The Joy Kill Club: On Squid Game (2021), a Roundtable-Monologue by a Korean Female Aca-Fan (Part Two)
G: Yes, these are misfortunate. With full respect to these points, I'd like to take us back a few steps and encourage us to now focus on the big picture. The show, although unfortunately with some limitations possibly due to it being created as a popular show with production limits, has successfully shown how the inequalities/inequities you described are part of a layered ecology of capitalism. The patriarchal gender dynamics showed who still benefits more under the capitalistic structure. Then, Ali told a story of discrimination towards non-Korean and/or non-fair-skinned people in Korea. It was also one that helped position the show's criticism in the context of global dynamics beyond "it's just the West that's bad.” What Ali experienced in the society and how he tended to be treated in the game paralleled how the VIP White Men (and a Chinese speaker) were exploiting Korean people's suffering, dissociating themselves from those on the screen. It isn't a simple linear story of victimhood but one that reflects on discriminative acts that each of us may partake in while suffering from the same discriminative structures ourselves. It arguably also does not apply a fixed morality to all characters. In episode 2, Ali escaped the factory by accidentally putting his boss's hand in the machine. Sae-byeok escapes the North Korea broker by throwing a hot drink in his face. Violence, an active means for ignorance and entertainment to the exploitative class, at times may have been a passive or unavoidable choice for the underprivileged. What’s more, the show actually cast people from marginalized groups, as well as provides them with names, lines, and original stories.
The beauty of rich texts is that scenes can be interpreted in various ways. For instance, while the fact that all of the masked game staffs were depicted as able-bodied adult men (voice, body, as well as in off-mask scenes) on one hand is a self-contradictory detail that equates anonymity with a "normal" body of a man, it can also be approached to symbolize "masculine" violence and the deindividuating effect compliance has upon those who subordinate themselves to the ruling classes. In episode 5, a staff member takes off his mask and says "Look, I'm also a person, just like you." Another example: while nostalgia is one of the themes that penetrates the show, the reveal that Il-nam's (the old man) nostalgia was deeply involved in making the games urges us to ask the question “whose nostalgia?” (c.f., Ok boomer, latteneun) Although with the show's global fame it seems that the gendered and/or generational elements have been effectively summed up as Korean.
To add to the earlier global commentary, I think the most fascinating critique comes from how this show became a global hit when the VIPs were depicted as greedy, lustful, exploitative, and depersonalizing observers of the sufferings. That's what we, global audiences, ihave been doing while watching the show. While most of us likely did not bet money nor rest on a "boob pillow", we were betting our immersion, character investment, and values and belief while following the games and cheering for our champions. With our monthly Netflix membership, we sponsored Squid Game. Another connection we can make is that in episode 5, the first Squid Game is shown to have started in 1999. It could possibly be a stretch, but this is slightly after Korea's financial crisis in 1997 for which Korea sought help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The history of Squid Game suggests that Korea’s. Systems of exploitation are not confined to a single nation’s history, but one that stretches over continents and eras.
K: Still I wonder. Should we overlook the details and some shortcomings on behalf of the big picture? I worry that this itself repeats the history of marginalization, one that ranks priorities. Also, I would like to bring attention to how Ali was portrayed as a "good" character. He was a good person. Everything he did was good. Ali was a "deserving" outsider. Similarly, Sae-byeok was a "deserving" outsider. Il-nam (until the final reveal at the hospital) was a "deserving" outsider. Mi-nyeo, despite whatever backstory she may have had outside of the narrative, was an "undeserving" outsider. Duk-su, although with sufficient backstory to prevent moral conflicts, was also "undeserving.” We also learn to distinguish the deservingness between the two childhood friends from Ssangmundong as the story unfolds, despite us not being completely privy to Seoul National University Sang-woo's backstory and motivations.
I am happy that the previously under-represented groups are appearing on screen. But we must not lose ourselves in the celebration, ignoring the yet still unmet milestones. Selective celebration is different from selective ignorance. Lastly, details add up to the big picture. Mi-nyeo (the "whore") could have been a more dynamic character if she were positioned with a different array of protagonists and/or in the social context of a more equitable Korean society, not in a narrative and a societal culture centered around the "well-intentioned but naive middle-aged Korean Male protagonist(s).” I’m not saying that she needed to have good intentions or noble justifications for her actions. I would have not been such a killjoy if the director instead responded to the feminist criticisms by saying "I am loving the comments from diverse lived experiences, and how my effort in including such lives has opened up floors for such conversations. I am inspired. Season 2 will be better.”
Regarding your global commentary, I think the VIP fourth wall reflection is a great way for Koreans to think about the dominance Korean popular culture is gaining, especially in countries where they cannot produce their own shows/film/music as easily as Koreans have increasingly been able to due to infrastructural lack. We need to start applying the same criticisms that we have been applying to Western content. "K-wave" doesn't equate global equity, but a rise of a single cultural power. It's fun to hear that global folks can sing along with Kpop and have been poking at their own dalgona, but we need to ask ourselves what we know about and how much we care about the wellbeing of people in countries that do not have as globally powerful a cultural say.
