In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Charmaine Lewis, a Black mother of two in Tucson, followed a recommendation from her Vietnamese and Chinese American friends and watched “Crash Landing on You” on Netflix. The series, about the implausible love story of a North Korean soldier and a South Korean fashion mogul, started her on an “addiction."
She watched Korean dramas, obsessively, keeping a spreadsheet of the 175 titles she consumed, cooked Korean food and studied Korean. She’s planning a trip to South Korea.
For Lewis, 52, the Korean dramas were an escape from the unbearable news in 2020, as racial tensions flared across America, adding to her constant worries about her two sons. Scripted television, she said, was no better. “Either there are no Black people or we’re criminals.” The Korean dramas provided a road map for potential healing.
When a White student called her son a racial slur at school, she looked to the dramas for the type of recompense she wanted. “I wanted the boy’s parents to come to our house with their son and get down on their knees and bow and apologize,” she said, referring to a Korean ritual when a deep apology is called for.
Like Lewis, many Black women have turned to Korean scripted television for escapism and comfort, often years before most Americans had ever heard of “Squid Game” (the 2021 K-drama that became the most watched show in Netflix history), creating a passionate and influential fandom. Black K-drama evangelists have launched blogs, Facebook groups, Instagram clubs, podcasts and TikTok accounts dedicated to Korean dramas.
When Michea Hayden was 13, she discovered “Secret Garden” starring Korean heartthrob Hyun Bin while surfing the internet. Since then, the now-24-year-old retail associate has watched hundreds of other K-dramas and visited South Korea.
“They literally sucked me in! Here I am, a young Black girl from Mississippi! There’s no Koreans here, especially the city I am from. It was very foreign to me but also so interesting that I had to dive deeper into it,” she said. “Getting into Korean culture was a way for me to see a different world and become more educated about different cultures as a Black woman.”
There’s no data on the exact demographics of the genre’s viewership, but hardcore fans say it is more than just the size of the Black female audience, but its influence.
“You can’t ask for a better cheerleader than a Black woman. From our politics to our hair-care products, we support and share passionately,” Portland, Ore.-based writer and podcast host Nina Perez, 48, said. She founded Project Fandom and Podcast Fandom to review pop culture, including K-dramas. The podcast is downloaded 10,000 to 12,000 times a month, but most listeners who live-tweet shows are Black women, Perez says.
Korean dramas, or K-dramas, are South Korean TV shows spanning romantic comedies, historical epics, thrillers, supernatural fantasies and often touch upon class, high jinks, plot twists, fate, and corruption. Like K-pop, they’re key to the rising global popularity of Korean culture.
Though Korean cultural exports have long been popular in Japan, China, Southeast Asia and Latin America, they’ve experienced a slower crescendo in the United States. As they break out — “Squid Game” now boasts 14 Emmy nominations and six wins, including the first Asians to win lead male actor in a drama for Lee Jung-Jae and director for Hwang Dong-hyuk — experts credit the influence of Black and Latina women.
“People think that it’s Korean Americans who drive the mainstreaming of Korean culture in the U.S., but actually, it’s just as much Black women," said the author of the “Ask a Korean!” blog, who uses the pen name T.K. Park.
This influence isn’t new, points out Crystal S. Anderson, an affiliate professor of African and African American Studies at George Mason University. “In the 1970s, kung fu film got to the United States and was eagerly consumed by Black and Latino audiences … far before it got to mainstream America,” she said. “We see it with anime, we see it with Bollywood, we see it with K-dramas.”
What’s helped boost K-dramas’s popularity, Anderson said, is access through streaming platforms. Decades ago, the shows were accessible only on VHS tapes, then DVDs from Korean grocery stores. Then pirated downloads entered the picture. In 2009, a start-up called DramaFever started streaming licensed Korean dramas and eventually other Asian content globally.
Digital access has also allowed fans to form their own networks. When Danielle Morris-Scott got hooked by the crime thriller “Stranger” in July 2020, the 36-year-old mail carrier was watching solo. She started the Facebook group Black and Obsessed With K Dramas in March 2021. Currently 140 members delve into Korean culture and language, some of whom plan to visit Korea next spring to see the cherry blossoms, locations from their favorite shows, and eat the local cuisine.
