Ever since its worldwide premiere on September 17 of this year, survival drama Squid Game has captivated audiences all over the globe. As of today, the show is Netflix’s most watched series at over 142 million household views, which surpasses 2020’s Bridgerton.
To say that the show’s popularity has made itself known is an understatement. This Halloween, thousands of trick-or-treaters donned the now-famous pink jumpsuit and black mask of the fictional guards. Pop-ups all over Koreatowns invite onlookers to engage in the children’s games that featured prominently in the show. The famous honeycomb candy has been recreated thousands if not millions of times by those curious enough to see if they can pass the test of carefully carving out an intact shape.
However, a sobering irony arises with such popularity. With such a massive following jumping onto the drama’s proverbial bandwagon, including large companies and corporations trying to take advantage on such a great marketing opportunity, many people seem to have missed a steadily growing and sobering irony—that Squid Game, a show famous for its blatantly anti-capitalist sentiments, is becoming steadily commercialized and diluted into fun, trendy aesthetics. And we, as the show’s fans eager to enjoy the impact of the drama’s influence, are falling for it.
Let’s set the stage first. Squid Game has been frequently compared to 2012 American series The Hunger Games for its popularity and overlapping themes on social class and battle royales to the death. However, the main notable difference is that while The Hunger Games is categorized as a dystopian piece of fiction, due to its events taking place in a bleak post-apocalypse future, Squid Game takes place in the modern day. Many viewers have commentated on this difference, positing that while The Hunger Games presents the horror of the ramifications of capitalism gone wrong as a distant, future possibility, Squid Game suggests instead that these such ramifications are already here, right now, in our current society.
Hwang Dong-hyuk, the writer and director of Squid Game, drew inspiration from real-life events to develop the narrative for his show. In one of the episodes, one of the main characters recount how they’ve fallen to their current destitute position in life, describing how they took part in a car factory strike protesting unfair layoffs only to be attacked by thousands of riot police in a full-on war zone on the factory site.
This event would sound very familiar to Korean audiences. In 2009, when the script was originally created, a riot similar to the one described in the show at a company named Ssangyong Motor Company occurred. Almost 900 workers protesting an unfair and unexpected layoff during a global recession locked themselves in a factory that was offered as collateral by the company and refused to leave until their demands (no more layoffs, job security, and no more outsourcing) were met. The strike quickly devolved into violence, eerily similar to the imagery presented in the show. Firebombs were hurled, police commandos rappelled in from helicopters, and hundreds were terribly injured. News of the strike were all over Korean news outlets for weeks, with supporters lining up after the aftermath to sing labor songs and hold signs in support of the workers who were taken advantage of by the machinations of management.
Herein lies the irony. Hyundai, a South Korean motor company whose workers went on strike just this year, posted a Tweet which has since then been deleted but had originally featured three pieces of car-shaped honeycomb candy, coyly asking their audience which model they’d rather try to extract. A large corporation, who had treated its workers no better than Ssangyong, let Squid Game’s message fly over their head in an attempt at hip, relevant marketing.
The more we buy into and enjoy these fun aesthetics without awareness and recognition of the show’s anti-capitalist sentiments, the more diluted Squid Game’s criticisms become. The steadily growing commercialization of the show’s motifs, from the pink jumpsuits to honeycomb candies, is not only just ironic, but it’s reinforcing the message that Squid Game has been positing this entire time: that the social divide between the classes, the unreachable summit of riches beyond comprehension and the working class scraping by on paycheck to paycheck, is not as easily bridgeable as capitalist sentiments would have you believe.