As most of my stories start out, it was summertime in the suburbs and I was in my bedroom. The noises were comforting, ambient: muffled Korean shouting, spaceships crashing, and the telltale clack of my busted MacBook's keyboard as I Google translated idioms. I'm as American as baseball and Mom's adapted cronut recipe, and I've spent my entire week watching subtitled Korean drama My Love From Another Star on the Internet.
And while I felt that I'd never been lonelier than in this moment right here, I know I'm not alone. Thanks to K-drama streaming sites like DramaFever and Viki, as well as content on Hulu, Netflix, and iTunes, K-dramas originally airing on television in South Korea are more popular than ever with people like me—18-24 year-old American women not of Korean heritage.
The plots of most popular K-dramas found on streaming sites in the US vary wildly and invariably are wild, but are typically structured as such: each episode is forty minutes or longer, plot arcs are self-contained within individual seasons, and the romance central to the story is always chaste. The kiss between the male and female protagonist typically doesn't come until about ten episodes into each series. There is no sex.
Take My Love From Another Star, a show that originally ran from December 2013 to February 2014. It follows an alien from the Joseon dynasty who finds himself a) time-traveling, and b) romantically involved with modern-day Seoul's biggest starlet. The lighting is soft and the actors, Jun Ji-hyun and Kim Soo-hyun, are hot. When they finally kissed in episode 8, I needed a minute to collect myself even though I came of age watching sexually-explicit television on Showtime and HBO alongside my parents.
The show reminds me a lot of Sleepy Hollow, a Fox supernatural thriller that chronicles the life of a reanimated Ichabod Crane (from Washington Irving's tale) as he assists/romances a sheriff named Abbie Mills as she fights supernatural crime in present-day Sleepy Hollow. It's funny and charming in an "Ichabod doesn't know what Saran wrap is but looks good in a pair of Revolutionary War-era jodhpurs!" sort of way. Such is true with My Love From Another Star. I'm obsessed with it.
Early to everything but massively popular exported culture (in the case of South Korea, it's called Hallyu), I only became an invested, serious K-drama watcher this year. But they've been visibly popular in the US for at least five years. When DramaFever co-founders Seung Bak and Suk Park first started seeing K-drama interest on the Internet in 2008, fandom was comprised of a ragtag group of viewers from around the world uploading bootleg versions of K-dramas onto the Internet and crowdsourcing the subtitles. Illegal fansites popped up, as did recaps in English.
With a hunch that a slick service could sell in the US and a compelling PowerPoint to prove it, Bak and Park started cold-calling international television networks to see if they could get the rights to some foreign content. By mid-2009, DramaFever, the first and largest K-drama streaming service, launched.
K-drama's success among non-Korean-Americans may seem counterintuitive. "Our audience is nothing like anyone could have hypothesized," Bak told me. "People assumed that Americans don't want to watch foreign content, nobody wants to read subtitles, and they don't want to be glued to their computer screens." But DramaFever built a TV network online doing exactly that.
Forty percent of their viewership is white, 30 percent is Latino, and the remaining 30 percent is black and Asian. Seventy percent of their viewers are female. DramaFever averages 21 million unique views per month across its site and its syndicated properties on Hulu and Netflix. That's as many viewers as a small cable channel.
I watch Korean shows like My Love From Another Star or perennial favorite Boys Over Flowers exactly like I watch pulpier American shows like Pretty Little Liars or Real Housewives of Atlanta—supine in bed with my computer resting on my stomach. But K-dramas are not easy to watch passively. Because I need to read subtitles, I don't text, thumb through Twitter, or fold laundry while watching. Also challenging is the length of the episodes and the extent to which they proffer extreme Korean values. Still, I find the stories engrossing, even though I know I fail to grasp cultural cues.
It's that perfect storm of Puritanical separation of the sexes.
Euny Hong is the author of this month's The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture. Though she considers talking to journalists about Psy to be an "occupational hazard," she told me she has some theories as to why American girls are flocking to these shows.
