Why some Korean women are boycotting Squid Game

South Korean feminists say the show reinforces misogyny and want the series director to know that women deserve better.

While Squid Game is a fictionalised look at the extreme competition in South Korea that can leave people debt-ridden, feminists say it comes with irresponsible depictions of women as objects of violence, hypersexualisation and sacrifice [File: Youngkyu Park/Netflix via AP]

Cheongju, South Korea – It was about halfway through the hit Netflix series Squid Game that Ye-eun Lee had had enough. Disgusted by the show’s portrayal of women, which she considers to be misogynistic, she turned it off and refused to watch the rest.

Jane Park, 24, who wanted to be identified in this article by a pseudonym*, also decided to avoid the TV sensation out of protest. Ordinarily, she loves watching Netflix, always looking forward to the latest release, but Squid Game is one show she says she could not support after reading a critical review accusing it of misogyny.

Likewise, although Seul Kim, 27, had been planning on watching the series, she changed her mind once she began hearing remarks from her friends and seeing comments online calling it misogynistic. “If you’re a woman in Korea, misogyny is already a part of daily life,” she said. “I didn’t want to waste my time on the misogyny of Squid Game too.”

Squid Game depicts debt-ridden players competing in deadly versions of children’s playground games for a cash prize. But while the ultraviolent, dystopian show may have captivated international audiences, ascending the charts to become Netflix’s biggest series launch of all time, some feminists in South Korea are decidedly not amused. Boycotters like Lee, Park, and Kim believe the show presents a distorted image of women, irresponsibly depicting them as objects of violence, hypersexualisation, and sacrifice. “I’m boycotting to tell the world that women are not going to watch this type of content any more,” Lee said.

Women deserve better

Lee, a 25-year-old student living outside of the South Korean capital Seoul, is part of the feminist group Haeil, which means “tsunami” in Korean. Like Lee, some other members of Haeil have joined the boycott of Squid Game in hopes that it will send a message to writer-director Dong-hyuk Hwang that women deserve better. For now, critical conversations have taken place on feminist forums as the boycotters say they avoided posting on wider platforms for fear of harassment in a country where feminists routinely face online vitriol. They want Hwang to treat women’s stories with more sensitivity and complexity as he plans for Season 2.

In South Korea, where gender inequality is systematic, women must contend with entrenched discrimination in the workplace, rigid gender roles at home, and the widespread threat of sexual violence ranging from physical assault to digital crimes. For women who stand up for their rights, there is often the fear of being subjected to hostility, stigmatisation, gaslighting, or accusations of reverse discrimination by men who view themselves as victims of feminism. It is this climate of contortion that blames women and valorises men, boycotters of the show say, that in their eyes makes Squid Game particularly dangerous, by drawing female characters as limited figures that are warped to fit men’s perceptions and that do nothing to challenge them.

“We believe Squid Game is a threat to women,” said Haeil spokesperson Hae-in Shim. As “neither a representation nor a criticism of the reality of anti-feminism in Korea,” the show, Shim said, with its “exclusively male gaze” and “disturbing reproductions of violence against women,” reinforces misogyny and “is a clear support of patriarchy”.

Some specific points of concern, Shim says, which emerged from watching the series, include the naked women painted and used as VIP room props, the apparent absence of women from positions of power, and the many female characters never afforded the privilege of being identified by their own names, referred to instead as a male character’s ex-wife or mother. For Shim, what is particularly upsetting about Squid Game’s renderings of violence against women, she says, is that they are incidental, intended to advance male storylines, as opposed to being instrumental to their own. One unsettling example of this, she says, is when a guard of the game mentions gang-raping the corpse of an eliminated female player — after which point, this horrifying detail is never addressed again.

In a country where feminists often face online vitriol and harassment, feminists boycotting Squid Game say their voices are especially unwelcome when it comes to criticising a show that has become a source of national pride [File: Youngkyu Park/Netflix via AP]

Normalising women’s sacrifice

Most troubling for Shim is the way Mi-nyeo, or Player 212, is portrayed. Sly and cunning, Mi-nyeo can be seen unabashedly trying to use her sexuality to her advantage, as she has sex with the sadistic gangster Deok-su, Player 101, in an attempt to forge a strategic alliance with whom she views to be the strongest player in the game and her surest chance of survival.

