‑geum (referred to as Jang-ma in the Hindi dub). A middle-class family might not be able to relate to the plot around Korean royalty during the Joseon period. But one could still connect with the show’s themes of standing up for oneself and the cruelty of the privileged class.
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Another show that aired around the same time but didn’t share the same popularity was Samudra Ka Badshah (Emperor Of The Sea). Since then, nothing really gained traction till Zee Zindagi aired one of the most popular K-dramas, Descendants Of The Sun, in 2017. And then, OTT happened.
OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Rakuten Viki might have made it easier for people to access these shows. But their content and the quality of production is what has people hooked. And judging by the rate at which the hype is going, the Korean wave – or Hallyu – is here to stay.
The ones keeping the flame alive and thriving? Majorly women and non-binary folks.
There isn’t a comprehensive study on the gender ratio of K-drama viewership in India. But you need only go online to discover that most of the discourse is started, led by, and catered towards women. This love that women seem to have for K-dramas has a very good reason – a lot of K-drama writers are women.
Shifting the gaze: What women want
In 2019, Forbes reported that almost 90% of screenwriters in the Korean television programming industry were women. That doesn’t automatically make the story or the plot of a show better. What it does, however, is that it changes the primary viewpoint of the story.
Having women behind the screen encourages a viewpoint that represents women (and everyone else) as subjects with a richer and more complex character and life. This will make the audience empathise instead of objectify.
While the camera dictates where and how people look at something, it’s the writing that tells the camera where to focus and which parts to linger on. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the number of female directors of K-dramas is increasing. Some of the more popular K-dramas like Vincenzo, Beyond Evil and Mine were directed by female directors (Kim Hee Won, Shim Na Yeon, and Lee Na Jung respectively).
This shift in the gaze means a valuable and visible change in storytelling. This means less gratuitous camera pans over slim waists and more shy hand holding, more men admitting vulnerability, more healthy and gratifying interpersonal relationships.
The magic formula: same same but different
Several women talk about how K-dramas are a source of comfort (not guilty pleasure). The biggest reason for that is the familiarity they feel with the universal themes of these shows. Take some of the most popular romance K-dramas, for instance. Start Up is about overcoming our insecurities to fulfil our potential; Rookie Historian is about challenging gender norms and authority; It’s Okay To Not Be Okay talks about mental health struggles. K-drama Itaewon Class is about a group of outcasts in a classic David vs. Goliath story. The familiarity makes it easier for people to find a commonality. However, the story offers enough depth and complexity that it keeps you hooked for the entire length of the show.
I’m not going to lie; it wasn’t always this way. The last decade has seen a huge shift in the aspirations of the female protagonists in K-dramas. Earlier, many shows revolved around damsels in distress, like Geum Jan‑di’s character in Boys Over Flowers. The spectrum of what the female character can be has grown to be far wider in recent shows. Some characters are young, eager, rebels, some still value certain traditional values, like filial piety- while some are well-earning, independent, middle-aged, unmarried women. The list goes on.
The great character building is complemented by extremely polished world-building. The production spares no expense when it comes to creating an aspirational value in almost every frame of a K-drama. The houses (even the studio apartments) are always bright, clean, well-designed, and aesthetically decorated. Homes, public spaces, and objects look like they are all right out of Architectural Digest.
Another important variable in the appeal of K-dramas is that unlike many Western shows (here’s looking at you, Supernatural, Heroes, and Lost), K-dramas end fairly quickly. Most K-dramas follow the standard format of 16 episodes, each about an hour long. Some shows are shorter at 8-10 episodes. Very few last longer with 22-24 episodes. But rarely do they go on to a season 2 or 3. This finiteness makes it so much easier to engage with them.
Hallyu? Hell yeah!
Today, India is the sixth largest consumer of Korean pop culture (music, shows, and movies).
And there are many factors that have contributed to its immense popularity. Easy accessibility, charming characters, well-rounded plots, and most of all, the industry’s adaptability to gauge what viewers want and give it to them. Not to say that South Korean media isn’t plagued by issues or doesn’t create problematic content.
Any regional pop culture is a reflection of the country’s values and where it socially, politically and culturally stands. South Korea has had a turbulent political history and people often forget that it only became a democracy in 1987. Rapid urbanisation and westernisation of the country has led to great economic transformation but the cultural transformation is slow to catch on.
The society is still deeply conservative, patriarchal, and queerphobic with highly antiquated views on things like gender roles, body image, tattooing, interracial couples, and immigrants. And while I do commend how far the entertainment industry in South Korea has come – within the span of nearly 3 decades – we need to push a little harder for more substantially progressive stories. And we know that the Korean culture machine is willing to change. We have seen it happen right in front of our eyes.
All I want from my next K-drama is a story of a pansexual, genderfluid tattoo artist who fights the oppressive legal system – with the help of a lawyer who moonlights as a drag queen and their group of oddball friends (basically Itaewon Class X Vincenzo imagined in my gay fever dream).
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