Squid Game: The Culture of Poverty (Spoilers)
Squid Game is at its heart just another version of Battle Royal, which was an incredible book made into an even better movie about putting 100 students on an island to fight to the death. While the idea has been explored before that book, that novel was a genre defining piece that codified a number of specific elements in future works such as The Hunger Games or in video games like PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround.
The central piece to making these stories work is how easily the audience can put themselves into these situation and imagine how they would fair. We can’t be larger than life heroes on the big screen, but we can be a person with a shotgun in a zombie flick or think about how we’d fair in a life and death game against other humans. With zombies we’re looking at if we can survive. With Battle Royal or Squid Game, the genre invites us to think further about how much we are willing to do to survive. Many people think that they’re fundamentally good people, but if a gunmen pointed a gun at another person’s head and asked them to choose the stranger’s life or their own— well, what will you do? In theory a lot of folks are selfless, in practice that’s another matter.
Squid Game doesn’t add anything meaningful to the genre when we’re considering how it tests the resolve of the players themselves to continue a moral path and what morality means within the context of a barbaric situation. It doesn’t add funny masks to the genre either, the anime High Rise Invasion did that. It certainly explores these elements and typically does a great job, but the series isn’t unique or special in these qualities.
What the series does very well is explore poverty. It doesn’t do this by showing us folks hopelessly in debt nor does it do this by showing a piggybank filling up with money. That isn’t a deep or meaningful look at poverty as anyone could simply imagine that scenario without any effort. Where this series became defining is when Player 1 and player 456 sat down and have a meal together in episode 2.
I don’t believe a writer who hasn’t experienced poverty in their life would think to write this scene. It features Player 456 wishing he had some food to share with Player 1. Player 1 than grins and reveals a package of dry ramen, that they proceed to open, sprinkle the seasoning on, and eat by hand. This is something I’ve done before, because the taste of mushy noodles was so revolting I just needed it to feel different. I just couldn’t stomach one more bowl of it like a soup or like a pasta, I couldn’t go through the effort of cooking it, I was depressed, I was hungry, so I just ate it dry from the package with water and pretended it was something better.
When poverty is written in most stories, from writers who never experienced significant hardship, we see dumpster diving. We see folks eating garbage or stealing or cooking critters for the shock value. We associate digging through the trash for food with this image of what being poor is and don’t we feel sorry for that scene. We can look on it and think, oh, how desperate, how awful. And while folks definitely do things like that to survive, many of us make due in other ways. We buy extremely cheap food, ramen, eggs, pot pies, dollar burritos, cheap fast food, mac and cheese, and so forth. Meals for a dollar or less if we have a home — soup kitchens when we don’t.
A privileged writer wouldn’t think of poverty in how those experience it become resilient. They wouldn’t think about unconventional ways in which folks adapt and survive. They wouldn’t think about eating dry ramen, because who in their right mind would?
To me, this is the most interesting and powerful scene in the entire show. I’ve never seen anything like this before and all of those homages of poverty with loan sharks, with violence, with medical insecurity, and with desperation felt hollowed compare to the lived experience of eating ramen dry from the package. That is a scene that really speaks to the folks who have been poor in their life and from that allows them to more fully invested in the story that unfolds.
I started a conversation around this scene on social media and I got a number of folks engaging with their own low income meals. And the thing was the tone of this conversation wasn’t about how these meals were shitty. It wasn’t that eating ramen dry was shitting or surviving on box noodles was shitty. We talked about it with a reverence of a shared cultured. And I finally identified something I’ve always felt, but never fully realized until this moment. We are the YUM family.
I’ve always had a kinship with anyone who spoke about eating at Taco Bell fondly. With people who talk about their favorite frozen brand of pizza until they go hoarse. With people who get really proud about cooking their first meal or learning to cook as adults because growing up it was all cheap processed junk. I’ve written entire essays on the ranking of frozen pizzas by quality, calorie, and price. What I didn’t realize I was doing was engaging in culture, specifically poverty culture, and this makes sense when we realize that food is such a central identity to any culture. What we eat, how we eat it, who we share it with can define culture as much as anything else.
