Jennifer Chang is Bitch Media’s 2021 Writing Fellow in Pop-Culture Criticism
This article contains spoilers for Netflix’s Squid Game.
If you were looking for a cut-and-dried hero-vs.-villain story, Squid Game is not it. The protagonist of the South Korean dystopian drama series, Seong Gi-hun, is an odd choice for a hero: a whiny, spineless, divorced gambling addict who lives with his elderly mother. After stealing money from her to gamble, he promptly loses it and hastily signs a deal with loan sharks to pay off his debts within one month—or risk losing a kidney. He takes his daughter out for a birthday dinner of the cheapest fast food possible, and gifts her a claw-machine prize from an arcade that he had another kid win for him. And yet somehow, we empathize with him.
On track to become Netflix’s most-watched original content, Squid Game depicts a fictional series of games in which cash-strapped contestants compete for a ₩45.6 billion (approximately $38.7 million USD) prize. And while there’s plenty of blood, to call the series “horror,” or to label the sinister Front Man and the masked game-runners “villains” would be misnomers. The real villain is capitalism, a grim message made particularly insidious by the familiar nostalgia of the games themselves, terrifying and deadly adaptations of playground classics like Red Light/Green Light and Tug-of-War. The candy-colored funhouse aesthetics—slot-machine noises, blinking arcade lights, and a giant glass piggy bank suspended from the ceiling, into which bundles of cash are funneled after each round—project an unsettling veneer of whimsy onto games that are quite literally life and death. And it isn’t as dystopian as we’d like it to be—the grotesque spectacle mirrors real-life game shows like Paid Off with Michael Torpey, in which college grads compete to pay off their student loans, and the erstwhile The Activist, whose original premise pitted activists against one another to raise awareness of and funding for their causes.
The prevalent comparison to Squid Game has been, of course, The Hunger Games, whose players fight to the death for a chance to escape desperate circumstances. But there’s one notable difference: Squid Game’s contestants are given the choice to compete. When faced with the brutal reality of the competition in the show’s second episode, the majority of contestants vote to stop playing, and everyone returns to their normal lives. But they quickly discover that their “choice” is an illusion: Saddled with crippling debt and lacking any real alternatives, even the players who voted to end the games voluntarily return. “Out there, I don’t stand a chance,” one player reasons. “I do in here.”
Squid Game represents the razor-thin edge of the “choices” that marginalized communities are forced to navigate in a world that isn’t built for them to succeed (and in many ways is relentlessly hostile toward them). The choice to sink or swim is a false one: No one mentions that the waters are infested with sharks, or that the shore is quicksand. Writing about the show in The Atlantic, Morgan Ome puts it succinctly: “For the players, the daily humiliations of being poor are a worse fate than risking death.”
The fallacy that these decisions are made freely and equally is one that women, particularly women of color, are all too accustomed to. The belief that “choice” is the paramount tenet of feminism is one that in recent years has been invoked to argue for everything from nude selfies to cosmetic surgery. But the conflation of choice and freedom is too often born from fear of critically engaging with the politics that shape these choices. What is and isn’t a choice is infuriatingly unclear; it can be difficult to discern our true desires from the options necessitated by oppressive systems. As Vicki Li writes in a 2019 examination of the concept in The F-Word Magazine, choice feminism is predicated on the incorrect assumption that choices are equally accessible and socially acceptable for everyone. This assumption benefits a vocal—but very narrow—population of (mostly white, middle class, and educated) women, and skims over the reality that the “choices” made by more marginalized women are a matter of their survival.
“When an affluent white woman chooses not to buy expensive brands of clothing or put on makeup, she is often praised for her nonconformity. A low-income woman of color cannot do the same, because she was not born with the cushion of privilege. Low-income Black and Brown women buy cheap knockoffs of expensive brands and put on makeup in order to stay afloat in a society structurally built to constantly antagonize them.”
Squid Game’s anonymous coordinators present the competition as a benevolent opportunity to pay off players’ debts. They don’t encourage players to question why this debt exists at all or why it’s conceptualized as a zero-sum condition; they also don’t explain why they have the authority and means to offer this opportunity. They actively exploit the players’ desperation, because they know that people in dire straits will accept cruelty without question:
“Every person standing here in this room is living on the brink of financial ruin. You all have debts that you can’t pay off. When we first went to see each of you, not a single one of you trusted us. But as you all know, we played a game, and as we promised, gave you money when you won. And suddenly, everyone here trusted us. You called and volunteered to participate in this game of your own free will. So this is it. I’ll give you one last chance to choose. Will you go back to living your old and depressing lives getting chased by your creditors? Or will you act and seize this last opportunity we’re offering here?”
The real world is riddled with these false choices, especially surrounding poverty, which in American society is viewed as an individual moral deficit, the stigma of which is an incredibly powerful motivator for egocentrism. While plenty of shame circulates around making the “correct” choices—earn a respectable living (but do not appear greedy, compromise your morals, or base your self-worth entirely on your job), build a home for yourself (but only in a good neighborhood and within your means), and care for your children (but don’t expect handouts and don’t work so much that you can’t parent them)—few people question why these choices even exist.
