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The problem with ‘Squid Game’

Americans are quick to praise the show but often diminish the people and culture behind it

Electronically published December 8, 2021 by Remy Cogan, Staff Reporter

Let’s be honest, there’s no way you haven’t heard about Netflix’s hottest new show, “Squid Game.” It’s all over, from social media to the classroom, everybody’s talking about it.

For those of you who haven’t seen the Korean drama, it follows its lead Seong Gi-hun, (played by veteran actor Lee Jung-jae), a father and former husband consumed by a gambling addiction and its accompanying debt. Gi-hun is approached by a well dressed stranger at a train station, who, knowing he’s in debt, offers Gi-hun a chance to play a “game” for a cash prize. 

Gi-hun reluctantly accepts and soon finds himself playing a series of children’s games with deadly consequences. He’s joined by 455 other participants including Cho Sang-woo (played by Park Hae Soo), Gi-hun’s childhood friend. And Kang Sae-byeok (played by breakout star Jung Ho-yeon), a young woman who’s playing to gain enough money to rescue her parents from North Korea.  

“Squid Game” premiered on September 17, and has quickly shattered Netflix records. In an October 12 tweet, Netflix confirmed that 111 million fans had watched “Squid Game” in the three weeks since its debut. This quickly surpassed Netflix’s previous record viewership holder, “Bridgerton,” which amassed 82 million viewers in its first month.

Participants stare at the cash prize, which by the end of the game, will be worth 45.6 billion won, or almost 39 million USD. (Netflix)

From the incredible performances by the lead actors, to the profound directing style of creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, critics and viewers alike agree that “Squid Game” is a masterpiece of death and deception. 

“Squid Game” is exceptional in the way it was able to combine almost every genre of television into one show. It has managed to blend aspects of drama, comedy, mystery, and even a little bit of romance into itself, successfully. This is an amazing feat.

However, there is one flaw; not with the show itself, but with its audience. “Squid Game” blew up on TikTok not long after its release, videos parodying the show were all over the social media app. And yet almost everyone was missing the bigger picture. Sure, “Squid Game” is an entertaining drama, but it is also a commentary on the social and class discrepancies of South Korea.

One Korean student, who requested to remain anonymous, wants to set the record straight: “The biggest theme in “Squid Game” is the poverty and class differences in South Korea. It also reflects the intense pressure on people to achieve respectably and success in society. The people who enter the games are so desperate to win money they’re willing to do anything. I think that it shows how serious this problem can be for people.”

This Ballard student hopes American viewers recognize the importance of an accurate portrayal of the Korean social hierarchy. 

“In the past few years there has been a glorification of Korean society that many foreigners believe in. But the fact is that South Korea, like any other country, has a darker side. “Squid Game” does a very good job highlighting that. The way Korean society [negatively] is portrayed in the show is based on real-life things, although it’s important to remember the show is still fictional. It just showcases those aspects of Korean society,” they said.

After the release of “Squid Game,” the show became a hit on TikTok.

It’s okay to acknowledge that TikTok is essential to “Squid Game”s success. However, we must also recognize that many of the videos on TikTok are ignorant in failing to comprehend that not only are they parodying a television show, some of them are disrespecting the culture behind the show as well. 

This begs the question; where’s the line between appreciation and appropriation? 

“I think it’s cool that it’s trending on TikTok and getting so popular in the Western world,” the student said. “One thing that people are getting wrong is the dalgona candy. Everyone on TikTok and social media refers to it as ‘the dalgona candy from “Squid Game.” But no, it’s actually 달고나. That has been a candy and children’s game in Korean culture for decades. It’s just annoying when people diminish the cultural significance of something. I’m totally fine with people appreciating the culture but you should at least know the meaning.” 

Living in a white dominated environment, students rarely make the time to appreciate other cultures, that is, unless they entertain or interest us. This is especially of Asian cultures. 

“There has definitely been an increase of interest on South Korea the last couple years in America. I 100% believe that things like K-pop, K-dramas, the food, the beauty, etc. have become very trendy lately,” the student said. “I’m glad that people are appreciating the culture and the country, but at the same time it feels almost… invalidating, or objectifying. There’s a lot of people who are in love with the culture but don’t appreciate the people behind that culture,” the student said.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s been a 169 percent increase in Anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States. 

“There’s been so much Asian hate and violence, any Asian growing up would at least experience someone calling [them] names like Ching Chong, people pulling their eyes back or saying that their food smelled gross and it looked weird,” the student said. “But now, with everyone ‘in love’ with Korea they suddenly forgot everything they hated and completely ignore all the injustices against Asians and Asian American people.

Our country selfishly looks the other way when Asian American communities are targeted by racism and violence. And yet people will still consume parts of their cultures, because it amuses us. 

The irony of the interest in “Squid Game” is ever so present. People enjoy the general plot of the show, but we fail to dig deeper into its underlying themes and social commentary. Americans need to recognize our own double standards and educate ourselves on the cultures and communities behind the screen.

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The problem with ‘Squid Game’