For some — even the fans themselves — their love for K-dramas may be surprising. When a reporter asked about the genre’s popularity among Black women on Twitter, hundreds replied.
Many cited familiar cultural themes: an emphasis on family, a respect for elders and the central role of food as an expression of love. There’s also the escapism of watching stories unfold through a non-Western lens through characters who aren’t White. But the overwhelming majority of women cited the joy of seeing love stories between people of color, devoid of the racial politics and baggage.
“Asian stories often get looked over, much like Black stories. Asian men in American society aren’t appreciated or seen as attractive, much like Black women. Yet here I am seeing super-attractive Korean leading men living their best life on-screen,” said Sandrine McCurdy, 45, a catering sales manager in San Antonio. She tracks the shows she’s seen on MyDramaList — 218 in the past three years.
Chrystal Starbird, 40, a scientist in North Carolina who has watched about 70 K-dramas and is learning Korean, noted, “A lot of times, K-dramas are about being unseen or the existence of beauty where many think there is none. As a Black woman living in America, I can relate. Even for those who fit the stereotypes on the surface, they and we are so, so much more.”
Franceska Williams, 28, a teacher in Chicago, got into K-dramas as a child getting mani-pedis with her mom. Intrigued by the shows playing on the TV in the background, she asked the salon owner to turn on the subtitles. She said she relates to the common trope of female leads who, if too “hard-working and independent, ‘they’ll never get married and settle down,’ but they prove everyone wrong.”
The chasteness of Korean dramas is also a major draw: There’s typically no on-screen nudity, and depictions of sex are rare — 16 episodes usually lead up to a kiss, often closemouthed. (Korean movies, on the other hand, can get racy). The slow burn of romance provides an enviable balm against Hollywood’s hypersexualization of Black women for some fans.
“I’ve always wondered why almost every Black woman I meet is as into K-dramas as I am,” said Zainab Barry, 24, a performance artist in New York City who grew up in Northern Virginia. As Black women, “we were either not even considered or hypersexualized.”
“There’s something so sweet about seeing a non-White couple being slow with their romance, seeing a relationship build without sex being a priority. Maybe we’re drawn to it because we see the romance we want to have but aren’t always given?”
The Korean entertainment industry didn’t anticipate the Black fandom, said Christine Hye-jin Ko, who co-directed the popular series “Law School” and “Forecasting Love and Weather.” She was surprised when she first became aware of their popularity with Black women when she discussed her shows on Clubhouse chats hosted by the social media club KDramatics.
Then, reflecting on her high school days in Vancouver and college at Duke University, Ko remembered a “cultural connection with my African American friends, akin to jung (a deep bond or connection), one of the core values that differentiates Korean culture,” she said. There is also the pervasive undercurrent of han (a deeply ingrained sense of sorrow, grief, or rage) that Koreans attribute to centuries of invasion, oppression and suffering that she said Black women may find relatable.
Still, South Korea is not a diverse country, making it all the more surprising that Korean dramas have developed an ardent Black fan base. In a society that struggles with colorism, impressions of Black people are largely informed by Hollywood or the U.S. military presence.
“Koreans in general aren’t as aware of the concepts of diversity — representation isn’t something that we’re educated about or equipped to discuss in any sort of meaningful manner. The media landscape is still quite homophobic, xenophobic, sexist and ageist,” said Ko, the Korean director who has worked on several popular dramas. “Our ability to understand why representation is important isn’t expanding as quickly as our audience is.”
The lack of literal representation hasn’t been a deterrence.
Nicci Gittens, a 30-year-old medical assistant in North Texas, may not see characters exactly like herself — a trans Black woman — but can still identify with K-dramas, she said. “Seeing how a relationship can form and build off of nonsexual desire was really beautiful to me.”
“That’s not how ‘American’ shows, or men in general tend to approach women, especially trans-identified. There is an innocence and excitement about having to wait 15 to 30 episodes, or even multiple seasons, just to see a kiss,” she said, adding that watching dramas has caused her to raise her dating standards.