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Squid game graphic (Player 067 with symbols in the background)
Original photo by Mairi O\'Toole

Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’ popularity gives insight to post-2020 culture

[Warning: may contain spoilers]

After a year of quarantine, racial reckonings, and mass poverty, it’s no surprise that audiences all over the world can’t get enough of Netflix’s new Hunger Games-esque series Squid Game

The Korean-based drama, directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, follows the story of an indebted man who gets lured into an opportunity that can rid him of his financial troubles. The opportunity, as it turns out, is a series of childhood games where players compete against each other through six games for a cash prize of over 40 billion won (South Korean currency); the catch-you lose, you die. 

The show is as gory and graphic as it is entertaining and serves as a commentary on class, capitalism and greed, making it the perfect series for our world’s post-pandemic climate. 

Money is the sole purpose and motive behind the players’ desire to win; many of whom are so desperate they risk not only their morals and dignity but their lives in a deadly free-for-all. As the competitors fight to the death, a group of wealthy, yet anonymous men watch and bet on the players as a form of mindless entertainment. 

The parallels to our present situation are eerily similar. As many businesses shut down and went virtual to stay safe during the spread of Covid-19, people who couldn’t afford to remain home had to put their health and safety on the line to provide for their families. 

Billionaire CEOs like Elon Musk have amassed a collective 1.2 trillion dollars in wealth throughout the pandemic, meanwhile, workers are facing dangerous workplace conditions to maintain business operations and avoid getting fired. 

The reality of both Squid Games and our society is that while low-paid, ill-protected workers under capitalist systems are forced to sacrifice their well-being to survive, the upper class continually basks in wealth that could very easily be shared with those in need.

An important aspect of the game is that players have a choice whether or not to participate, and if a simple majority of competitors vote to end the game, they’re allowed to leave. 

This brings up the illusion of choice; although the players could ultimately decide for themselves if they wanted to play, their only other option was to continue living the life of poverty they led before, which, undoubtedly for many of them, would have resulted in the same fateful consequences.

In the same vein, people who worked during the pandemic, and continue to do so now even as Covid-19 variants lurk in crowded communities, could quit their jobs. But, what other choice does that leave them? Rent, hospital bills, childcare, student loans, house payments add up, and it’s rare that anyone can simply quit their job and expect to survive on the few-in-far-between stimulus checks. 

Perhaps that’s why the obvious and extreme desperation portrayed by characters in the show were so captivating to audiences because for so long, we’ve been desperate to leave the house, desperate to see others, desperate for life before a global tragedy. 

Aside from the actual plot itself, Squid Game has made an impressive impact on American audiences. 

As 2020 brought White Americans a greater awareness of white domination in popular media, the Korean actors featured in the show have garnered the respect and adoration of global audiences, some having gained millions of followers on Instagram since the series release. 

Other Korean-centered dramas, like award-winning Parasite, helped set the tone early last year for the success of foreign entertainment.

During his speech at the 2020 Golden Globes, Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho held his award proudly and said “Once you get over the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

It seems that his words have proven true as many foreign films have found similar success in the past year such as La Llorona and Druk

And as far as foreign TV shows go, Squid Game is only the beginning. 

Brianna is a second-year journalism major at Cal Poly SLO and is from Burlingame, California. She loves writing about music, women's issues, and general pop culture. She is currently on the PR track and hopes to go into marketing. In her free time, Bri likes to listen to music, play basketball, hike, and eat cool snacks.
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