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Squid Game: A Grim Reflection? 

Squid Game: A Grim Reflection? 
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

"Red Light, Green Light". Ever since I watched the South Korean show, the most popular in Netflix history, I can no longer play with my granddaughters the way I used to. The deliberate mix of competition for survival and children's games is frighteningly effective - some would say terrifyingly perverse, with barely bearable violence. How can we account for the success of this series which has in a matter of weeks attracted more new subscribers to Netflix than any other series before it?

The first interpretation is the most negative but perhaps the most realistic: its violence is exactly what fascinates its audience, young people and teenagers even more so than adults. Associating survival games and children's games was a daring feat. Certainly, since Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, literary critics, as well as clinical psychologists and psychoanalysts, have endeavored to demonstrate the complexity and the absence of innocence in these so-called children's stories, rife with troubling underthoughts. However, in this South Korean show, sex inuendos are scarce and nudity virtually non-existent. The show is instead ruled by pure physical and psychological violence. A game of massacre forcing a ruthless selection. Of the four hundred or so candidates, all but one are destined to die - the winner receiving a very large sum of money, allowing them to erase their debts and restart their life on the "right track".

After an especially bloody first episode, temptation is great - irresistible for some. Why subject one’s self to a show of such perversity? Neither the aesthetic, in some ways "baroque," nor the admittedly excellent acting seem to justify it. 

This globally acclaimed Asian show is but one illustration, among many others, of an increasingly disillusioned globalization, which brings out the worst in humans.

This globally acclaimed Asian show is but one illustration, among many others, of an increasingly disillusioned globalization, which brings out the worst in humans.

Game of Thrones offered an endless spectacle of beheadings, incest and displays of sex and violence. Framed in a Middle Ages aesthetic, it was so close to our contemporary obsessions, that it could be considered somewhat evocative of the Middle East today. With Squid Game, the perversity has moved closer in time - it is happening now. However, it has moved further in location: the backdrop is Asia, in a country whose streets and suburbs of the capital, Seoul, are increasingly familiar to us in Europe, especially following the success of the film Parasite at Cannes, almost three years ago.

A Westerner is thus left to ponder the following questions: has universalism crossed the Pacific, and is South Korea now becoming what Hollywood has been since the dawn of the invention of cinema? The streets of New York or Los Angeles, the affluent suburbs of Dallas, the vast roaming lands of the Westerns, in the 1950s and early 1960s had, thanks to their visual familiarity, become the natural field of the imagination. But the original message of Hollywood was of a different nature, it could be summed up as "if you can dream it, you can do it". If we consider this globally successful South Korean show however, it might be more appropriate to replace the dream with a nightmare. Does the triumph of Squid Game embody our stepping into a world that has permanently replaced hope with fear? This model of fear does not come from Asia, but is set there. Does its appeal to a global audience - which watches this display of violence, riveted - mean that they recognize themselves in it? There may be some truth to this model, even if it appears overly simplistic. 

In fact, the reality is undoubtedly even more complex, and is at least as economic and social as it is psychological and cultural. The starting point of this South Korean series is the amount of debt of an ever growing part of the population. The huge rise in inequalities between rich and poor has created a Hobbesian world, where man is a wolf to man, almost literally: only the strongest, the most cunning, the most cynical, in short the most inhuman, will survive. 

Has Asia taken over the realm of the imaginary, before reclaiming the torch of History from the tired and declining West? 

This does not prevent instances of camaraderie from occurring between these modern-day gladiators. Coming together, forming alliances, even brief ones, does not allow one to win in the end, but it can improve survival odds, at least in the short term. After having drawn inspiration from the West for decades, has Asia taken over the realm of the imaginary, before reclaiming the torch of History from the tired and declining West? This is a question raised by the disturbing success of a show that effectively and skilfully mixes references borrowed from different cultures and generations.

The fact remains that the effect of Squid Game on children and teenagers could be disastrous, with a temptation to reproduce the dangerous games inspired by the show in school playgrounds and on university campuses. The spectacle of ISIL terrorists’ public executions were said to have been inspired by episodes of Game of Thrones. The danger is of course that this South Korean show, after having been inspired by real events that took place around the world, could itself become a source of inspiration for perverse games that would attract an ever-increasing number of young people. When will we see a positive show that might highlight the best rather than the worst of human nature?


Copyright: Matt Winkelmeyer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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