“Squid Game” Captures the Financial Anxieties and Isolation of American Society
November 14th, 2021
By Isabella Steinheuer
Photo by Maddy Meredith
In recent weeks, the South Korean dystopian series “Squid Game” has captivated viewers globally. The grotesquely violent nine-part series became Netflix’s most popular show, leaving media outlets to make sense of its widespread appeal. “Squid Game” follows 456 people crippled by insurmountable debt as they compete in six children’s games such as “red light, green light” and “tug of war.” Competitors that win all six games win a cash prize of 45.6 billion won (USD $38 million) while competitors that lose are eliminated… by death. The videogame-like violence of the series is certainly a spectacle to behold, but there’s more going on than gore. The global resonance of “Squid Game” is telling of the financial anxieties tied up in our current zeitgeist and the limited choice individuals saddled with debt have in repairing their circumstances.
Horror film and television often reflect the themes and phenomena occurring in society and “Squid Game” is no exception. For example, during the 1950s and 60s when the Cold War and fear of nuclear warfare was heightened, audiences across America flocked to see the chilling and suspenseful films by director Alfred Hitchcock. Film critics and historians have commonly argued that Hitchcock films achieved such popularity due to their ability to capture the paranoia and anxiety that society was experiencing at the time. “Squid Game” has struck a similar nerve with audiences today as the dystopian tale is less fictional than it may seem at first glance. Each player recruited to compete in “Squid Game” is presented with the opportunity to pay off their massive debt. Once characters witness the barbarous nature of the game, the players vote to end the competition and return to their normal lives. However, many of the players soon realize that the real-life consequences of living with extreme debt are far worse than the risk of death in the Squid Game. When players are given the voluntary opportunity to return to the Squid Game, the majority of them do. As Morgan Ome from The Atlantic states in her article on the show, “For the players, the daily humiliations of being poor are a worse fate than risking death.”
Many Americans struggling to pay off financial debts are all too familiar with the humiliation and anxiety that comes with being in dire financial straits. Approximately 77% of all U.S. households are in some form of debt, and total personal debt across 120 million households reached $14.56 trillion at the end of 2020. Even though so many Americans are struggling to get by financially, being poor in America continues to be viewed as a moral failing. U.S. social culture has conditioned many Americans into thinking that poor people are leeches on society, that they are evil, lazy, and get what they deserve. This stigma has instilled financial anxiety in our collective psyche, affirming that the value of our lives is determined by the monetary value tied to our name. The symbolism of the giant piggy bank in “Squid Game” draws on this theme. Whenever a competitor is killed, more prize money equating to the value of that player’s life is added to the piggy bank.
The competition element of “Squid Game” also questions arguments of fairness and equality that capitalist societies commonly defend. Advocates of capitalism often argue that the free-market system is fairer than other economic systems because outcomes are solely based on hard work. The idea of meritocracy is deeply ingrained in capitalist societies, particularly in the U.S. This ideology often pits individuals against one another when economic conditions are undesirable and prevents collective action that challenges the root of these conditions. As a result, individuals have become more isolated from one another, creating an undercurrent of anxiety due to damaged social trust.
“Squid Game” demonstrates these phenomena by framing the competition as a “fair and equal” opportunity for players to pay off their debt. Players never question the conditions that caused them to accumulate such debt, and they never question who the organizers are or why they have the authority to construct the competition. As a result, players are exploited due to their desperations, and they begin to view one another as enemies. Even though our economic system creates the illusion of competition and individual responsibility for one’s circumstances, “Squid Game” reminds us that the moral costs of material success are far greater than its rewards.
Biologically speaking, humans are inherently social creatures. We need one another. However, it is difficult to realize one another’s humanity when our social culture equates monetary value to human life, stigmatizes poor people, and assumes we are all in competition to financially survive. American society is extremely anxious and isolated from one another due to the economic and political system we struggle under. Our anxiety and isolation arising from financial pressures is disrupting our social cohesion during a time when collective action is needed more than ever.
Complete restoration of social cohesion under our current economic system is difficult to achieve but there are implementable solutions that exist. Firstly, enabling greater unionization of workers across various industries will ensure greater collective security, fairness in pay and benefits, and accountability of employers. The U.S. government must intervene, and guarantee workers are able to unionize when employers actively prevent workers from forming unions. Additionally, democratizing financial education that teaches individuals how to overcome financial obstacles will not only prevent people from falling into financial strife but may also help individuals in debt develop a plan to get out of it. Finally, expanding mental health care coverage will alleviate mental health issues caused by financial stress. With healthier mechanisms for managing financial anxiety, individuals will have a greater mental bandwidth to manage their finances.