You’ve probably heard about the hugely popular South Korean hit show Squid Game. It has resonated with audiences around the globe because, beyond its aesthetic and narrative appeal, it brilliantly captures the excesses of work today while revealing our worst instincts. Our expert Laetitia Vitaud talks about this global success story (warning: contains spoilers).
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Squid Game the biggest TV sensation of 2021.
The series tells the story of a group of cash-strapped contestants caught in a game where the losers die, with one survivor taking a huge prize. The challenges are based on popular Korean children’s games.
At first glance, this dystopian vision is nothing new. From The Game to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, cinema has often drawn on gladiator-style death matches as a metaphor for our powerlessness. Tossed around by fate, battered by a capitalist society in which we are mere pawns, we “play” to survive and, sometimes, to amuse the powerful of this world.
But Squid Game is more than just another take on a familiar theme. With approximately 111 million views in just one month, it is now Netflix’s biggest-ever series launch. The show is another indicator of the Korean wave and the growing influence of Korean culture in the West. It follows in the footsteps of the 2019 Oscar-winning film Parasite, a dark vision of a world where the poor survive off crumbs left by the rich. In much the same way, Squid Game exposes the injustices, absurdities, and conflicts inherent in the Korean labor market.
Since becoming a major industrial power in the 1980s, Korea is now stuttering somewhat and still relies on the immense gains of the industrial conglomerates (chaebol) over the past century. But cultural conflicts between old and new have been transforming South Korean society. Traditional patriarchal values are under attack, while the social critique inherent in works such as Squid Game and Parasite have really hit home with audiences. Today, the chaebols are coming under fire for widespread corruption and cronyism. There are also the twin crises of excessive household debt and the continuing lack of social-security provision/insurance. And in an extraordinarily sexist society, women choose not to have children so they can hold onto their careers. This has led to a fertility rate that, along with Taiwan’s, is the lowest in the world, with approximately one child per woman.
But Squid Game has struck a chord with global audiences because its social critique is relevant outside the “Land of the Morning Calm.” It reflects growing anxieties over housing costs, excessive debt, increased competition between individuals, a shortage of good and meaningful work, digital surveillance, and many other things that don’t just affect South Koreans.Squid Game’s message is universal, revealing everything that’s wrong with work as the world shifts from the industrial to the digital paradigm.
Here are six ways in which Squid Game mirrors everyday life.
Winner takes all: the economic principle that turns people into wolves
In the series:
In Squid Game, the last person standing wins a huge sum of money. Each time a contestant dies, their “share” is put into the perverse jackpot. This mirrors the economic principle of “winner takes all.”
In everyday life:
In an increasingly digital economy, many see this principle as having become ubiquitous. Due to the network effect, natural monopolies emerge, with just a few winners – or, what’s even more likely, a single winner – in each market. That’s why so many startups use the hefty funds they’ve raised from investors to secure the top spot in their market. The whole point is to ensure only one company is left at the end. A startup must come out on top and eliminate the competition to survive. As Azeem Azhar explains in his book Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It, “While we’ve always had firms that do better than others, the difference between the best and the worst is greater than ever.”
The business world also follows this logic to an increasing degree, where the “best” take home virtually all the money. And for half a century, the gap between the richest 10% and the poorest 10% has been widening steadily. While millions of employed people are struggling to find housing and make ends meet, big-tech billionaires amass fortunes that are increasingly hard to fathom.
Silicon Valley’s winner-takes-all approach has recently come under fire. First, not all markets follow this logic. And second, the polarization of the labor force is not simply down to economics. It’s also a consequence of political choices such as lessening the redistribution of wealth. What if success didn’t mean the elimination of all competition? This question is at the core of current critiques regarding the world of work.
The toxic myth of meritocracy
In the series:
In Squid Game, the organizers insist that every player has an equal chance at winning. Cheating is off-limits. Some of the characters even remark that the rules are fair and straightforward. In their eyes, “real life” is worse because following the rules doesn’t get you ahead. Meritocracy is a fallacious idea – a convenient lie told to those whose lack of wealth or social class leaves them at a distinct disadvantage. In the series, the sole immigrant character and a few female players are eliminated after experiencing discrimination from their fellow players. In other words, it’s still a long time before a Korean series will show a Pakistani immigrant, or a woman, winning.
In everyday life:
While the critique of an oppressive meritocracy is nothing new, it has been gaining ground in both the US and Europe. An example was the Black Lives Matter movement inspiring people around the world in 2020. But as sociologists and behavioral economists have determined, multiple biases govern the game we play. There’s no such thing as a level playing field, with birth continuing to have a great influence on determining our career path. Even American society, which until recently believed in the “American Dream,” is no longer fooled. Meritocracy is false. In his book The Tyranny of Merit, the philosopher Michael Sandel argues that we must rethink the attitudes to success and failure that have grown alongside globalization and rising inequality.
For Sandel, the hubris that a meritocratic culture generates in the winners is deeply toxic. It imposes harsh judgments on those left behind, who are then deprived of any means of escape from their condition. Sandel believes that success should be redefined according to an ethos of humility and solidarity, with greater respect for the dignity of work. For others, exploding the myths of meritocracy means greater redistribution of wealth and offering everyone the same chances for a rewarding professional life.
Our social protection is lacking – time to reinvent it!
