The seemingly ever-growing show Squid Game has had one of the most shocking rises to popularity in recent history for television as a whole. With only one season out as of the time of writing, the show only continues to push the boundaries of its relevance in pop culture. The Netflix series has recently become the streaming mega-corporation’s biggest show of all time, reaching a record-breaking 3 billion minutes viewed, with 142 million “member households” having watched the series in the first month of airing. In addition to all of this, it has also reached the No. 1 spot on the streaming service in over 90 countries, all with seemingly no sign of slowing down. And, the most genuinely astonishing part of this all isn’t the numbers alone, but also the fact that it is a non-english franchise. Rather than being made in the US, such as a show like Stranger Things, or the UK, like Black Mirror, the series was instead made in South Korea.
Over the last several years, the South Korean film industry has seen a rapid growth in its popularity in the states. Just last year, the film Parasite set records as it won three categories during the Academy Awards – something that would have been unthinkable for a foreign film just a few years prior. With this huge recognition in not only the foreign film industry, but specifically that of South Korean films, it had left many wondering whether or not this signalled for a new era in the film industry, where foreign releases had just as much of a chance for success in the states as they did in the home countries of these releases. This prediction, now, with the huge success of Squid Game, seems to be proving true.
In fact, other franchises similar to Squid Game seem to be taking off more and more since the release just a little bit ago, especially when it comes to horror. For example, the series Alice in Borderland, a show that has similar death-game narratives, has been growing significantly after being suggested by Netflix’s algorithms to viewers of Squid Game. In addition, another show, As The God’s Will, which uses surreal CGI effects and completely insane narrative storytelling to push one of the most off-the-wall horror stories you can watch right now, has gone as far as to push for a lawsuit against Squid Game for, allegedly, having copied their take on the death-game style from them.
Arguably, though, the reason Squid Game specifically has reached its incredible peak has to do not with the story itself, but rather the morals of the show, which heavily critique the current economic institutions of capitalism, communism, and socialism, while suggesting that there is seemingly no true, good solution to the economic problems already established in modern society. The show uses the struggling, lower class in order for the wealthy to exploit them for entertainment – putting their lives at risk so the higher ups can place bets on and even make fun of the people within the game. When it’s revealed that (again, major spoilers ahead) a participant in the games was, in fact, the person who organized the games in the first place, simply looking back at the show would reveal that he was never in danger. Whether he isn’t being picked up by much of the technology used, or the games themselves are based around his own strengths, it serves a metaphor that ties together the themes of the series perfectly – those who are of a higher status, no matter how equal things may be, will still have an advantage over those of lesser stature. And, this is only one of the points the show makes. The show also critiques the relationship between North and South Korea, compares the lower class to animals, so on and so forth.
What makes these points even more interesting is the fact that the show’s state of popularity has inherently proved the arguments the show attempts to make. For example, the creator of the series has gone on record to state that he still has not made much money off of the franchise, despite its huge growth. The director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, spoke to The Guardian, stating “It’s not like Netflix is paying me a bonus. Netflix paid me according to the original contract.”
On top of that, though, the show’s popularity has only led to many attempting to capitalize off of the series in as many ways as possible. One of the biggest examples of this has to do with the ever-popular YouTube and TikTok trend of a “real-life” version of the games. Obviously, nobody will be genuinely hurt, but many creators have gone on to use the games in the series for views, and, in turn, profit. Though creators have done this to varying degrees of success, such as the more well-made versions from YouTubers like penginz0, or the not-so-well-made versions by other creators, there hasn’t been a more heartbreaking instance than the use of animals for these videos.
(For those who don’t want to hear about this issue, skip to the next paragraph).
The most notable instance of this was done by a channel that uses hamsters for kid-themed content, where the video, despite having incredible sets and a bright tone, can be shown abusing the animals. For example, a scene is shown where a hamster falls from an undetermined height, while the “proof” video meant to debunk these accusations shows an entirely different cut of the scene, from an entirely different angle and lighting.
On a much lighter note, but still a rough one considering the context of the series, big name celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon, have gone on to show themselves participating in events from the game, while showcasing a complete lack of self-awareness that they are the exact people the show is critiquing in the first place. In addition, the YouTube creator Mr. Beast, who makes videos where he, essentially, gives absurd amounts of money to friends and fans through his own absurd setups, is working on recreating the games for a video in his style. While promoting it, he asked for likes on a TikTok post before he remade it, and goes as far as to state that fans who buy his merchandise have a chance of being flown out to participate in the games. Rather than realizing that the games in the show are based on the poor needing money, he rather has people spend money to participate, essentially overlooking the point of the series as a whole.
There have also been instances of kid-oriented content creators using the series for profit. Despite the incredibly mature themes of Squid Game, these creators use the events from the games to make kid content, following the “real-life” style. This is only a continuation of the poor quality of YouTube kids content, where creators focus more on what’s popular than actually giving meaningful or important content for children to learn from. Instead of focusing on kid-friendly themes and education, they will use much more intense themes in order to get views on their videos, at the expense of the kids who watch. Hilariously, though, this has opened up room for parodies that block out this legitimately harmful content, and has also thankfully been cracked down on by YouTube recently.
Squid Game’s success has arguably had a mixed impact on pop culture, Netflix, and society as a whole, but that impact remains undeniable. Despite the negative side of people using the show for personal gain at the expense of others, it has not only given light to foreign films and shows, but also has brought the topic of the failures of any economic system into mainstream attention, something that should be focused on by those who don’t actively involve themselves in politics. Topics like the ones Squid Game suggest are being presented in ways that are not only incredibly well done, but are also entertaining and palatable for almost any audience. It asks many important questions, and that is something that, as it would seem, many are not going to be brushing off.