"The people that create pop culture [in the US] are finally discovering belatedly that there is a deep longing for long, drawn out romance that for whatever reason cannot be consummated," Hong said. "You know, like in Twilight, they can't do it because Robert Pattinson might actually kill Kristen Stewart. The stakes are very high."
"It comes from a culture of 1,000 years of Confucianism plus 50 years of Christianity, so it's that perfect storm of Puritanical separation of the sexes," Hong added. "It's a very cultural thing."
The stakes are even higher in Korea because of strict television censorship falling under the Anti-Corruption Law that monitors all TV.
As someone who is an enthusiastic tourist in Korean skin products, this music video, and hallyu in general, but still a non-Korean speaking American (except 똥머리, the word for "topknot"—a hairstyle popular on Tumblr and in real life—that my friend Sarah taught me, which translates directly to "poop hair"), I find these distinctly Korean elements of K-dramas are sometimes schmaltzy, but not particularly "foreign" to me.
There's no nationalism in liking to look at attractive people while they look at each other and decide whether or not to make out. I like stories about prodigal sons and the downside of fame and the mean girls in the high school cafeteria. I like time travel.
Does the repression of sex and the episodic return to a simpler, more demure culture make K-drama shows more satisfying to me than a particularly raunchy episode of Girls or Orange is the New Black? Not exactly. But I understand why Twilight worked and I hope you'll understand why I once spent five hours watching Titanic on TBS, even though the sex scene in the jalopy had been edited out.
To that same effect, I understand the brightness of period drama ingénue Keira Knightley's star and why I had to re-read Jane Austen in every English, Comparative Literature, and Women's Studies class I took in college. These stories are all the same, whether they take place on an iceberg, at Pemberley, or at a coffee shop in Seoul.
If you're okay with watching six hours of 'Pride and Prejudice,' you'll be fine with Korean drama pacing.
Vivi, a blogger at popular recap blog KDrama Fighting! (tagline: "Two blonde American girls by day, Korean drama addicts by night") thinks Korean dramas are just like BBC Masterpiece Classics.
"You have the focus on social status, the emotional restraint, and the haughty rich man/ feisty poor girl setup that you would get in a Jane Austen adaptation," Vivi told me over email. "Plus, if you're okay with watching six hours of Pride and Prejudice, you'll be fine with Korean drama pacing."
But K-dramas are not at all dissimilar to Spanish language telenovelas, Bollywood films, or the shows cranked out by the booming soap opera industry in the Philippines, many of which shows are also featured on streaming sites alongside Korean content.
Stories in K-dramas are universal, and though they are firmly sex-negative, largely erase LGBTQ realities ( with exception!), and reinforce tired gender tropes, they resonate with me as much as they would with my counterpart in South Korea, or in Mongolia for that matter—something that American cable companies have continually failed to acknowledge.
In The Birth of Korean Cool, Hong explicates the "soft power" of Korea's cultural force, and its impact worldwide. Anyone can watch these shows anywhere—not just because modest plotlines are easier to export to conservative regions, but in terms of hardware, too: American TV is terrestrial. As smartphones become more and more ubiquitous in the next decade, a girl in Mongolia could watch a Korean TV show just as easily as I could. American TV networks have had the luxury—and hubris—to be able to avoid this for now, but not for long.
"One big Achilles heel in American marketing—and it hasn't been a problem until now, but it's going to be, I predict, in the next five or 10 years—is that Americans don't realize that most of the world is not as free as they are," said Hong, "There are more people who really can't watch American TV than who are allowed to watch American TV."
That's the sort of genius of K-dramas, which didn't really exist until the 1990s, and their rapid spread throughout the world. Americans—myself included, as I write a thinkpiece about K-drama without any real Korean immersion—don't realize that soon easily exportable international media will dwarf our often desperate and gimmicky culture.
Teen girls are the first to get it, and have always gotten it: maybe there won't be sex, but there will be binge watching.