The Squid Game is a Netflix series that came out in September 2021. It’s been viewed in at least 94 countries by more than 142 million member households. Crazily, it totalled over 165 billion viewing hours in its first 4 weeks.
Each episode has contestants play a variation of a well-known children’s game. The first game is like red light / green light, with contestants allowed to move while a mechanical doll faces the tree, but the moment the doll turns to face the contestants, everyone must freeze. Failure to keep dead still results in death. The contestants are eliminated by being shot. Similarly, one gets a bullet to the head for losing at marbles. A variation of tug-of-war involves the weaker team being pulled over the edge of a high platform resulting in the entire team falling to their death. The anonymous red-suited authorities apply the rules without question, while faithfully honouring their triangle, square and circle hierarchy. The 456 contestants are soon whittled down to a handful with ultimately just one left standing to collect the billions in prize money. All this is entertainment to a tiny group of VIPs.
The concept is horrifying. The violence is terrifying. The brutality is sickening.
What desperation would cause anyone to risk their life to play a series of deadly children’s games? Debt! Each contestant was deep in dept and therefore desperate enough to risk their life for the slightest chance of getting out of it.
Before we are tempted to write off Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of The Squid Game, as some kind of sadist, he explains: “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society – something that depicts an extreme competition somewhat like the extreme competition of life.” Dong-hyuk wrote the Squid Game in 2009 but every film company turned it down saying it was “too grotesque and unrealistic”. It’s deeply troubling to note that by 2019 the same Squid Game came across as more “intriguing and realistic.” Realistic? Yes realistic. A reality exposed and deepened by Covid-19: A recent South African survey reveals that 47% of all respondents have been unable to pay debt and that 45% lost most of their income in the past six months. Globally, on the other extreme a billionaire was created every 26 hours during the Covid pandemic with the wealth of the world’s 10 richest men doubling, rising at a rate of $15,000 (R225k) per second.
What are we to call a system that allows and enables such grotesque inequality? A system that has gone rogue beyond the self-corrective reach of Adam Smith’s naive invisible hand. To follow the brutal consequences of such a system into the flesh and blood of humanity and into the soil and water of creation is to be horrified, terrified and sickened. Surely, evil is not too strong a word?
The purpose of allegory, fable or parable is to open the eyes of an otherwise blind society. To draw us out of our denial. To wake us up from our greedy and violently competitive ways. To urgently change a system lubricated by competition with one centred on compassion. A system that majors in the forgiveness of debts of our neighbours and of nations. In South Africa we do not need horrifying allegory, fable or parable. All we have to do is look outside.