‘Squid Game’ has become the most streamed show on Netflix and took over pop culture across the world. Shows and movies like this make waves every so often, but some worry it’s message has gotten lost in translation.
This Korean drama goes beyond our common understanding of survival games seen in young adult fiction; ‘Squid Game’ is a critique of capitalist society and the lengths ordinary people will go to just barely get by.
Rather than focus on these themes, some fans would rather focus on the aesthetics of the show, including the comparatively foreign elementary school games, which are so prevalent in Korean culture.
There are even Netflix-sponsored pop-up cafés around the world where fans can play some of the games or take pictures with the show’s guards in their hot-pink uniforms and fencing masks.
While it might be fun, this doesn’t scratch the surface of what the show really means.
This has happened with many serious pieces of media, but there are two specific reasons as to why this show is often interpreted non-critically, and why it might be problematic.
The more prevalent reason would be due to self-preservation. This past decade, especially now during the pandemic, many people across the world have experienced some form of financial ruin.
As a coping mechanism, fans get into the show because they can escape their own reality of financial problems to see how fictional characters deal with theirs.
The show’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, wrote the first version of ‘Squid Game’ back in 2008. Hwang himself was halted from getting the show greenlit due to money problems, even having to cease some of his own productions and sell his laptop in the process.
South Korea, like many other capitalist countries, experienced some financial pitfalls, and the show was made to reflect that. As the ‘Squid Game’ characters play childhood games to find meaning in the simple challenges, they’re forced to turn against each other in a survival-of-the-fittest situation.
Spoilers ahead; but the contestants are even being recorded and broadcast internationally, with VIPs betting on them as if they were racehorses. The VIPs themselves are noticeably non-Korean, wear gold masks, and talk as if they’re completely out of touch with serious issues, including how the contestants dealt with poverty before all this happened.
The other main issue, one that’s stuck around long before the show’s airing, would be the general fascination with Korean culture.
This “Korean wave”, sometimes called “hallyu”, began a little over a decade ago with no specific catalyst. Some point to early 2010s K-pop bands like Super Junior and 2NE1 that gained cult followings, and even to PSY’s memetic hit, “Gangnam Style” as the start of it.
From there, Korean musicians, TV shows, food, and beauty routines were taken up by a largely Western audience on social media.
With the recent success of the band, BTS, and Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar winning film, ‘Parasite’, Hallyu has only grown in influence, culminating in the success of ‘Squid Game’.
This wave poses an issue because this fascination can sometimes border on fetishization, again with fans not fully accepting the in-depth criticisms of a culture they’re not a part of.
Stereotypes, whether they’re good or bad, have contributed to negative outcomes of how cultures perceive one another. ‘Squid Game’ fans focus on the physical attractiveness of the actors and the emotional trauma their characters face with little regard for what the story is trying to reflect about our reality.
The medium is the message, but a television show won’t always give you all the details.
To sum it up, it’s okay to enjoy these characters or want to try the dalgona carving game for yourself. Critical thinking is vital to understanding media, which marks the first step in truly loving it, and you can do both simultaneously.
When the time comes to watch another show like this, try reading between the lines. You never know how much better you’ll enjoy it afterwards.
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