I was raised in a family with significant financial hardship that changed from poverty, to poor, to working class depending on the job my parents had or didn’t in a given year. As a young adult, I worked and ate fast food. I worked with other people and developed friendships with folks struggling like I was. Even as an adult, who has a lot more economic security than I did in my twenties, I feel extremely uncomfortable with the class culture of middle class or upper class folks.
As an activist I sit at tables with the rich, who think nothing of spending 30 dollars on a plate or 100 dollars on a bottle of wine. Who have hair stylists for any event and fitted clothes that speak wealth picked up by other people . It all makes me extremely uncomfortable, because it always comes with a kind of culture shock. And this culture that is created by class is also enforced by it. If you cannot perform within the culture of wealthy, you do not belong there, you do not get the opportunities afforded to those who can. This is how classism is maintained, often with racial injustice built into the anti-intersectional core. Classism is not just maintaining the Have/Have Not structure of wealth, but also maintains patriarchal ideology and white supremacy. Watch Sorry to Bother You to see this examined to its only logical conclusion.
Folks may look at this discussion and be like, damn girl, you rolling 20s on this race theory? But this isn’t even critical race theory or the misinformed buzz that goes around that. Systematic oppression by race and class is not something anyone can argue doesn’t exist, while arguing in good faith. It is extremely observable, something we can and have tested, and have had the results for decades. What happens more often is folks just don’t understand what these concepts actually mean or how they are applied with a sociological lens.
On that post on social media asking about people’s relationship to food, there was one person who commented with extreme disgust at the food they ate growing up. They described it as poverty and desperation. Given the context that they’re relatively well off now, one can see the extreme shift within class perspective there. They are a person who was disgusted by the class of which they grew up, feeling they’re entitled to something better or above their roots.
When I look at the cheap food I ate and those I ate it with, I don’t see shame or desperation. I got sick of eating ramen, but never saw eating it as a bad thing. I saw a culture I belong. I’m an outsider to pretty much every other group, but if you have stories about Taco Bell, then you’re one of my people. There was an old episode of Frasier where their father Marty takes them to a steakhouse. The comedy of this episode is the culture class between a more down to earth guy and the high society of Frasier and Niles. The two brothers spend their time there insulting the place until Marty can’t stand it anymore. He tells them to be ashamed of themselves, that while he knew they took after their mother for class culture, at least she could sit down and have a burger from time to time. Ultimately, Squid Game explores the concept of Battle Royal through class struggle and class entitlement.
So, you ask yourself a few questions: Why do you want this money? If you knew you’d be risking your life, would you returned to a game of death to get it? A rather brilliant conceit of this show is the opting into self-harm for a chance of some amount of wealth. How many times will you allow yourself to be slapped in the face for the chance to earn a significant amount of money? How much would you put your life at risk for the chance to never have to worry about money ever again? How bad is your life right now, how much debt are you being crushed by, how many people are already hounding you, that you’d bet your life to a coin flip to make that all go away?
More interestingly and more pertinent, let’s say there isn’t a game of death for fortune, but you still need the money to eat, to get medicine, to have shelter. Let’s say there are some people who will pay you $8.00 to stand in a hot kitchen for 8 hours. Watch this 3 minute video exploring how interviews would look like if we were honest about the power dynamics.
I think the really important thing to walk away from here is that Squid Game is not more unethical than capitalisms. These folks are betting their life in a moment for the chance for wealth. People every day bet eight hours of their life in exchange for a very small amount of income. It is much less likely they’ll die in an eight hour shift, but we also only have a good forty to fifty years to work. We only have so much time to earn wealth. We can at any time die by injury, health condition, or accident. The question becomes is the difference between doing customer service as Walmart and working on an oil rig, the same difference between working on an oil rig and playing the Squid Game?
