At this point, if you haven’t watched Squid Game, chances are you’ve had it recommended to you countless times. The Korean drama is quickly becoming one of the most watched foreign language productions of all time and is currently the top show on Netflix in 90 countries. Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos has hypothesized that it might be their biggest show ever and a South Korean broadband firm has even sued Netflix after the intense traffic surge from the show.
So what is it about the gore-filled survival show – where cash-strapped contestants quite literally fight until death in childhood games for money while rich VIPs watch – that has captivated a gigantic audience globally? Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s barely fiction at all. Squid Game perfectly mirrors our social realities, exploring themes like class struggle and economic anxieties through one dramatic competition.
Squid Game follows a series of movies and television shows that have gained success recently for their critiques of capitalist society, including Korean smash-hit Parasite in 2019, co-written and directed by Bong Joon Ho. US satire Sorry to Bother You was also a critical success in 2018, proving a sustained thirst for anticapitalist entertainment.
We should also be aware that anticapitalism is being remarketed to us by the very billionaires who would be in the Squid Game VIP room.
This comes as little surprise when considering the growing shift away from capitalism in recent years, exacerbated by the financial struggles that arose during the global pandemic. It’s why people like Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have risen to political stardom and socialism is officially part of the zeitgeist.
In an era where it’s cool to hate capitalism, the entertainment that critiques it has become cooler than ever. But does that amount to political progress? Anti-imperialist organizer Rhamier Balagoon for the Black Alliance for Peace says not. "Under capitalism, anything can become a commodity and ultimately de-radicalized," they told Refinery29. "Hollywood, through corporate America, makes room for these performative gestures that allow people to romanticize the idea of resistance against a violent system."
Balagoon is yet to watch Squid Game but sees the rise of anticapitalist entertainment as a way for liberals to dip a toe into seemingly radical discourse without taking part in organizing. Billionaire Jeff Bezos recently proved this point with a tweet saying he "can’t wait" to watch the show. The irony is not lost on many that Bezos' own workers operate in often unsafe and poor working conditions.
Another indication that the radically anticapitalist messaging of Squid Game has gone over the heads of people is that many viewers are walking away from the show with the notion that the characters in the game "chose to be there," despite them all coming from a place of poverty and life-threatening debt. This captures just how far we are from breaking down the current illusion of free will in a capitalist society; one of the show’s beloved characters, Ji-yeong, reveals that she has just been released from prison for killing her abusive father before entering the game.
Hollywood, through corporate America, makes room for these performative gestures that allow people to romanticize the idea of resistance against a violent system.
"The idea of free will has very effectively been weaponized by white supremacist capitalism to gaslight people into believing that they are responsible for the shitty circumstances that capitalism puts them in," says Bobo Matjila, online philosopher and co-host of the Bobo and Flex podcast. "A society that believes in free will also implicitly believes that everyone is responsible for their circumstances and material conditions despite how much they’ve been marginalized and oppressed by said society."
Balagoon agrees, saying that every person is still currently forced to participate in capitalism. "There’s no real way that we can opt out of it aside from a revolution that we can actually overturn the system," they say. "You can be as anticapitalist as you want but at the end of the day you still need to wake up and go to work."
To give due credit to Squid Game writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk (who wrote the show in 2009 but was rejected by studios for 10 years and had to sell his laptop at one point due to financial struggles), much of the anticapitalist messaging seems to have been watered down in the English translation. In a viral Tiktok, Youngmi Mayer, co-host of the Feeling Asian podcast, explains that English-language viewers lost many nuances in crucial scenes like the marble scene in episode six, titled "Gganbu." In the current English translation, Oh Il-nam says: "We share everything." In Korean he says: "There’s no ownership between me and you." It’s worth also noting that many translators are underpaid and overworked, which is why Mayer says "it’s the fault of the producers."
Translation issues aside, the popularity of Squid Game, two years after Parasite, shows that anticapitalist entertainment is going nowhere, nor should it. New releases shouldn’t, however, be interpreted as progress that we haven’t yet made.
"As good as these shows are, I don’t think any of them are effective in shifting viewpoints because these shows are descriptive but not prescriptive," says Matjila. "They do a great job of describing the horrors of existing under late-stage capitalism but they don’t do very much as far as prescribing a solution for these horrors." As a result, Matjila says, we risk coming away from these shows feeling more politically active than we are.
Simply put, we should all continue to enjoy Squid Game and other similar shows that follow. We’re largely enjoying them because they’re so relatable. However, we should also be aware that anticapitalism is being remarketed to us by the billionaires at Netflix. And really, by watching the show, are we any better than the VIPs who lap up the entertainment? Perhaps that's the most disturbing twist of all.