Karla Cabrera’s younger sister loves watching Korean dramas and spends much of her free time exploring Netflix’ latest titles.
Cabrera, a graduate student studying marriage and family therapy, initially did not understand the hype behind the genre, notorious for its saccharine and dramatic storytelling, but when she noticed a flood of Korean titles taking over the streaming giant’s catalog, she quickly discovered that there’s more to K-dramas than love triangles and kimchi slaps.
During the 2021 Code Conference at the Beverly Hilton on Sept. 27, Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos announced that Netflix’s Korean language thriller Squid Game was on track to become the streaming platform’s biggest non-English language show, and that there’s “a very good chance that it’s going to be [its] biggest show ever.” Squid Game currently ranks No.1 in nearly 90 countries.
Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, the 9-episode hit series revolves around a group of cash-strapped people who risk their lives playing deadly versions of children’s games for a cash prize of $39.4 million.
Squid Game became the first Korean drama to top U.S. Netflix’ “Top 10 in the U.S. Today” list, breaking the previous record held by apocalyptic action series Sweet Home, which ranked third. The series also came in second on Netflix’s global top 10 charts within only three days after its world premiere.
Cabrera is glad that foreign language films and shows are becoming popularized within American pop culture. She sees the trend as a positive step toward more people being educated on themes that Western media typically does not highlight.
“I love that international entertainment is being recognized in Western media,” Cabrera said. “Personally, I enjoy this type of content because I like seeing how circumstances are perceived from different cultural lens and I feel like I learn a lot from these shows and movies.”
Netflix entered the Korean market in 2016 and has steadily grown its subscriber base there. Earlier this year, Netflix Services Korea revealed profit and loss statements for 2020; sales were $356 million and operating profits were $7.54 million. Compared to 2019, yearly revenue shot up by 125% and operating profits increased nearly threefold. The company also disclosed that it had 3.8 million subscribers by the end of 2020.
Given the growing global appeal of Korean media, Netflix announced that it will invest $500 million this year alone in South Korean films and shows. In a blog post, Kim Min-young, vice president of content for Korea, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, wrote of this popularity.
“Audiences around the world are falling in love with Korean stories, artists, and culture,” she wrote.
Despite the recent move largely being an effort to capitalize on profitability in South Korea and the growing global demand for Korean content, Esther Jahng, a Korean American student at USC, believes Netflix is going in a good direction by opening doors for intercultural and global dialogues.
“I think it’s great and timely — it reflects our increasing awareness and appreciation of talents in different countries and stepping away from eurocentrism,” said Jahng, who is also a doctoral resident at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.
Other students feel the success of non-American shows like Squid Game do not necessarily equate to meaningful inclusion. Hyun-woo Lee, a graduate student studying economics, believes there should be prolonged conversations about diversity long after the show ends.
“For example, when I watch some Western movies, I enjoy it and that’s it,” Lee said. “That doesn’t change my mind or thinking, so I think the influence of the show is partial. The content has to provoke conversation.”
A study released in February by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in collaboration with Netflix examines on-screen inclusion like representations of gender, sex, race, ethnicity, disability and behind-the-camera representations among directors, writers and producers. The study researched these elements across live action Netflix U.S. original fictional films and scripted series.
Although the study deals only with U.S. original content, it indicates what Netflix is doing to promote diversity and inclusion. Through an audit of these films (126) and series (180) released in 2018 and 2019, the initiative found that while Netflix reflects gender equality in key roles, invisibility is still a major concern in content for many racial and ethnic groups.
While she agrees that Netflix still has a long way to go, Kristie Taiwo-Makanjuola, former digital media instructor at Root Branch Productions and current graduate student at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, affirms that the streaming service provider is headed in the right direction.
“I think Netflix is great because it shows you different content from different countries that you probably never would have known about without Netflix,” Taiwo-Makanjuola said.
Among some students at the cinema school, conversations about Netflix releasing more international films and series revolve around an appreciation for exposure to diverse cinematography. Film and Television Production MFA student Ukairo Ukairo said he was introduced to the South Korean television series Vincenzo by his classmates, who were captivated by its cinematography.
“You will love the way this show is shot,” Ukairo said. “It didn’t have the same kind of storytelling sensibilities that Western media tends to have, which for me, as a film student, is good to know that there’s other things out there.”
Ultimately, Cabrera believes Netflix should always be aware of what is trending in social circles to produce content reflective of the diversity within American audiences’ interests.
“I’m glad these Korean films and shows are becoming more popular so people can get educated on themes Western media doesn’t usually highlight,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that there were 10 episodes in the series. We’ve corrected the statistic to reflect that it is actually 9 episodes.