Is the Netflix Korean sensation Squid Game an allegory for late capitalism? The response to the show is similar to medieval morality plays that attempted to hammer home the eternal damnability of the Seven Deadly Sins.
I’m a university literature professor who specialises in film and video media. This means that I’m usually on the hunt for “constitutive contradictions” — those hypocrisies that may defy the rule of law and common sense, but are required in allegedly just, democratic, ultra-advanced capitalist societies.
And so, I’m undecided between a red button and a green button of the types that figure in Squid Game Episode 2’s mockery of an election. If allegory is a story or performance conveying deeper or hidden meaning that its audience must work to interpret, the show would qualify based on audience reaction alone. But maybe it isn’t at all allegorical, in that Squid Game makes what little covert evil and hypocrisy may remain in our world so graphically, unmistakably overt.
Alternatives to capitalism
This series socks us with what cultural theorist Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism” — the impossibility of imagining an outside to the political-economic system in which most of us live, let alone an alternative to it.
But when asked if he deliberately set out to expose the dehumanising and even lethal effects of late capitalism, Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk laughed off the suggestion that his blockbuster series delivers any “profound” point or message.
“The show is motivated by a simple idea,” he told the Guardian. “We are fighting for our lives in very unequal circumstances.”
Hwang referred to his own experience of the 2009 global economic downturn as an inspiration for the series, which saw financing for his film projects dry up and compelled him, his mother and grandmother to take out loans.
Drawn to the hardcore survivalist games depicted in Japanese and South Korean comic books, Hwang pondered just how bad things could get and how far he might go to keep himself and his family alive. He didn’t need to look far to find cautionary tales.
The back story of Squid Game‘s protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, is a fictionalised retelling of the violent 2009 clash between car manufacturer Ssangyong and 1,000 of the over 2,600 employees Ssangyong laid off. Striking workers stood down a brutal alliance of private security forces and Korean police for 77 days. Thirty strikers and a few of their spouses lost their lives — many to suicide — during the strike and its aftermath in the Korean courts.
Continued under- and unemployment, loss of property and accumulated debt (compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic), has meant that in 2021, personal debt in South Korea climbed to 105 per cent of GDP. Canada’s average household debt skyrocketed to 112 per cent of GDP in the first quarter of 2021, before dropping to 109 per cent in the second quarter.
“We are all living in a Squid Game world,” Hwang told the Guardian, without pretension or exaggeration.
Actor Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun is riveting as our everyman. Like millions of workers displaced and discarded worldwide, Squid Game’s protagonist Gi-hun tries to stay afloat in the service and gig economies, with a fried chicken restaurant that quickly fails, and then as a driver.
He takes out loans from banks and loan sharks that tenuously prop up his gambling addiction. Gi-hun’s ex-wife has remarried, to a gainfully employed man, and is planning to move with him to the US, along with Gi-hun’s daughter. The new husband can afford to celebrate his stepdaughter’s birthday with dinner at a steakhouse (uttered in English, so all know it’s a big deal), while Gi-hun can only pay for a hot dog and fish cake fast-food snack, and a tragicomic inappropriate gift clawed out from an arcade game.
An inveterate gamer and perennial optimist with an endearingly expressive face, Gi-hun lives on the cusp of the Big Payoff — whether off-track betting, withdrawing money from his mother’s bank account or accepting an invitation to play a game of ddakji in a Seoul subway station.
But like all games of chance in the nine-episode series, it’s clear that this one — where players toss paper tokens in an attempt to flip over their opponent’s tokens — is rigged from before the start. It’s also clear that all 456 competitors (Gi-hun is No. 456) are in a battle royal for their lives and a giant cash jackpot, which lends the show its highest-stakes, highest-concept brand of suspense.
What may be less clear — and potentially the stuff of constitutive contradictions and ironies galore — is why record numbers of viewers have flocked to Squid Game. The series is the most watched Netflix series ever, beating out previous ratings champion Bridgerton. Bloomberg News estimates Squid Game’s worth to Netflix to be close to US$900 million.
The whole series, however, only cost about $21 million to make, while creator Hwang lost six teeth from all the stress and has received no performance-based bonuses. He also doesn’t want to be forever known as “the Squid Game guy.”
An unidentified Korean part-time food delivery driver told the Guardian: “You have to pay to watch [the show] and I don’t know anyone who will let me use their Netflix account.… In any case, why would I want to watch a bunch of people with huge debts? I can just look in the mirror.”
Why indeed would anyone in financial straits like any of the players in the series want to watch Squid Game? I’ve searched the internet, without success, for a ballpark number of the 142 million households that tuned in globally who may have signed up for a Netflix free-trial period to do so.
Hwang is currently in discussions with his streaming empire paymasters over potential additional seasons as well as his other film projects. Considering industry growth predictions, what will some viewers pay or sacrifice to keep watching Squid Game?
More to the point, why would they? I think an answer to the late-capitalist allegory question hinges on what audiences see reflected back to themselves on screen. One viewer might recognize their own challenging situation in a character’s story, while another sees suffering of an unimaginable kind.
These divergent vectors of identification may determine whether there is or isn’t any profound or hidden meaning to Squid Game. They may also influence new, gruesome games of chance, manipulation and life-or-death next season. We’ll have to stay tuned to find out.
Elaine Chang, Associate Professor, English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph