by Darren Ang
Netflix’s hit sensation Squid Game (2021) took the world by storm, having viewing hours amounting to 1.65 billion in the first 28 days after its initial release (Spangler). The Korean blockbuster premises on the Squid Game; set in an isolated dystopian island, it invites financially indebted participants to compete for a grand prize of 456 billion won in a series of games that puts their very lives at stake. What appears as the most jarring centre plot of the film is the inhuman and wicked nature of the Games and how they serve to indiscriminately kill the losers and humiliate the players. This begs the question of why these players would even participate in the Squid Game voluntarily, knowing the great risk to their lives. Why does there seem to be such a great power differential between the players and the game makers and what is the significance of this power gap?
Squid Game uses the premise of a dystopian island to present a twisted microcosm of modern-day society, one that represents how capitalism exacerbates inequality between the impoverished and the wealthy in South Korea. This is done through the hyperbolisation of the capitalist society where the stakes in the game are heavily inflated and consequences fatal. Here we can see how each class has a distinctive role to play and how they work to please the bourgeoisie class as represented by the VIPs. Considering this and rising income inequality in Asia, Squid Game proves effective in representing the obscene power differential between the game makers and the players and in parallel, the economic elite and the poor in South Korea.
THE DIRT SPOON CLASS
The power differential between the Game makers and the players in the Squid Game can be explained through the desperation of the players to participate in hopes of ameliorating their existing economic and social issues. We can examine the desperation and deep financial trouble of the working class through the lens of protagonist Seong Gi-Hun. In the first episode, Gi-Hun exhibits compulsive gambling habits and runs into trouble with loan sharks where he gets coerced and badly beaten on the toilet floor. In the context of South Korea this can be alluded to the “dirt spoon” class which refer to lower-class individuals who turn to risky propositions and compulsive betting only to arrive at a situation where their existing financial debts are aggravated. (Kim and McCurry) This vicious cycle of debt and gambling is what creates a need for economic salvation and is essentially what motivates Gi-Hun to join the Squid Game. Berlant also states that the “object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving” (2). This “expansive transformation” refers to Gi-Hun finally winning his bets and getting a windfall of money; however it follows that this very behaviour is what causes him to fall further into debt. The irony here is that what he thinks will save him from his economic woes has the exact opposite effect, contributing to an inability to climb the social ladder and leave the dirt spoon class. Gi-Hun joins the Squid Game essentially as an extension of his gambling habits, except that the stakes is not merely more money but his life. Thus we can see here how class and economic status is pivotal in their reason to participate in the Game, willingly coming back a second time even after the brutal nature of the game is revealed and more than half the players are killed off in the first game.
THE GAME ISLAND AND THE PERILS OF CAPITALISM
The Squid game can be established as a microcosm of a capitalist society that reinforces several ideas about classic capitalism while also pointing out certain flaws about the system. We can see this through the existence of several traditional capitalistic classes existing within the Game such as the VIPs as the bourgeoise class and the masked workers representing the working class. The group of individuals that represent the bourgeoise in the microcosmic society of the Squid Game are the VIPs. The VIPs in the series are a group of obnoxious, international economic elite who are dressed in pompous and lavish clothing as well as extravagant masks that mimic the head of animals. Their sadistic and heartless behaviour towards the livelihood of the players mirrors the apathetic attitude the owners of the means of production, have towards the well-being of their workers. It is this humanisation of the capitalistic machine that helps us understand the sheer cruelty and ruthlessness that is otherwise left oblivious to society. The use of multiple VIPs in animal masks also supports this idea of capitalism not being a single identifiable person but rather an unknown group of elites that are shrouded from the rest of society. Furthermore, the animal masks contribute to the notion of inhumanness and lack of rational thought commonly found in animals, that can be associated with the violent and heartless way in which the VIPs treat the players. Il-Nam, the creator of the game and the famous player No.1 hiding his identity within the game, reveals in the last episode that he had created and sustained the operations of the Squid Game in an attempt to quell the boredom that he and the VIPs had felt.
Perhaps the most prominent evidence of a capitalistic society operating within the Squid Game is the existence of a class system as represented by the different shape outlines that the workers within the Game wear on their masks, denoting the various roles that they play. There is also a power hierarchy associated with the shapes that they have, for instance the workers who wear the circular outlined masks are grunts whose jobs consists mainly of manual labour and assistance with food, logistics, cleaning and disposal of dead bodies. The triangular masks represent the soldiers who have some sort of power, armed with sub-automatic machine guns they are the paramilitaristic arm of the capitalist that serve as a symbol of coercion and deterrence of ill behaviour. The square masks are the managers who can make some sort of decision albeit still being answerable to the Front Man, they manage the grunts and soldiers within the Game and represent the middle class.
Though the workers within the Game facilitate and execute the Games and hence the unfair treatment of the players, they are nevertheless pawns and are themselves oppressed and subjected to the capitalistic system. This can be seen in the systematic and clinical way in which the grunts and soldiers are treated, they are made to line up for roll call every morning and are told when they are supposed to sleep and rest, their rooms are portrayed to be identical and only having the bare necessities and their movement are monitored at all times by the managers who are themselves monitored by the Front Man. Hence, we can see that the workers and the players are all subjected to the same system despite the different roles that they play within the game.
PARALLELS TO MODERN-DAY CAPITALISM AND HOW IT EXARCABATES INEQUALITY IN THE GAME
The capitalist society in Squid Game consists of the VIPs as the economic elite who control the means of production (here referring to their control of the workers and their ability to reproduce the conditions under which the game can function in its intended purpose), and the lower class represented by the participants of the game whose labour transforms raw commodities into valuable economic goods (here referring to their ability to provide entertainment value to the guests, following lowering their perceived worth). To maximise profits (in this case entertainment value for the VIPs), the game makers (Front Man) have the incentive to make the games as exciting as possible by creating new and interesting ways to humiliate and challenge the participant’s wits and tendencies to turn on each other.
Upward mobility in a capitalistic society is downplayed by what Berlant says about the overly optimistic view that “liberal capitalist society will reliably provide opportunities for individuals to carve out relations of reciprocity that seem fair” (3), reinforcing the “stickiness” of class systems and how the working-class is unlikely to climb the social ladder and escape poverty despite their fervent hopes. Instead of the traditional notion of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, the participants instead pay the ultimate price of not just being exploited for little gains but losing their life in the futile pursuit of money. Here we can see the hyperbolisation of the capitalistic society where most the players having been cruelly and indiscriminately murdered, more clearly fleshes out the consequences of capitalism on the lower class in destroying their lives as opposed to the gradual spiral of falling further into debt in line with the notion of the dirt spoon class, “slow death refers to the physical wearing out of a population in a way that points to its deterioration as a defining condition of its experience” (103). The exacerbation of inequality here is constructed through the parallel between being increasingly humiliated and eventually dying in the Game on one hand and on the other, falling further into debt and degeneracy and losing purpose in life. Inequality is thus displayed not just in monetary terms but in the way the participants are being exploited. Their lives are unequal to those in power and are hence disposed for the sole purpose of entertainment, fuelled by the existence of economic and social class disparity.
CONCLUSION: THE MARXIST PERSPECTIVE AND THE AMBIGUOUS ENDING OF SQUID GAME
So far we have established the existence of a twisted capitalistic system existing within the structure of the Squid Game and how the power disparity between the various classes in the game leads to increasing inequality. Drawing parallels to modern-day society in South Korea, the series effectively warns and brings awareness of the pitfalls of capitalism and its adverse impact on the lower-class citizens. On the flipside of capitalism, we can also briefly consider the Marxist side of the argument. Squid Game challenges the idea of False Consciousness presented by Karl Marx which denotes how certain existing views held by society seem to justify and enforce the existence of traditional social classes, consequently making the working class unable to “recognise inequality, oppression and exploitation in a capitalist society”. (“False Consciousness”) To some extent, the players are aware of the exploitation that exists and voluntarily take part in it. This awareness can be attributed to the fatal nature of the Games and hence the clarity of abuse and injustice as perceived by the players. denotes how certain existing views held by society seem to justify and enforce the existence of traditional social classes. Consequently making the working class unable to “recognise inequality, oppression and exploitation in a capitalist society”.
The ending of the series leaves viewers in great anticipation of the next season as the motif of compliance and the continuation of the Squid Game is possibly subverted by Gi-Hun’s last act. In an effort to reunite with his daughter overseas, Gi-Hun books a flight to Los Angeles but stops momentarily at the airport after he notices a potential player playing ddakji with a recruiter. Gi-Hun calls the number after managing to get a copy of the invitation card, but the other party refuses to disclose who is responsible for continuing the games, instead demanding that he gets on the plane. The scene ends with Gi-Hun defying the caller and deciding to stay in the country. Gi-Hun here acts as a potential instigator of rebellion and defiance against the capitalistic system, reinforcing Marxist perspectives that as inequality rises and more people become relegated to the working class that a revolution by the latter would inevitably ensue. Though this is yet to be seen by the viewers as the show ends abruptly thereafter.
Spangler, Todd. “‘Squid Game’ Is Decisively Netflix No. 1 Show of All Time With 1.65 Billion Hours Streamed in First Four Weeks, Company Says.” Variety, 22 Nov. 2021. <https://variety.com/2021/digital/news/squid-game-all-time-most-popular-show-netflix-1235113196/>.
Kim, Nemo and Justin McCurry. “Squid Game Lays Bare South Korea’s Real-life Personal Debt Crisis.” The Guardian, 8 Oct. 2021. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/08/squid-game-lays-bare-south-koreas-real-life-personal-debt-crisis>.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke UP, 2011.
“False Consciousness.” Encyclopedia Britannica. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/false-consciousness>.