It was a Friday night. I was in a familiar state — too tired to go out, too awake to go to sleep and far too lazy to get a head start on my readings for next week. Right then, my phone flashed with a notification from Netflix. Something called “Squid Game” had just been released. The description read: “Hundreds of cash-strapped players accept a strange invitation to compete in children's games. Inside, a tempting prize awaits — with deadly high stakes.” It looked interesting, or at least interesting enough to put on in the background as I worked my way through a congested email inbox and folded my laundry. Moreover, I didn’t have anything better to do, which was as good of a reason to watch Netflix as any. With an internal shrug, I pressed play.
Now, according to Netflix, 111 million accounts have viewed “Squid Game” since it was released on Sept. 17, making it the streaming giant’s “biggest-ever series at launch.” It also reached the top of Netflix’s “Top 10” list in 94 countries, including in South Korea, the show’s home market, and in the United States, becoming the first-ever Korean series to do so. And of course, the show has been a huge hit on the internet, spawning a million viral memes and, somehow, making tracksuits “hot.” In fact, “Squid Game” has become so big that the North Korean government has seized upon the show’s portrayal of the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism as reflective of the reality of the “beastly” nature of South Korea’s society. It has also garnered a mostly positive critical response, with a 91% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Squid Game” is big, addictive and generally considered to be pretty good. What’s to dislike?
My initial reaction was that “Squid Game” was a fun but ultimately unremarkable and unmemorable Friday night watch. But as the internet fervor around “Squid Game” grew, I found myself less and less enthusiastic about it. I increasingly felt a sinking suspicion that the booming popularity of the show would give rise to cultural misinterpretation and, in turn, appropriation.
While the series was entertaining, many aspects of it didn’t particularly appeal to me. First, the show relies heavily on graphic violence. Where it could have used this violence to construct an original view of the growing inequality, debt and class strife in South Korea and abroad, “Squid Game” uses gore to serve as nothing more than an (admittedly effective) shock factor. As the New York Times television critic Mike Hale put it, it’s just “empty, bloody calories.” The series’ director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, said that the show is not just a critique of the brutality of capitalism, but also of our penchant for consuming others’ humiliation and struggles to survive as entertainment. But, if it relies on gratuitous violence to draw eyeballs, is “Squid Game” all that different from the kinds of entertainment that Hwang is trying to critique? More broadly, graphic violence seems to be the common thread among many of Netflix’s most successful Korean-language series, including not only “Squid Game” but also “Kingdom” and “Sweet Home.” Identifying this running theme led me to wonder if a Korean show that has something smart to say could find international commercial success without relying on gore.
But once the shock of the gore pulls you in, “Squid Game” fails to bring a novel perspective to its well-trodden themes. Korean cinema and television have long focused on the impacts of income inequality, and many long-time watchers, including myself, came away from “Squid Game” without thinking that it added anything particularly novel to the cultural arena. Anyone who has watched a lot of Korean movies and TV will note that “Squid Game” relies on tired tropes that invoke a capitalist dystopia to critique income inequality. As one Korean critic remarked, “Too much in ‘Squid Game’ reminds you of every other movie you’ve ever seen.”
I can look past the unoriginality and gratuitous gore in “Squid Game,” but the show’s explosive international popularity — carrying with it the potential for cultural appropriation — was harder for me to stomach as time wore on. Like many Koreans, as recently as a couple of years ago I could have never imagined that a Korean-language show would be so popular, especially in the United States. Certainly, the last few years have illustrated the growth in the global appeal of Korean pop culture, to the point where it has become a central part of South Korea’s strategy to cultivate “soft power,” or non-militaristic influence born out of cultural capital. But the more popular Korean cultural exports become, the more fearful I am that people will appropriate or misinterpret them. For example, inaccurate English subtitles increase the risk that foreign audiences will misinterpret Korean culture, taking at face value the secondhand translations that inevitably dilute the meaning and cultural symbols in the script. Furthermore, the need for TikToks explaining how to dress up as “Squid Game” characters for Halloween without being racist shows that cultural appropriation in the wake of the show’s popularity is a real risk.
When “Parasite” became an unexpected hit with audiences and critics alike, I wrote a column about how proud the film’s triumph at the Academy Awards made me. Now, I find myself instinctively disliking “Squid Game,” an insanely successful and pretty good television show, primarily because I fear that its popularity will lead people to make incorrect assumptions about Korean culture. Things have changed in the years since I wrote that column. Namely, Korean cultural exports have become even more popular. That soaring popularity has made me realize that sometimes visibility is not always empowerment. Sometimes, it simply makes you feel exposed.
Bliss Han ’23 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.