A still-twitching body shoved into an incinerator. Masked men in bright pink jumpsuits harvesting organs. A man pours himself a drink while dozens of people are shot on his screen.
These are only a few scenes from Netflix’s newest hit, “Squid Game.” In less than a month, the show has reached 111 million viewers, surpassing “Bridgerton” at 82 million viewers to become the most-watched Netflix show, according to a company tweet on Oct. 12.
The Korean drama revolves around a series of childhood games played by cash-strapped contestants desperately trying to pay off their massive debts. It is not revealed until the first game, Red Light, Green Light, that the contestants are playing for the 45.6 billion won (about $38 million USD) cash prize at a steep cost: their lives.
Since its release, the show has become a social media phenomenon — the hashtag #SquidGame has been featured in over 1.1 million posts on Instagram and over 62.7 billion views on Tiktok. HoYeon Jeong, the actress who portrays Sae Byeok, Player No. 067 in the games, has gained over 20 million followers on Instagram since the show’s premiere in September.
NBCNews’ Kalhan Rosenblatt attributes “meme fodder” to the show’s popularity. The easy-to-follow, replicable games in the show have now become trendy social media challenges (think of the Cinnamon Challenge, ALS Ice Bucket, Try Not To Laugh videos that were the cornerstone of middle school).
One of the games in which contestants have to break a shape out of a circle of dalgona candy is now a popular TikTok cooking trend with creators making their own dalgona. Tiktok has even made a filter for users to trace the dalgona candy shape with their noses. The sound from the Red Light, Green Light game in the first episode has been used over 800,000 times on TikTok, while screenshots from the show have been repurposed on Twitter as new meme formats.
Ironically enough, the social media popularity of “Squid Game” has brought wealthy celebrities and multi-million dollar companies looking to join in on the fun — the very entities that the show criticizes. For example, Mr. Beast, one of the most popular Youtube creators with over 70 million subscribers, tweeted that an “IRL Squid Games video” was in the works. The popular Korean-pop boyband NCT-127 did their own recreation of the games. Hyundai tweeted a since-deleted image of their cars imprinted in dalgona candy. The irony of the tweet was quickly called out by Twitter user @Shaun_Vids, who points out one of the main characters of the show struggled due to exploitation by a car manufacturer.
The trend of corporations participating in social media trends or using social media like everyday users has not escaped scrutiny. The rise of what Vulture reporter Nathan Allebach calls “Brand Twitter” has drawn comparisons to Mark Fisher’s theory of capitalist realism, in which capitalist institutions participate in anti-capitalist movements, thereby blurring the lines of protest.
The entertaining social media trends and meme-ification of the show have arguably overshadowed the show’s strong anti-capitalist messaging that rings true not only in South Korea, but in the U.S. as well. @nodutdol on Instagram, a social activist group focused on the Korean diaspora, pointed out that the mass casualties in Squid Game are not entirely fictional either. Their post lists historical instances such as the imprisonment of over 60,000 people in concentration camps in a “Social Purification Campaign” from the 1980s, as well as repeated instances of anti-union violence.
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The debt crisis in “Squid Game” is also all-too-real for viewers in South Korea; in fact, household debt has surpassed 100% of the country’s GDP. Kim Jeong-wook, a factory worker from South Korea, told ABCNews that “he couldn’t watch [“Squid Game”] past episode one,” saying, “it was too traumatic for me.”
Although arguably lost in the wildly popular social media trends and recreations, the sobering reality of the show should make viewers question how and why we consume our entertainment, as well as its impact on our daily lives. Recently in South Korea, an estimated 16,000 workers dressed up as the guards from the show in a protest for better labor rights.
For some of us, there will always be a next “challenge” or big TV show, but for others, the violence in “Squid Game” is part of their daily lives. In many ways, the popularity of “Squid Game” should drive us to reconsider who gets to walk away unscathed.