Editor’s Note: Airielle Lowe is a senior at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the student publication The Liberato. This fall, she is an intern with CNN. The views expressed here are her own.
My first introduction to “Squid Game” – the fictional Korean drama that is now No.1 on Netflix worldwide – was through a brief clip on TikTok. The game “Red Light, Green Light” was being played, and I watched as one player was shot dead for moving after a “red light” was announced. The other players in the room then began to scream and run – only to be slaughtered in a frenzy of bullets.
The TikTok user providing commentary on the clip gasped at the violence, and I found myself doing the same. Though I’ve watched my fair share of Korean dramas in the past, the gore in this scene was something I wasn’t accustomed to for this genre (though numerous other shows and movies are breaking that boundary). Curious, later that evening I opened Netflix and went to the first episode to see what it was all about.
By the end of the series, my question had been answered. “Squid Game” is violent, emotional, and even comedic at times, but there are reasons beyond its shock value that make this drama so compelling, and for American viewers in particular. While “Squid Game” has been a global hit for its distributor Netflix, it’s also the first Korean series to hit No. 1 on the streaming platform in the US.
The series fixates on hundreds of vulnerable individuals who are either currently in poverty or falling into it, and as a result are chosen to fight to the death in a series of children’s games in hopes of winning a cash prize equivalent to $38 million. The astronomical winnings are “graciously” donated by the wealthy elite, who watch the debt-ridden competitors kill each other in a quest for financial stability and riches.
Though the plot comes across as a gross exaggeration of some dystopian future, “Squid Game” reminds us of the unfair and unpredictable nature of life that many of us have experienced, even if you have had the benefit of growing up better off. We can see parallels to our own challenges in the lives of the players – and when we do, we realize that “Squid Game” is in many ways a surprising mirror of our present reality.
In the US, we play our own version of “Squid Game” every day, and some do so more than others. Whether it’s fighting for better wages, to maintain a roof over one’s head, or even for basic worker rights, Americans are playing a game of opportunity and success, too – the main difference is that for the players in the show, the rules for success are much clearer.
Take, for example, the series’ character of Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae). Naïve but kind, Seong becomes a player in the game after a sequence of events that include finding out his mother has an illness that requires hospital care they cannot afford. It’s a story I immediately recognized, especially with the abundance of GoFundMe pages related to medical expenses, and stories of even children trying to raise money for their family member’s outstanding medical bills.
When Gi-hun’s mother learns of her diagnosis, she refuses to stay at the hospital or get treatment because she believes they will not be able to pay the bill or pay the rent while she’s out of work. For many Americans, this isn’t science fiction – this is real life. A 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Americans are burdened with at least $140 billion in outstanding medical debt, with those in the poorest communities owing roughly five times more on average than those in wealthier zip codes. “By 2020, individuals had more medical debt in collections than they had in debt in collections from all other sources combined, including credit cards, phone bills, and utilities,” the study found.
There’s also Ali Abdul (played by Anupam Tripathi), a migrant factory worker from Pakistan. Ali is not only never compensated after losing several of his fingers during a work accident, but he’s also struggling to support his family after his boss refused to pay him for six months despite having the resources to do so.
Ali’s case as an exploited worker isn’t very peculiar either, especially when considering the current wave of labor protests from workers employed by highly profitable companies in the US. Though Ali’s character is used to portray the discrimination and disadvantages that migrants face in South Korea, the storyline is also applicable to the exploitation of immigrants and undocumented workers in America.
In 2008, a landmark survey of 4,387 workers in low-wage industries in three major cities found that 37.1% of unauthorized immigrant workers were victims of minimum wage violations, in comparison to 15.6% of US-born citizens. Migrant workers are also at risk of ill treatment and manipulation, including being charged illegal recruitment fees; not being reimbursed for visas; and being subject to exploitation due to a lack of understanding of their own rights as workers, according to a report by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a transnational workers’ rights law center.
“Squid Game” isn’t the first TV series to mirror the tension of these structural inequities and class dynamics. It isn’t even the first to explore that tension through a gauntlet of life-and-death contests. Still, the alchemy of the drama’s competitive high stakes and easy-to-meme games have nonetheless created what Netflix is calling one of its biggest show launches of all time.
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While the gamification in “Squid Game” is key to its popularity, there’s more to the series’ explosive rise than TikTok memes. Most viewers of “Squid Game” likely can’t picture themselves actually participating in the drama’s deadly scenarios, and I can’t either. But we empathize with the debt, loneliness and poverty that await these characters, and how their desperation to improve their conditions leaves them feeling like they have nothing to lose.
I came to this realization when watching the series with a friend who was initially drawn to the surface-level action – the constant violence, and the thrill of suspense. But if you walk away from viewing the series without understanding the characters’ motivation to enter the game in the first place, you’re not watching it closely enough. Or, perhaps, you’re immune to the similar struggles so many Americans face today.
Americans may not be fighting to the death in a series of children’s games, but they are fighting familiar battles: for better health care, better wages and better living conditions across the nation. Instead of a literal competition, they’re fighting under the ideals of the “American Dream,” in which – if you fight and work hard enough – you too could have an opportunity to be one of the wealthy.