Culture Matters:

Mass Appeal of K-Dramas and the “Hallyu Wave” Lockdown Effect

by Roslyn Axtell | May 14, 2021

During 2020’s lockdown, we all found ways of coping. For a growing number of people, Korean TV shows and films offer an enchanting escape from pandemic reality. Netflix has reportedly seen a “370% increase in viewership of Korean content in 2020” over the previous year, and this order of growth is expected to continue as lockdown restrictions ease. In 2017 there were only two Korean series, “White Nights” and “Man to Man”; now there are hundreds of K-Dramas available to viewers on Netflix, proving that the “Hallyu wave,” or rise in the popularity of Korean content, will continue to grow.

Countries throughout Asia especially have seen a massive increase in Korean content consumption during the pandemic. Pooja Dhingra, founder and CEO of Le15 Patisserie, describes her deep dive into K-Dramas during 2020 as though “my brain paused, and I was in the present moment. I’ve watched over 25 dramas in the past year and still get deeply involved with the plot and characters.”

Many fans living in countries like India and Egypt attribute the widespread popularity of K-Dramas to the underlying conservatism in South Korean culture. Except for Korean films and TV labeled as “Thriller” or “Horror,” viewers will rarely see scenes of sex, gore, or drug use. Instead, there is a huge emphasis placed on Korean values. It is extremely common to see characters bowing to their elders, using honorifics, and turning their faces away when they take a sip of alcohol as a sign of respect. Heroic characters tend not to date more than one person, have strong family ties, and possess a good work ethic. For many people living in more conservative countries, South Korean movies and TV shows feel familiar because these shared values are so prominently featured.

K-Dramas are also gaining popularity in less conservative places. With so many female writers, the standard characteristics for lead women include strength, confidence, being career-oriented, and having the courage to be vulnerable. The sensational series, “Strong Girl Bong-Soon,” features a tiny woman with incredible (and often hilarious) super strength. She is constantly encountering men who ask her, “You are so small and weak, why are you so brave?”  They tease her, shove her and try to intimidate her…until they regret it! Throughout the show, Do Bong-Soon confronts sexism, bullies, and even a murdering psychopath. Her endless courage and good heart are an inspiration to all women who have ever been underestimated, discriminated against, and/or harassed because of their gender.

K-Dramas are striking a chord with people around the world, and with social media making it easy to discover and connect over favorite K-pop artists and actors, it is a good bet that Korean content’s popularity will continue to rise. Netflix has taken that bet, investing “nearly 500 million USD in Korean content” in the year 2021. With this much financial support, it will be incredibly exciting to see how the “Hallyu wave” expands!