This perspective also lets us see past the “it’s all White Men” VIP depiction. Is this the only dominant group if we scale up globally? I’m not saying that we needed proportional representation among the VIPs in the show, which would be extremely counter-productive as global capitalism has privileged White Men. Instead, what I am suggesting is for us to revisit the director's response about how the VIP scene had women-animal-furniture because this was a way to highlight exploitative greed. Who are we imagining as capable of exerting greed, or posses the power for it? On one hand, this representation provides an easy escape from accountability, and on the other hand. an nihilistic route for reproducing existing patterns. For instance, the reveal of White foreign VIPs as who is at the top of the pyramid can dissipate the accountability that should be directed towards the dominant groups within Korea. The VIPs shared race and regional affinity, but they also shared gender* and class.
*The show never explicitly defines all VIPs' identities. However, from how the only sexual fluidity the show depicted was that of a predatory character (i.e., a VIP who sexually harassed the cop), I am superficially assuming that the VIPs were all men following the show’s visual, aural, and narrative portrayals.
G: At the end of the day, however, I am still happy to see the world uniting over a show that is not based in the West, made by locals with an ample amount of local contexts. Perhaps this is the first step that will ease the world towards more diverse content and contexts, regarding the flow of money as well. I just hope that it won't be exploitative, in a way that the locals are perceived as resources for outsourcing "fresh" cultural materials or knowledge to create spectacles for distanced VIP audiences and creators.
K: The ironic thing is that this outsourcing already exists in the show on a domestic level. The local dialects in the show are all awful, which would not have been noticeable to international viewers or even Korean viewers who were born in Seoul. Gi-hun's mom speaks in a weird Southern dialect, which is surprising considering the actor's fame and status in Korea. Why did she have to speak in a local dialect? This is an existing trope in many Korean shows/films to further emphasize the marginalized position of a character or their non-coolness, or simply to "give character.” If it were necessary that Gi-hun’s mom spoke in a dialect, why didn’t the show hire someone who can do so? As someone from a southern region in Korea, I can't help but lament the reproduction of Seoul-centric gaze in the media.
I’ve seen comments that said that Sae-byeok’s North Korean dialect is off as well. My limited knowledge restricts what I can say about the quality of her representation. Instead, what I’d like to say is that the increase of North Korean refugee YouTubers is adding an important nuance to the traditional Korean media industry’s depiction of North Korean (refugee) lives. There is an intriguing popular criticism on the show that left me even more ambivalent about the limits and potentials of the show’s North Korean refugee representation. Some folks have problematized how Duk-su (thug) compared Sae-byeok's desire to achieve freedom from him with the female activist Yu Gwan-sun’s contribution to Korea’s independence movement during Japanese imperialism: "Are you Yu Gwan-sun? If so, you should wave the Korean flag. Oh, since you are a North Korean you should wave the North Korean flag." These folks suggested that this comment was a careless comparison that diminished Yu Gwan-sun’s historical significance and peaceful activism, perhaps more ignorant as this was before there were two Koreas. Of course, this is in line with Duk-su’s establishment as a vile antagonist. But this brings us back to how other criticisms about the show were met with the comment that they were ways to emphasize the theme of the show.
To what extent were the marginalized groups in the show the message or tools for the message? The show’s rather nihilistic closure leaves many provocations unanswered. Perhaps to leave space for Season 2, which nudges at the now global Squid Game of media production cycles. I hope that in the future seasons of transnational media, this year’s winner Squid Game’s return to the game will be to more actively dismantle inequities. I hope that in this future, marginalized players will truly stand a chance, including on production and investment levels. This is why I believe we should selectively celebrate Squid Game especially at the face of its global success. Selective celebration fully recognizes progress, however not without appropriate degrees of criticism. Discriminatory patterns that marginalized groups face are not what can be muted, bypassed, or postponed in favor of “bigger things.” Let’s not wait. Let’s be happy about Squid Game. But let’s also be happy about the critical discussions it can spark, and the changes such conversations can bring.
G: The more reason why we should discuss the series. We can all be both generous and critical. The generosity I can find and the joys I kill probably are different from what another person can provide. What's certain is that we should listen to both perspectives and not kill the killjoys.
Do Own (Donna) Kim is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies fellowship alum. Donna studies digital cultures and mediated social interactions. Her research interests are at the intersections of cultural studies, technology studies, and computer-mediated communication/human-machine communication. She focuses on practices, boundary-crossings, and Others in human-technology assemblages. She enjoys mixed methodological and interdisciplinary collaborations. Her research has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as New Media & Society, International Journal of Communication, and Mass Communication and Society. She is currently affiliated with the research groups Civic Paths, MASTS (Media as Sociotechnical Systems), and ThatGameGroup.
Prior to joining Annenberg, Donna received her B.A. degrees in Media & Communication and English Language & Literature from Korea University in 2015. She studied at Nagoya University for a year as an exchange student in 2013-14. Donna has lived in five different countries including South Korea, China, Canada, US, and Japan. Her cross-cultural experiences and her advertisement/PR internship at Cheil Worldwide inspired her to pursue her interest in digital communication.