“Squid Game” is a game-changer for cultural globalization
The popularity of Netflix’s “Squid Game” is unprecedented for a TV series in a foreign language that has reached a global audience of 111 million — “making it [their] biggest series launch ever!” The show was also ranked “No. 1 [of the most viewed content] in 90 countries” just two weeks after its release on Sept. 17, and almost two months later, the series remains on Netflix’s Top 10 list in the U.S..
As an Asian American, I was amazed that a show like “Squid Game” had permeated American pop culture the way it did — every major American media organization was talking about its success, it was all over Tik-Tok, social media meme accounts were making references to it and the show had even crossed into America’s beloved Halloween-costume territory. I frankly didn’t understand its success in the U.S. at first: it wasn’t even Asian American — it was a K-drama shot in Korea, with a majority Korean cast and filmed in Korean instead of English … it was so non-American.
Asian representation in films and TV shows in America have historically been limited to stereotypes, so the fact that “Squid Game” was trending so profusely was an unexpected but pleasant surprise for me, as I’m sure it was for many Asian Americans. I grew up consuming media where Asian actors were limited to playing the extras, the weird nerds, the quiet ones, the martial arts masters, the “dragon ladies” or mens’ sexual fantasies. And let’s not neglect Hollywood whitewashing the roles of Asian characters, where Asian actors never made the casting calls — like in 2017 when Scarlett Johansson was controversially cast as the main character of “Ghost in the Shell” which was based on a film adaptation of a popular Japanese manga.
“Squid Game” was an exception to these stereotypes and literally a game-changer. The show is set in today’s bustling Seoul and transports viewers to a mysterious island where broke contestants fight for survival (and for $45.6 billion) through a series of traditional Korean child games, with a gory twist.
South Korea’s entrance into a sense of globalized popular culture actually did not start with “Squid Game,” but with the rise of BTS and K-pop. BTS’ feat with their song “Dynamite” reaching number one in the Billboard Hot 100 in 2020, indicated a shift from “[the West] dominating the world popular music.” And according to a CNN article, “BTS became the only the third group in 50 years to have three number one albums on the Billboard 200 charts in less than 12 months, joining the ranks of The Beatles and The Monkees.”
South Korean culture continued into the mainstream, with the help of K-dramas and the critical acclaim of the film “Parasite”, the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2019. In an article from the New York Times, which qualifies South Korean entertainment as a “cultural juggernaut,” Jang Young-woo (either a co-producer or co-director on three popular Korean shows on Netflix, explains that it was only after the recognition of “Parasite,” that “international audiences truly began to pay attention, even though South Korea had been producing similar work for years.” “It’s the world that has started understanding and identifying with the emotional experiences we have been creating all along,” he said.
But according to USA Today, it’s not just South Korean music, films and TV shows that have been on the rise in the past few years: a “Hallyu, or Korean wave” of virtually anything K-fill-in-the-blank has weaved its way into Western culture through “K-dramas, K-fashion, K-beauty, [and] KBBQ”.
Jenna Ryu of USA Today explained that “what’s popular has been intertwined for decades” largely due to the historic significance of U.S.-South Korean foreign relations. The cultural diffusion began with the Korean War and the U.S.’s alliance with South Korea. Starting in 1950, the U.S. sent a total of 1,789,000 troops to the peninsula to support South Korea’s war against North Korea. Because of this, a strong Korean-American culture developed.
As for the reasons rooted in the widespread accomplishments of “Squid Game,” creative executive Kim Un-yang explained, in an interview with Hollywood Reporter that, “the essence of the show is its commentary on social injustice — class divisions and financial inequality, or even gender-related issues. These social injustice issues aren’t only Korean — the whole world is struggling with them. These elements made the show resonate strongly outside of Korea as well.”
But that doesn’t explain why the film “Parasite” — which had similar themes of social and financial inequality — only grossed around $254 million worldwide, and although the movie and TV show markets vary, Season 1 alone of Squid Game is predicted to “create almost $900 million in value” for Netflix.
The reasons for the show’s impact might also point toward Netflix’s strategic business model approach which pays attention to accommodating global audiences. Part of that model includes providing dubs in addition to subtitles in multiple languages. While dubs have been the subject of much social media debate about language-translation authenticity, they remain advantageous because they eliminate language barriers. If many non-Koreans were forced to read subtitles on their screens as the only medium of understanding a story, it could be argued that the show’s popularity would’ve been substantially subdued. After all, listening to a show in the dubs of the language you’re most familiar with is just simply more convenient.
Dubs are especially essential in the leading streaming services’ marketing goals to make international content viable for American consumers. In a survey conducted by Netflix, cited in an article from 2018, “a high percentage of U.S. viewers don’t want to watch content in languages other than English,” compared to all other regions around the world where “the appetite for shows made outside of Hollywood in languages other than English is high.” Netflix’s survey concluded that if U.S. viewers were shown high-quality content in a foreign language, they were more inclined to watch it — and they were “much more likely to finish a show if it had been dubbed, rather than subtitled.”
Reflecting upon the company’s goals of reaching global audiences through this specific marketing strategy devised in 2018, Netflix’s Chief Product Officer, Greg Peters said, “When we do [storytelling] well, all of that complexity fades into the background.” He continued, “All you’re left with is an incredible story told well and presented beautifully ... and there are so many untold stories that the world is just waiting to see.”
Peters’ dreams seem to have come to fruition with the release and response of “Squid Game” into the world, which encapsulates beautiful storytelling. The captivating, yet violent dystopian thriller, with its obscure Candyland-colored visuals, in addition to its resounding social message, mixes marvelously with Netflix’s platform and strategic business model and has created a perfect recipe for international success.