By: Lauren Brensel
Disclaimer: The following contains spoilers for “The Squid Game”.
Netflix’s newest original, “The Squid Game” might be its most haunting, notable show to date. In it, hundreds of South Koreans come together in hopes of winning a big cash prize to offset their large amounts of debt. All they have to do is play six childhood games and $40 million will be split among the winners. The catch is that not everyone can be a winner. Not everyone can be a survivor. In fact, only one out of 456 is. Ultimately, audiences are left with a chilling message: that capitalism kills.
According to a recent Forbes article, “Netflix itself says [“The Squid Game”] may be on the way to become its most popular series in history, passing by The Witcher, Lupin and Bridgerton, if these current trends hold.” Still, Netflix is a multi-billion dollar industry with their own handful of marketing tactics. The rise in The Squid Game’s popularity is just what they need to reach a larger audience, and to gain a bigger profit; completely contradicting the series’ meaning.
The year 2020 brought around 40 new Korean shows and movies to Netflix. Despite the amazing quality within these K-dramas, their additions to the streaming service is no mistake. U.S. viewers were slowly but surely plateauing, causing Netflix to look elsewhere for incoming members. Netflix doubled its funding in Asian productions in hopes of catering towards new audiences. “Netflix’s presence in Asia…is expanding the fastest, and it still has a lot more room to grow,” Adam Epstein wrote for Quartz.
“The Squid Game” is undoubtedly the most successful among Netflix K-dramas. Audiences had less than a month since its Sept. 17 launch to watch the nine-episode series, and still, it is the first show produced in South Korea to reach No.1 on Netflix’s esteemed Top Ten list. Consequently, the series is boosting Netflix in every capacity, increasing the number of subscribers in Asian areas, and here in the U.S.
Netflix will always be a business first, so it is no surprise that an anti-capitalist show like “The Squid Game” would innately help the platform build its brand. Still, the 2021 series is not the first of such themes to air on the streaming service.
In the heated online discussions of “The Squid Game”, many have noted the similarities to Netflix’s 2020 original movie, “The Platform”. In this dystopia, a prisoner wakes up in a cell with hundreds of floors above and below him. Once a day, a large table of food comes through the cells, starting at the first level. By the time the table gets to the last floor, there is no scrap of food left. “It’s a sharp critique of wealth inequality and capitalism where those at the top get an excess and those at the bottom starve,” Paul Tassi wrote for Forbes.
In 2019, Netflix released yet another original, “Atlantics”, where a Dakar teen girl finds herself in an unhappy, arranged marriage with a wealthy man whom she does not love. “It's really a very capitalist and very clearly strategic approach. And it’s not even hidden. It’s accepted,” Mati Diop, the film’s director, told The Undefeated. Her true feelings are for her poorer boyfriend who took a boat to Spain after being financially taken advantage of by a developer.
In 2017, Netflix released yet another original, “Okja”. Also in South Korea, a girl takes care of a large, genetically-altered pig, Okja, her whole life. Then, the animal is taken by a multinational corporation who mistreats it. The girl aims to save Okja from the dangers that corporate life provides. “The essence of the movie is the love between human and animal. But capitalism turns that love into something ugly and turns living things into commodities,” Bong Joon-ho, the director, told Wired.
Characters change, plots diverge, but one commonality remains between these films: Netflix’s depiction of capitalism as dangerous. To many, it seems odd that a corporation who has “driven the video tape/disc rental business, along with companies like Blockbuster, into extinction”, as the American Enterprise Institute explains, could simultaneously create multiple anti-capitalistic productions. It may have less to do with Netflix, and more to do with society itself.
Around 43 percent of people in Generation Z have at least a somewhat negative connotation of capitalism, according to a 2021 Fortune survey. Plus, “among Gen Z consumers in the U.S. (those currently aged 14-24), video games are their No. 1 entertainment activity — and watching TV or movies at home comes in fifth,” Todd Spangler wrote for The Chicago Tribune.
The movie and television industry is craving engagement from younger audiences. This explains why there is more racial diversity among queer characters in recent years, why there are more women in the entertainment industry and why there could be more anti-capitalistic themes than ever before. Generation Z does not just consume media, but impacts its content, too.
“The Squid Game” is mind-boggling and cinematically appealing. It deserves all the recognition it receives. Yet, it is interesting to see its capitalistic implications all laid out.
For the record, there was more than one survivor from the games. But that is a spoiler viewers just have to see for themselves.