Following the announcement that The Activist was in development, backlash was fast and furious. Critics denounced the proposed show as “dystopian,” “out of touch,” and “performative,” but as New Republic writer Kate Aronoff pointed out in a tweet, it’s not actually so far off from the way that many social systems and institutions already operate. (“Yeah it would be terrible to make activists satisfy an arbitrary set of metrics to please a disconnected set of wealthy people who control the funding.”) The trajectory of crowdfunding site GoFundMe highlights this capricious deficit: Originally created in 2010 as a social-oriented fundraising platform for “everything from medical bills to weddings,” its purpose has warped into a grotesque approximation of a socialized welfare system, with a third of campaigns dedicated to medical expenses and a special education fundraising section. It is a stunning indictment of not only the U.S. government’s negligence, but the myth of “bootstrapping” and the cult of individualism foundational to the American Dream. The shamefully American process of forcing people to grovel for basic human rights—food, housing, education, decent living—and demand that they market their tragedies to the public in order to receive help they need, and the personal-debt crisis in South Korea that inspired Squid Game are both all too real. The “Gganbu” episode of the show lays bare the inevitable conclusion of the competition: All personal morals must be sacrificed at the altar of capitalism, necessitated by a society grappling with a vicious cycle of rising household debt, predatory lending policies, widespread elder poverty and youth unemployment, and growing economic inequality between the rich and poor, bolstered by an unforgiving social class system that makes suicide an appealing option over public failure.
Squid Game is a dramatized depiction of what happens when people simply have no other way out, one that mirrors the all-too-real state of affairs in both Korea and the United States. There’s an infantilizing, gladiatorial quality to permitting the poor to squabble over what would be a life-changing amount of money for them, but is nothing to the VIP spectators in bejeweled masks that enjoy hors d’oeuvres in cushy leather chairs, surrounded by body-painted servants and gilded walls high above the bloodbath. “They were simply eliminated for breaking the rules of the game,” one of the masked managers intones after the players protest against the game’s harsh penalties. “If you just follow the rules, you can leave this place safely with the prize money we promised.”
This deceptively simple mentality is popular among the most privileged populations, who do not face deadly repercussions for their mistakes and are granted the luxury of tolerance. For those who are excluded from this entitlement, compliance does not hold the same guarantee of safety or the same cushion of social and institutional support; it is made abundantly clear again and again and again that whatever choice they make is a gamble.
“Squid Game” represents the razor-thin edge of the “choices” that marginalized communities are forced to navigate in a world that isn’t built for them to succeed.
In Squid Game, the “pure and fair ideology” is repeatedly impressed upon contestants; in one scene, the game-makers display the hanging bodies of a player and two workers who were caught cheating. But to conflate fairness to equality is a fundamental attribution error when the players are not starting out on equal footing. Similarly, “resilience,” a buzzword frequently invoked in praise of overcoming adversity, is a highly prized compliment that is also a double-edged sword. Marginalized people are often praised for their “resilience,” but little is done to address the barriers (social, economic, political) that necessitate resilience in the first place, something underscored by the ruthlessly individualistic conditions portrayed in Squid Game. TikTok user Youngmi Mayer points out that one of the players, Han Mi-nyeo (number 212) represents a popular trope in Korean media—the poor person who’s smart and clever, but not wealthy. She tries to convince other players to partner with her, telling them, “I am very smart. I just never got a chance to study.” That Squid Game has been compared to South Korea’s 2019 Oscar triumph Parasite is telling: Both are critiques of a rigid class system disguised as a meritocracy that reveal the messy implications of deeming certain people “deserving” of a good life.
“You should celebrate,” the Front Man, pouring himself a flute of champagne in the backseat of a limo, tells a bloodied and bruised Gi-hun, who against all odds emerges victorious. “That was quite the game there. It was a dream. Just think of it that way. And it really wasn’t a bad one for you, either.” But these statements are of little consolation to Gi-hun, who has watched his friends die, been manipulated by the inhumane rules of the games, and been demoralized and treated as subhuman by the host and VIPs that bet on him for sport. The message is clear: Resilience is admirable; challenging the system is intolerable.
Praising resilience for enduring the inevitable burnout from participating in a fundamentally cruel and oppressive system takes little effort or critical thinking; it is morally uncomplicated and ultimately worthless. Much more difficult is interrogating the traumatizing systems we are complicit in creating and shaping. See: the early-stage pandemic 7 p.m. clap for healthcare workers to acknowledge the risks and sacrifices even as working conditions are more dangerous than ever and wages remain stagnant, or GOP politicians invoking Martin Luther King Jr. while actively working to strip Black and Brown communities of their rights. “I don’t need you to praise me for my resilience. I need you to stop creating spaces of trauma, where being resilient is all I’m allowed to be,” wrote @DrOmolara on Twitter of the chronic overwork required of Black women to succeed in medicine. “[We need spaces] where we reclaim all of our emotions. Where we take up all the room. And you get uncomfortable. [Because] it’s time you learn to be resilient.”
It’s quite a clever manipulation: Foisting the responsibility of systemic change onto individuals treats overcoming hardship as a personal triumph rather than an indication of requisite failure, when in reality, these systems require collective action to dismantle. (The creators of Squid Game are well aware of this: Ssangyong Motors, Gi-hun’s former employer, is a reference to a major labor-rights case in South Korea that is still ongoing.)
It is in our nature to seek moral decency, and so it can be tempting to construe the events of Squid Game as a fable about the importance of humanity under fundamentally inhumane conditions. But the pandemic has caused an omnipresent existential crisis; it has unveiled the precarity of our intersecting systems and an inherent underestimation of the role illusion of choice plays in all of our lives. At a critical moment of reevaluating the efficacy of all of our systems, Squid Game reminds us that any victories we can achieve are ultimately hollow—when we compete under these dominant systems, the house always wins.