I watched Squid Game in a span of 2 days amidst a busy work schedule. Though there are plenty of films and TV series left for me to binge-watch, the hype around the series drew me in. The Korean Netflix series broke viewership records around the world with its compelling storytelling.
Squid Game succeeded in terms of being an edge-of-the-seat with a strong social angle to it. A group of impoverished people chose to play a deadly game because their lives and circumstances were at better odds in there when compared to the “hell” they were living in.
Men and women who were “invited” to participate were in deep debt. Some faced death threats, were on the verge of imprisonment, starving and had large bills to pay. They played six different “children’s games” and losing them meant death. And the prize money was added by the number of people who fell. Since there are 456 players, the winner gets a ₩45.6 billion prize.
The first “Red Light, Green Light” game is undoubtedly the best out of the six because it was more than enough to show what they were against, the brutality of their hosts and what their chances were to survive.
The direction, background music, editing and acting by the main cast members were amazing. Anupam Tripathi won hearts with his depiction of Ali, the only guy with an innocent heart. Lee Jung-jae carried the show as the lead Gi-hun. Masked antagonists were creepy and brutal. They established what they were and that they could not be messed with.
Sadly, where the series went wrong was in its depiction of women.
When I started watching the show, I knew that it wouldn’t be state-of-the-art feminist storytelling. Still, it is sad that the depiction of women can’t go beyond the same stereotypical tropes seen repeatedly for decades.
For me, the most interesting character was that of Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), the only woman amongst the main four cast members. Sae-byeok has a brother to take care of and a mother who is stuck in North Korea. She is shown as a slick, clever and daring woman.
She is a pickpocket who got away with it. She holds her breath long enough when the Squid Game team uses sedating gas on the players to stay awake and slip a knife into her pocket. She courageously tries to find out what the makers were doing next.
I was genuinely hoping that the makers would go somewhere with her. As someone with a promising backstory and strong start, I expected her to have prominence and more to do in the series.
But nope. Sae-byeok becomes almost silent in the plot later on. When men were ranting about how the presence of women makes their team weak, Sae-byeok resigns herself to the idea. She is not seen making any plans or clever moves herself. I was rooting for her to make it till the end after a character sacrifices herself for her, only to see her fall victim to my least favourite trope—fridging.
Fridging is a form of storytelling where the female characters are affected by injury, raped, killed or depowered as a plot device to motivate their male counterparts’ arc. Fridged women are denied their own motivations or character arcs.
Sae-byeok’s death becomes a motivator for the two main male leads, Sang-woo and Gi-hun. Sang-woo kills her so that she doesn’t “join” Gi-hun and stop the game through voting. Sae-byeok’s arc becomes something for Gi-hun to fulfil only.
Squid Game established itself as a gender-sensitive scenario where the characters explicitly tell each other that having women in their team meant “they are dead”. Players are left to assume whatever they play next requires physical strength. Men are stronger than women. So, players make the team by removing or disregarding women as much as they can.
In a way, it is obvious what the makers were going for. The games were not necessarily about physical strength alone. The “tug of war” game, for example, can be won with proper planning, strategy, teamwork and leadership, even if the opposite team has “wrestlers”. We see a team with three women and an old man win against a group of all-men.
Similarly, in the next game, again, we see men teaming up as much as they can. But the tables are turned against them as they had to play against each other. One woman who wasn’t taken as a teammate by men was given the privilege to not participate in the game at all.
But, women don’t get their own say in anything. We see men talking, strategising, even making major decisions. Women are barely seen making such decisions. The only moment that had a woman make a decision became worthless because the person she sacrificed for dies.
Women are shown to be the first few people to beg for their lives after the first game. Sexual assault within the system is simply brushed off without any further mention. In fact, rape is used as a narrative to differentiate between authorities’ treatment of women and men.
Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryoung) was shown as slick and clever. Still, she was reduced to an annoying woman stereotype who was betrayed by the man with whom she shared her body.
For a series that showed the antagonists’ trying to bridge some kind of social gap with their game where everyone gets to be “equals”, women are sidelined, silenced, fridged, raped and underrepresented. Not that I expect the team who mercilessly kill losers to be sensitive about the gender gap, but for the makers, the irony is right there.
I know that filmmakers worldwide are trying to bring more women to the front around the world after generations of mistreatment and disregard by studios. After 2015, I have witnessed more movies and stories about women by women. Even in male-centric stories, there are women with a proper arc and characterisation.
I am not familiar with Korean filmmaking and how much they have progressed in terms of gender in cinema.
Squid Game, the most-watched Netflix show currently, doesn’t have a proper depiction of women. That itself says something. It is sad that this is how things are in 2021.
Women in Squid Game deserved way better.