As someone who’s always thrilled to hear more international folks appreciating Korean dramas, I guess I should be pretty excited about how the Netflix series “Squid Game” has become one of the hottest pieces of media. For the most part, I am excited—as “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho said in his acceptance speech at the 2020 Golden Globes, people will be “introduced to so many more amazing films” (and series!) “once they overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles.” Hopefully the thrill of “Squid Game” will push more people to appreciate Korean media, and when that happens, I know I personally would be more than happy to give as many recommendations as I possibly can. But despite all that excitement and hope, I still find myself unbelievably annoyed and, honestly, a bit saddened that “Squid Game” became as popular as it did.
For the few who have either not watched or at least not heard of the premise of “Squid Game,” the show follows a small set of characters, who, at the promise of a huge cash prize, decide to participate in a series of childhood games. Ranging from “red light, green light” to tug of war to marbles, all of these games seem innocent enough. The only catch? If you lose, you’re killed by the games’ staff. In just six episodes, this show really captured the desperation of anyone who doesn’t belong to the one percent: which is to say, broke, exhausted and perhaps one second away from cracking under the financial restraints of our society.
Simply put, I’ve learned over the course of the last month through YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and just about every other social media platform that maybe people can’t be trusted with smart media like “Squid Game.” Where I, along with many of my friends and peers saw a harrowing, grim tale about how the horrific conditions of capitalistic society makes being a good person impossible, it seems that a disturbing amount of people only see details that can be sanitized and marketed for their own personal use. From celebrities dressing up as “Squid Game” characters to “Squid Game” inspired macarons and dalgona candy (yeah, people are literally calling this “Squid Game’s” dalgona candy, as though this candy hasn’t been a part of Korean culture for decades), people appear to going insane over making this show as palatable and Instagram-able as possible. But to an even greater extreme, there’s insanity happening like Abu Dhabi is hosting their own Squid Game, where participants will literally be wearing the outfits our protagonists (and victims) had to wear in the show. They’ll be playing the same exact games that the protagonists played, and the staff will even wear the same outfits of the staff in the series. In a similar vein, Youtuber/TikTok star “MrBeast” is in the process of making his own Squid Game. For anyone who’s been paying attention to the show for even half a second, this is where the alarm bells should be going off.
The entire point of “Squid Game” was to demonstrate how today’s society forces the average person to do all kinds of things just for a chance—not even a full guarantee!—to survive. Sure, we might not be entering a series of deadly games to pay off our college debt or cover our parents’ medical expenses or live in a clean house, but as you watch “Squid Game,” you’re meant to sympathize and wonder for each of the characters’ desire to take these great risks for money. You’re meant to be a little frightened, and you’re meant to think, “I might be that stupid and that desperate to enter this thing.” You’re meant to pity the characters, and you’re meant to despair for a society that would ever make the idea of potentially getting murdered for money a viable option. People who watched the “Squid Game” will also recall that this series isn’t even a dystopian piece—it’s set in this time, right now, with the protagonists’ motivations being related to what should be basic human rights: medical care, family protection, etc.
Thus, the fact that there are people out there who watched “Squid Game” and proceed to recreate the series as a real-life competition just speaks to a willing ignorance about the whole premise of the series. Of course, we shouldn’t be entirely surprised: in the series, the people who created this game were the one percenters anyway. The people who are trying to recreate the Squid Game experience would obviously have deep pockets, immune to the financial problems that come with being Not Them. But the fact that this whole phenomenon is happening at all speaks to a more ominous problem in our world. Should anyone produce content that points to major flaws within our system, how quickly will it be before we get the reactions of the wealthy like the ones we’re finding with “Squid Game?” All of these gestures trivialize the show just a bit more, reducing the issues presented in the show to something that can be costumed or sanitized. Here’s a story with an impactful message—and now here are a bunch of rich people feeding you content that says “shh, don’t focus on the important bit, focus on this surface-level, materialistic thing I’ve created so you can forget about the real problem at hand.”
Now, am I saying that all rich people are thoughtless and incapable of consuming smart media? No, not necessarily. But I am saying there’s a problem with people taking hard-hitting messages about serious matters and sweeping them under the rug as though these matters don’t exist. Whether these rich folks like it or not, all the problems “Squid Game” discusses are real—and no amount of cute-ification is going to change that.