In the series:
The daily life of the characters in Seoul reveals a striking lack of social protection. Those who lose their jobs risk falling into an unending spiral of debt. In terms of consumer debt, Korea is a world leader. Since 2010, its GDP has been growing at a slower pace than the debt of South Korean households. In the series, those in debt are vulnerable to all sorts of predators, including underground organ traffickers and recruiters for deadly games aimed at entertaining a hidden gallery of VIPs. All they needed was decent unemployment insurance!
In everyday life:
Social protection is a set of collective welfare mechanisms aimed at helping individuals and households cope with risks such as unemployment, illness, disability, or old age. Around the world, social-welfare systems vary, with South Korea lagging behind most European countries. But as the world transitions from the industrial to the digital paradigm, a greater number of people are falling through the holes in the safety net. There is a global crisis in dealing with what happens to self-employed people who lose their jobs, part-time workers who live alone, and all those who don’t have access to decent housing.
In the United States, the shortcomings of the social security system have been hotly debated in recent years. Led by a new generation of politicians, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, people are calling for parental leave, improved childcare, and greater protection and a more level playing field for the employed. While the South Korean safety net is the bare minimum, social protection needs improvement worldwide.
Alienated by constant surveillance
In the series:
Each player in Squid Game is given a number and tracked, reminiscent of a forced-labor camp. The game master has a gigantic display to monitor who is still left in the competition. Between games, players spend hours in a dormitory where they remain under constant supervision. The dorm even serves as a testing ground for game designers and a source of entertainment for the VIPs – elderly white males – who have come for the show. There is a blurring of the boundaries between rest and play, with one seeping into the other. And, indeed, the contestants are unwittingly observed during their downtime.
In everyday life:
The pervasiveness of digital workplace tools has made some tasks easier and often improved conditions. But it has also opened the door to monitoring. With mobile devices, managers can track employee movements and continuously gauge performance. Collaborative tools, meanwhile, clock people in and out remotely. Electronic messaging – particularly email – reinforced by the increase in telecommuting has completely blurred the lines between the workplace and the home. Many feel that their employers are watching them, even in their private lives. Like a giant panopticon, working in the digital age comes with the prospects of continual surveillance and growing alienation.
Criticism of surveillance by big tech is growing. Facebook’s reputation has been damaged by the impression that, to the company, people are just numbers to help sell advertising space. But for many digital businesses, users are simply a means to an end. In her groundbreaking book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff explains how digital companies have made a business out of our personal data. For her, surveillance capitalism threatens free will, just as it does for democracy.
The extreme infantilization of employees
In the series:
The challenges in Squid Game are all taken from children’s games typical in Korean culture. One challenge involves Red Light, Green Light with a giant, creepy doll, while another takes place in a playground with slides. There’s also a series of alleyways and side streets configured for marbles. The infantilization of adults and nostalgia for childhood are two central themes in Squid Game.
In everyday life:
In recent years, there has been increasing criticism of the use of video game principles by digital platforms to influence users’ decisions to stay connected and continue working. Algorithmic management turns users into children to be manipulated, denying them their free will. In more traditional organizations, it’s the division of labor and subordination that treat employees like children denied their independence. Their performance and presence in the office are monitored because, like children, they might do something foolish if left to their own devices. As populations age, the cult of youth often pushes adults who want to work into trying to look younger than they are, as though being an adult holds no value. This is even more true in South Korea, where 1.2 million cosmetic-surgery procedures are performed annually.
But being a responsible adult means having more dignity at work. This idea leads many people to become self-employed. Values associated with artisanal work, such as autonomy, responsibility, and creativity, are popular because more people reject the infantilization inherent in industrial work. Treating people like children was one way to subdue them. Today’s professionals want to be treated as responsible adults.
Working in a man’s world: a losing game for women
In the series:
Of all the contestants, only 10% are female. Like the South Korean workplace, the world depicted in Squid Game is not kind to women. Male players don’t want them on the team because the women are seen as weak, incapable, and hysterical. The female protagonists embody a tough choice facing South Korean women today who want a career. Either they play the game of submitting to men for protection, or they get rid of men altogether and form alliances with other women. In this scenario, neither the humbled straight woman nor the rebellious queer woman is the winner.
In everyday life:
At work, many women are forced to play games to make them forget they are women. They often find themselves typecast in stereotypical roles such as the mother or the whore. Inequalities in domestic chores are still huge obstacles when it comes to professional equality. When you have to do all the unpaid work, there’s less room for a career. In Europe, the United States, and Korea, the “motherhood penalty” continues to take its toll. Many women of retirement age struggle financially, especially if they have raised children alone. Faced with this prospect, more and more women are refusing to pay this price and choose not to have children instead. Meanwhile, in companies where there’s only room for one woman at the top, female rivalry emerges. But even in Korea, more and more women would like to break free from the extreme sexism of the corporate world and rely on sisterhood, just like the character of Kang Sae-byeok, Squid Games’ queer North Korean.
In short, Squid Game is a cry of despair and the expression of overwhelming frustration. The series echoes the “great resignation” of employed people who are no longer willing to accept the working conditions imposed on them. In the United States and Europe, they are in a winning position due to the ongoing labor shortage. At the same time, wages are going up, and the widening gap of inequality seems to be slowing down. And while debates about social protection abound, feminist demands are sometimes being heard. So, what does Squid Game’s success tell us? As far as contemporary attitudes to work are concerned, the tide may well be turning.
Translated by Andrea Schwam
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
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