We sell ourselves, our time, and our body to a job for money and over decades we are giving away our entire life for the money to live it. So, what is really the big difference here? And obviously this is a big question and an important philosophical question to explore. Is the jobs you work taking 40 years of your life in increments that different from them shooting you in the head? In the trucking world, a lot of truckers die a few years after retiring from blood clots. Is that really fundamentally different than the Squid Game? Sex workers often get derided for selling their bodies, but what occupation doesn’t? What physical labor job doesn’t have it’s tolls or risks on the body? The punishment in Squid Game is horrific and extreme, but it’s also nearly instantaneous. The Squid Game however offers at least a chance that they can become wealthy and the securities it awards. One could argue that is more humane than the systems currently keeping poverty generational.
It is vital to realize that this is not a moral judgment on capitalism. This is simply what our current system is. It is not fair, it is extremely cruel, and people rarely have the social mobility to build something better than they have right now. It gets harder and harder for people to develop any kind of wealth or equity and that’s working more than forty hours a week, more than one job, and to the bone and their death. Income inequality that does not ensure basic human needs like shelter, food, or healthcare, that forces folks to work to the detriment of their health and happiness is a Squid Game played over decades.
The pandemic here in America has been showing people how rigged the game has been for a while and there is no surprise we’re seeing media like Squid Game or Parasite gaining such high cultural recognition. A comparison made at the end of Squid Game was that the players are basically horses. And while we think about that within the context of horse races, we can also think about it within the context of Animal Farm and the workhorse of the novel. We can think about it in Sorry to Bother You. We can think about it outside of the context of zombification of people that we’ve explored for years in zombie flicks and instead start to think about the horsification within the context of the capitalisms. Zombies aren’t useful or productive after all. Be Glue.
And I think that’s what Squid Game really brought to the table. It was a high production series, it has fantastic set pieces, acting, and a decent exploration of the Battle Royal Genre. The weird squid cult was fun, the detective was strangely great at everything, and a few things really didn’t make any sense, but they didn’t have to either.
I think the reveal of the VIP’s, the lavish gaudy gold fucks looking on at the death of those competing wasn’t necessary. In the same way the scene of eating ramen dry feels much more real than a person diving into dumpsters, the scene of the money gods felt fake in its ostentatious. And one could say it is a meaningful juxtaposition, but it reads too on the nose. And the reveal of the final player, who happens to the first player, was trite and expected. Their final dialogue on the bed was hallow and uninspiring.
“Hold your horses Faye, weren’t you just praising that a few paragraphs ago? I mean, I’ve mostly skimmed — but you know.”
The idea that the wealthy are the same as the poor, because the wealthy have a spiritual emptiness that comes from no longer needing to struggle to survive, isn’t real. That they’d need to create battle royal island, to bet on lives, just to feel again is cartoonish. This is not a reasonable conclusion to make, it is not a moment where you start to understand and go, ah ha! And it is incredibly disappointing to get that ramen scene in episode 2 and end so weakly with some bet on if people were good or not by the virtue of a random stranger.
The show would have been made significantly better if they simply removed the entire VIP section. Shroud that place in mystery and spend the last two episodes exploring the main characters interaction with money and wealth, with other wealthy people. See the difference in how they interact with him and how he judges the culture he now finds himself in. The scene of borrowing money from the banking individual at the end was a taste of this, but it could’ve gone for so much longer and meant so much more.
Let’s having him at a lunch with financial advisors who see a homeless man outside the nice restaurant and talk about how pathetic he is and how he should get a job. Have that scene play out as we see the many characters who died during the game working hard at jobs and getting nowhere. Let’s have him leave the restaurant and take the homeless man to one of those food stations we saw him take his daughter to earlier in the movie.
This is how we could have made meaningful commentary. I don’t know if that would be more successful than the VIP section or more entertaining, but it would’ve landed much harder. I guess that’s enough horsing around for now.