Anna Lee ‘24
Just a few weeks after its release, Netflix’s South Korean show “Squid Game” has been dubbed the most watched show on the platform. For those who aren’t familiar with the show, 456 indebted players are enlisted to play a series of children’s games in a life-or-death gamble for a 45.6 billion won prize (about 38.6 million U.S. dollars). Trending on nearly all social media platforms and networks, “Squid Game” commentary on politics, capitalism, and greed is a sore subject for many international viewers. What may have gone unnoticed, though, is the direct commentary on the U.S. and the viewers themselves.
A favorite kind of TV scene among American viewers is the “gladiator games,” where the poor, vulnerable, or mistreated are thrown into a pit of near certain death. For example, “The Hunger Games” franchise caught international attention for its premise of children fighting until death. Other films like “Spartacus” (2010) or “Battle Royale” (2000) feature gruesome fights between the less privileged, while making political commentary about the people who enable these fights. In a way, “Squid Game” is a derivation from the gladiator-like sagas, which exist to entertain a group of VIPs (supposedly the main donors of the Game). Not only are the VIPs a representation of the money-hungry in capitalist societies, but may even be a critique of the viewers themselves.
For the most part, few will admit they enjoy seeing marginalized groups or the less privileged suffer. In fact, many will go out of their way to prove the opposite — they attend protests, post on social media about the latest movement, or donate a dollar at a supermarket register. But when recorded videos of police brutality or physical violence circulate around the internet, the views they receive suggest something more sinister. In other words, there may be a suppressed, even subconscious sort of delight in witnessing this sort of violence. Like the VIPs resting in their lounge as they watch the Games unfold from their screens, viewers do the same. On our cushioned beds, plush pillows and in nice clothes, many watch violence unfold behind the safety of iPhones or televisions. Whether that’s with “Squid Game,” “The Hunger Games,” or even real recordings of hate-fueled violence, we cannot help but watch.
Another critique of “Squid Game” comes from the external results of the show. While the internal content of “Squid Game” gives ample evidence of bystanders in the midst of violence, its presence on social media suggests many people miss the main point. On TikTok, Twitter, and other social media platforms, the sexualization and adoration of the “Squid Game” cast is the primary concern for many viewers. Trending on other platforms are those who try the games to see if they’d “win.” While people should still have fun with their favorite shows, turning “Squid Game” into yet another fan-based, face-level watch is an issue within itself. The intention of the show may have not been to be popular, but rather, to rouse an important examination of the harmful systems in the status quo (i.e. capitalism, sexism, etc.).
On a less personal level, “Squid Game” may resonate with American viewers for its very direct representation of wealthy Americans as the VIPs, resting in their lounges behind a mask, while finding entertainment from the deaths of debt-ridden South Koreans—an incredibly important interpretation to consider. While the VIPs could just as easily have found entertainment from watching debt-ridden Americans or Europeans fight until their death, they chose to invest in South Koreans. Whether in politics or warfare, Americans in power have consistently put a lower value on the lives of non-white people. Unmistakably, many of the VIPs are implied to be white.
“Squid Game” has already prompted long discussions on the representation and critiques of the status quo across many nations. While it takes place in South Korea, there are a plethora of connections that an international audience can understand. Whether it’s in the context of “Squid Game” or real life, gruesome atrocities should motivate us to think critically about the harmful powers that enable and encourage such violence. While none of these interpretations about “Squid Game” can be verified for certain, taking into consideration such issues is important nonetheless.