I like to tell people I won the Asian parent lottery. Case in point: I’m a freshman in college intending to major in English. Yes, my parents are paying. By paying, I mean for my existence forty years in the future when I’m still living on their couch.
Coping mechanisms Jokes aside, I want to be an author. Even if I don’t produce an eventual New York Times bestseller, I’ve the fortune and the privilege to try.
This (for lack of a better word) career aspiration necessitates an optimistic view towards media. My generation was raised on the belief that sharing stories is a form of power. Writing (and any creative avenue) is self-expression and by extension, self-empowerment. Clearly, this is a far cry from the oppression and westernization of previous generations’ media. With the artistic landscape defined by increasingly diverse characters and, arguably more important, increasingly diverse creators, media consumption becomes an act of witnessing and validating experiences. Our role as a spectator, then, is one of action. It moves us forward. Throughout my upbringing, I’ve readily accepted this notion.
Recently, however, the media feels simply…loud. What do I mean by that?
Entering college, one of my goals was to consume more media. Listen to more music (aiming for those indie vibes), watch more shows (looking at you, Stranger Things), and read more books. While I’ve achieved partial success (I can now, at the very least, identify with the Demon Slayer fandom), I’ve also stumbled into an unexpected burnout. The sheer volume of existing media is astounding, and I approach each novel, show, or song with the assumption that it will change my life. In her article, “We’re Consuming Too Much Media. It’s Time to Detox Our Brains,” Mary E. McNaughton-Cassill refers to media consumption as a “full-time job, leaving little time for real-life, real-time interactions.” Is it possible, as a result of these unrealistic expectations, to develop an overall passivity towards the media I’m consuming? If every creator is trying to tell their story, what determines whether they’re heard? Luck? Presently, I find myself attracted to books less for depth and more for temporary satisfaction. As an aspiring author, that’s a terrifying realization. If I’m no longer assessing the media by its emotional resonance, where does that leave me?
Within the past month and a half, it has been rare to pass a day without witnessing a reference to Squid Game. Netflix’s latest dystopian thriller has hooked audiences internationally, and grew into the streaming service’s number one show with alarming speed. In their last-ditch attempt to absolve crippling debt, 456 individuals undergo a series of childhood games where losing results in death. Defined by its sickeningly juvenile set designs and emotionally captivating characters, the show presents a natural appeal. Not only a stark commentary of capitalism and its enforcement of poverty cycles, Squid Game attracts an audience raised on the gory rebellion of The Hunger Games. It’s daring. Relevant. And, against our half-hearted denial, fulfills an inner angst.
However, I can’t help but ask: what’s the big deal? Following an extended binge (which, admittingly, defeats the purpose of binging) of its nine episodes, I felt slightly underwhelmed. I found it difficult to believe that, amidst the countless dystopian films and shows, this would rise from the masses. Sure, I understood the hype. But the magnitude it achieved?
My primary issue with Squid Game rests in the fact that (in my very humble opinion) it doesn’t offer anything new. Aside from its visual experimentation—contrasting charming settings with the grisly violence of the games—and the moral exploration of players choosing to return to the games, the show felt unrelentingly standard. Dystopian backdrop littered with brutal deaths? We’ve seen it before. Nightmarish games utilized as a backdrop for a larger criticism of the wealth gap and its systemic consequences? We’ve seen that too. It’s hard not to compare Squid Game to Parasite, a South Korean thriller that became the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Juggling very similar social commentaries, I’d argue Parasite handled its violence more effectively (reserving its bloodiest scenes for the end, achieving a more jarring reaction), and fleshed its characters to more than cardboard cutouts (my love for Ali only extends so far).
So again, why the hype? Wrestling with this question, I turned to the internet. And, for the most part, the answers proved rational. First, there is the K-pop army, responsible for bolstering viewership and proof of the growing popularity of Korean (and, by extension, Asian) media. See also the show’s meme potential, with gun-bearing, shaped-mask-adorned, hot-pink-hazmat-suit-wearing guards. However, I was most intrigued by this statement by Karl Quinn of The Sydney Morning Herald: “We are all implicated, whether we watch in horror or delight.”
In his article, “We are all VIP’s: Who are the real villains of Squid Game?,” Quinn challenges our role as an innocent spectator. “We are meant to find the violence repulsive and exploitative,” he writes. “[Yet] here we are, gladly gobbling it up, binging on the bloodfest, delighting in the evil genius of the games…This whole thing is an artifice that demands we reflect on the reality of our relationship with violence as entertainment.”
And, in every way, Quinn is right. Through its jarringly bright violence, Squid Game both removes us from and recalls us to reality. Are we hardened millionaires endorsing the slaughter of hundreds of financially desperate innocents? No. However, does Gen Z make up an era that, in consequence of our fixation on violence, propelled this show into alarming popularity? Maybe a little. This presents a stark contrast from our parents’ generation, who, upon glimpsing Squid Game, balks at its brutality. (In my mom’s words: “You and your friends like this?”) It also acknowledges our pandemic-ridden times. COVID-19 introduced countless inequities while quarantining us in our grief; in this context, our addiction to Squid Game makes sense. As a population just emerging from isolation, do we find a twisted resonance in witnessing glaring injustice through a screen, distant from its consequences and the responsibility to address it?
This, in its essence, is what confuses me. Recalling the values I learned as a child, consuming media should be an act of empowerment and validation. Even today, studying Dante’s Inferno in my comparative literature course, I translate reading as an act of remembrance—superseding death itself. How, then, does our current exhilaration over Squid Game fit into the equation? How can media, a mechanism for expression and connection, also serve as the ultimate form of desensitization and passivity?
To be clear, I have few answers to these questions, and fewer coherent ones. We should, firstly, acknowledge the differences in genre. Squid Game, which qualifies as a drama, thriller, and horror fiction, stands in stark contrast to any coming-of-age novel or classic whose main intention is self-discovery. Therefore, we can’t expect our responses to coincide. This implies a duality to media; like everything else, the media is a multi-faceted system with positive and negative consequences. Where some works produce change, others enforce passivity. However, in the case of Squid Game, I’d argue the latter is actually a direct result of the former.
Look at the world around us. The books that call for diverse representation, the social media that promotes active lifestyles, the movements that necessitate action. As Simran Randhawa expressed in an interview with Vogue, “We attach a lot of worth and identity to our work, so when you meet someone new, the conversation will [instantly] be, ‘What do you do?’” We are a generation blessed with the media as a means for advocacy, but burdened by the need to respond. The purpose of the media is to tell stories—yet somewhere along the way, we learned to define our lives by whether they’re stories worth telling.
The way I see it, Squid Game offers a semblance of relief from this cycle. By conjuring such a psychologically twisted arena yet remaining rooted in our physical world, the show detaches us from moral obligation; like the characters, we lack control over their (an extension for our?) lives. McNaughton-Cassil reinforces this concept: “When media content makes us feel angry, scared or sad, we orient toward the disturbing story to make sure we know how to protect ourselves.” And this, ultimately, is what makes the show addicting.
As an aspiring author, is it comforting to realize our generation views dystopia as a release? Perhaps not. But it does relieve some of the pressure to make my work morally justifiable. Even if the writing career doesn’t pan out, I’ll take comfort in my effort. We know, after all, that the circumstances could be much worse.