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Why 'Squid Game' is such a powerful critique of capitalism

* For those who haven't yet watched 'Squid Game', the following article contains spoilers

In October 2021, the newly released South Korean survival series Squid Game became Netflix's most-watched series to date, surpassing Netflix’s American period drama Bridgerton (2020). It reached over 142 million viewers after 28 days from its release on the 19th September 2021. Whilst viewers have been blown away by how gruesome and cut-throat the plot of the series is, Squid Game seems to be about much more than on-screen violence. If we take a deeper look into the underlying messages behind the series, it can actually be viewed as a commentary on modern capitalism, and the wealthy inequality and deprivation that comes with it.

Desperation is at the root of the ‘game’ competition

The basis of the plot of Squid Game relies entirely on the financial desperation of the characters in it. Without their experience of being struck with poverty and endless debts, the players in the game would never have been willing to jeopardise their lives for money - 45.6 billion won (equivalent to almost £33 million). In this Hunger Games-esque series, the players put everything on the line. They are willing to risk a gruesome death for the promise of a better quality of life. Viewers were especially reminded of just how desperate the players were in Episode 5, when the protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, attempts to pick a man for the 'tug-of-war' game, only to discover that he was partnered with his wife who came with him to the competition. Here, we meet a couple, who have possibly left children behind (or at the very least, twice as many loved ones as the other players) just to increase their chances of winning the prize money and clear themselves of never-ending debt. They put all their eggs in one basket, risking both of them dying. Their presence as a couple in the game, along with the presence of all the other participants truly speaks to the utter desperation of the participants in the game, and, on a deeper level, the desperation of Korea’s financially destitute class of laid-off workers.

Was the competition actually fair?

As I watched Squid Game there were a few things that kept racking through my brain. The head coordinator of the game, the ‘Front Man’, prided the game as being truly meritocratic, but there were several instances where I thought this wasn’t necessarily the case. The first of them being during the first game of the competition, ‘Red Light, Green Light’. Here, the very first set of people that died in this game were certainly not given the same chance of survival as their counterparts who survived the game. For instance, the first man who was shot would never have known the price he would have paid for moving when the light turned red. Maybe he would have considered being expelled from the competition, and losing the chance to win the money, but he certainly would not have thought that he would have paid for such a slight blunder with his life. Similarly, the ‘Tug-of-War’ game was also quite unfair, as the men had a gendered advantage over women because of their physical strength. If physical strength was a determining factor in who wins the prize money, then just how meritocratic was the competition? Physical strength is usually innate, not earned through merit. Another unfair test came later on in the Episode 8, during ‘Hopscotch’, a game where the participants had to cross a bridge of grass tiles, and a game which functioned solely based on trial-and-error, with the error meaning death of course. This meant that the 10–12 players who went first out of the remaining 16 were pretty much all destined to pick the wrong glass tile at some point along the bridge and fall to their death. I particularly questioned the meritocracy in the decision the ‘Front Man’ made to switch off the lights, preventing the man who had prior experience in manufacturing glass from figuring out which of the glass tiles was the tempered one. This façade of maintaining meritocracy was actually the opposite. If some players (like gangster, Jang Deok-su) were allowed to kill others with their bare hands, abusing their innate physical strength, then why could other players not make use of the industrial skills they picked up throughout their careers? Honestly, the whole claim of fairness reminded me of what living in a capitalist society is like: you have a bunch of individuals who have managed to make it to the top with some form of an advantage (be it private schooling, a trust fund, well-connected parents, white privilege, or even male privilege) claiming that their journey was completely meritocratic and untouched by any privilege whatsoever. Yawn.

The ‘caring’ face of capitalism

The willingness to do pretty much anything for money isn’t the only reminder of what can be brought about in an extremely unequal society. Another similarity between the Netflix show and capitalist society is the lackadaisical attitude of those in power. In Episode 9, this is echoed when Seong Gi-hun discovers that the old man who was his ally for most of the competition, was actually the mastermind behind it. Whilst viewers were already aware of how trivial the lives of the players were to the wealthy, foreign investors who placed large bets on who they thought would win the competition, this scene really emphasised the coldness of those in power. The old man, Oh Il-nam, tells Seong Gi-hun that his motivation behind creating such a deadly, cut-throat game was boredom, and trying to give financially desperate people a way out. The latter is obviously a façade of compassion. He simply had too much money and just didn’t know what to do with it. Of course, the obvious response to having too much money would be to use it for philanthropy. If the old man and the rest of his billionaire friends were that bored of having too much money, then why didn’t they just give it to the bankrupt players without anyone having to die? Because it wasn’t enough, of course. These sadistic, rich tycoons would rather watch desperate people suffer and die brutally than simply share out the money between them. They use the suffering of the poor as a source of entertainment, mirroring the ‘exploitation of the poor by the rich’ in capitalist South Korea. This brings me to the final similarity that could be drawn between the game competition and capitalist society…

There just had to be losers… and a single winner

Callously, the game could only end with one single winner. Although there would be more than enough reward money to make at least the last 50 players set for life, ridding them of all their debts and more, the games’ investors dictated that only one player out of 456 could win the money. Why could only 1 person out of 456 people walk away alive, for money that would be enough to clear the debts of at least 50 of them? This is reminiscent of the wastefulness of a society that thrives on wealth inequality: only the top 10% can truly enjoy the luxuries which could easily be distributed amongst many people. In a capitalist society, social order is created on the premise of ‘Them vs Us’, on a ‘dog-eat-dog’ and ‘every man for himself’ mentality rather than a mentality that celebrates collective benefit.

Squid Game is a such a powerful social commentary

John Doyle of the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail asserts that Squid Game “is not some dystopian fantasy like Hunger Games” but rather, “is present-day life in all its complex awfulness." I can only speak for myself when I saw that Squid Game is definitely the best newly released series of 2021 so far. The way it combined sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat action and thriller with wider social critique was seamless. So seamless that many wouldn’t even have realised that what they were watching was indeed an over-exaggerated, hyperbolic reflection of the society they live in. But I guess that’s what good art does: it makes you take a long hard look at yourself and your environment in the mirror, without realising you are doing so.

Estelle is our Founder and Editor-in-Chief. She is a final year student studying BA English & Sociology at the University of Leeds, but is currently spending a year abroad in Montpellier, France. She is pursuing a career in journalism, writing and activism, and is interested in society, politics, foreign languages and cultures. Her Instagram handle is @estelleuba.

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