Squid Game: Cultural Diffusion in Media

Main promotional poster, via Netflix.

By Emily Morales

Growing up as the first person in my family to be born in America, I’ve often felt a strange divide in the media I consumed. My fondest memories with my grandparents involve them letting me stay up past my bedtime so that I could watch certain novelas with them. There were other shows I found on Netflix and other streaming services that came from Spanish speaking countries that I enjoyed as much as popular Disney Channel shows. 

I enjoyed these shows so much, I naturally wanted my friends to be able to watch them as well. That way, we could talk about the characters during recess the way we talked about shows we already watched together. Not many fifth graders had the energy to watch TV with subtitles, so many of my friends never got to experience pieces of media that I feel shaped me as much as American originating shows.

Now, though, entertainment media has never been easier to share across multiple cultures. The recent success of Netflix’s Squid Game shows that technology has made it easier to share movies and TV shows despite language barriers. Several streaming platforms are actively attempting to add subtitle options in more languages. Many programs also dub TV shows and movies, meaning that a translated audio is played instead of the video’s original audio. 

Squid Game has recently achieved the title of Netflix’s most successful show. Facets of entertainment that are not rooted around the U.S. have the potential to be widely successful and enjoyed by people despite potential language barriers. Looking beyond language does more than just let people enjoy worthwhile, enthralling stories; it creates an opportunity for positive cultural transfusion. 

The show revolves around a deadly competition with a cash prize that could save the lives of its players, who have all amassed an inconceivable amount of debt. The challenges in this competition are based on games many Koreans played during their childhood. After the series blew up, several social media trends that involved the recreation of these games began.

These trends have gone viral, with TikTok videos revolving around these games earning millions of likes. When considering what a phenomenon the show has become, one has to think about what’s drawing in such a large audience. The draw of Squid Game is the same as the appeal of any U.S.-made show: the story.

People are pulled in by plot. Average individuals who have become desperate due to debt, willing to risk their lives for enough money to not only solve their problems but also make sure they can live comfortably. That’s the kind of story that’s rooted in a literal fight against poverty and oppressors that created media successes such as The Hunger Games. Only, Squid Game takes this thrilling base and strips it of the shiny, protective layer of dystopia. 

Squid Game is set in our world. There is no apocalypse that has driven South Korea into becoming this cutthroat of an environment, and the reality of the show is what its creator, Hwang Dong-Hyuk, wanted his audience to take away.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Dong-Hyuk stated that he “infused” his experiences into the principal characters of the show. Debt and desperation may just seem like theatrical themes on screen, but to Dong-Hyuk and many people, these things are much more literal. The show demonstrates clear critiques on capitalism, asking the extreme question, how far are people willing to go for financial stability? The point made by the show is powerful, and yet much of it is being lost in transition. 

Many people who speak both Korean and English have criticized that watching the show with subtitles or dubbed –which is how Netflix’s default settings play the show in the U.S. — changes much of the meaning of the dialogue. Some have even said it feels like watching a completely different show. Just take a look at this tweet. 

Growing up speaking two languages, I know this roadblock to cultural understanding is not new. As a child, I made a game of turning on the English or Spanish subtitles on different shows and correcting the translations in my head. I’ve noticed English subtitles that are automatically placed in movies or shows that have one scene in Spanish and noticed changes in dialogue that changed the meaning of the moment. These captions were never technically incorrect, but they provided the bare minimum of context.

When watching scenes or shows in different languages, I’ve always wondered if all subtitles and dubs took away as much as English to Spanish subtitles do. Now, as the popularity of Squid Game and the criticisms over Netflix’s translation rise, I see that this issue is much larger than I ever thought it was. 

As English speaking viewers turn a show meant to depict the cruel, economic reality of many people living in South Korea in an extreme way to comment on the harshness of the system into TikTok trends, I have to wonder how much of this detachment to the real meaning of the series stems from poorly thought out subtitles. Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing wrong with social media trends that are born from popular media; but as viewers take in a different culture from a gritty perspective, there is some moral duty to at least be aware of the reality melded into the fiction.

When we let the true meaning of media from different cultures get lost in translation, specifically subtitle wording, we lose the part of the story that has the capability of making us more understanding. Media has come a long way in terms of global connection. Squid Game is Netflix’s most successful original show, meaning that its viewership levels surpassed those of well known Netflix hits such as Bridgerton (which held the ‘most viewed’ title before Squid Game).

A Korean show reaching this level of worldwide popularity highlights the strides that the globalization of media has made. I believe that we can go even further. We must be able to acknowledge the flaws that still exist in the way that writing is translated while celebrating the progress that’s been made. The resolution of the issues that exist in these translations will also make people more comfortable consuming media from other countries because they won’t have to worry about not understanding.

Taking this step forward, we can create a world in which all the fifth graders on the playground can talk about shows in different languages the same way they talk about Disney Channel originals.  

Sources: https://variety.com/2021/digital/news/squid-game-netflix-biggest-series-1235087563/

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