Not only did Shim find the sex scene to be unrealistic, but she also takes issue with how Mi-nyeo’s sexual bartering — and her subsequent quest for revenge after Deok-su’s betrayal — is treated as the central feature of her storyline, even leading to her own death, while largely ignoring her background of being a poor single mother (if Mi-nyeo’s claim about her yet-to-be-named baby is to be taken as truth and not simply a ploy for sympathy).

It’s this climate of contortion that blames women and valorises men, boycotters of the show say, that in their eyes makes Squid Game particularly dangerous

According to Ju Hui Judy Han, an assistant professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the United States, it is important that the debate surrounding Mi-nyeo extends beyond whether her representation is realistic to more broadly consider the questions she raises about “what sexual empowerment means and how that could actually look in real life”.

She continues: “It’s one thing to say that [Mi-nyeo] is sexualised, but it’s another question, and a complex question for feminists, to think about what sexuality means for women who are put in those precarious situations.”

At the crux of the visibility discussion, then, Han says, is questioning the agency of the characters, the vantage point of the story, and our own tendency as viewers to value and empathise with certain narratives more than others. “It’s only when we start disrupting that … that we can start to pay attention to the importance of the more marginalised characters,” she said. “Mi-nyeo is kind of a badass in her own way, but is she a feminist heroine? I’m not sure. I just wish someone like her could have been the main character.”

Soo Ryon Yoon, an assistant professor of cultural studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, echoes this sentiment: “The question is more about whether the success of mainstream narratives overshadow other more experimental minoritarian narratives.” Without access to these, she says, we risk missing out on the more nuanced conversations we all deserve.

Indeed, and as Shim of Haeil points out, in contrast to Mi-nyeo, the main protagonist Gi-hun, Player 456, is granted unlimited narrative attention, which allows him despite his numerous failings and incompetencies as a father, son, and husband to still emerge a sympathetic everyman at the end. It is clear, according to Han, that Squid Game “privileges Gi-hun’s character” while relegating women to “play a minor and supporting role to men’s suffering and men’s stories”. This makes Shim worry that such flattening portrayals of female identities will perpetuate harmful stereotypes that justify and normalise women’s sacrifice.

Criticisms like those of the boycotters have generated some public discourse in South Korea, appearing in online forums, social media posts, and a handful of news articles and commentaries, but they have yet to gain much mainstream traction. Far louder and more widespread is the national excitement over the show.

Sense of pride

As Halloween approaches, demand continues to soar in South Korea for the players’ signature teal-green tracksuits, especially in toddlers and children’s sizes. Local government organisations have put together travel recommendations based on the series, like Jeju Tourism’s “What would Player 067 do on Jeju Island?” with the aim of converting North Korean refugee Sae-byeok’s fictional dream into a real-life travel boon. And even some churches have taken to passing out replicas of the iconic business card handed to the players in hopes of attracting more parishioners: “You have been invited to … church. From your gganbu Jesus,” one card reads, referencing episode six and the friendship between Gi-hun and Player 001, Il-nam.

Writer-director Hwang has said he created Squid Game as “an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society” that illustrates the brutality of South Korea’s extreme competition. Yet this proverbial “airing [of South Korea’s] dirty laundry”, as some view it, has not done anything to dampen the domestic interest — and pride — in the series.

“Squid Game shows the shameful side of Korean society,” said Hyunjun Min, a visiting professor in film studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “But the sense of pride is way bigger than the sense of embarrassment.” And the more interest international audiences express in Squid Game, he says, the more pride South Koreans feel.

Like the movie Parasite before it, and the song Gangnam Style before that, neither of which were immediate smash hits in South Korea, according to Min, it is actually this attention abroad that makes Squid Game so popular at home. Now, given its pop culture super status, feminist boycotters say, their voices seem to be especially unwelcome. Rather than be acknowledged, they say, they are dismissed as killjoys who would rather rain on the national parade than simply be happy for their country’s success.

“When Squid Game becomes a source of national pride in Korea, then feminists cannot raise their voice,” Min said. “Right now the voice of feminism is not heard.”

‘Why are you being so sensitive?’

Indeed, most people in Lee’s life are so “high on the show”, she says, that they do not bother to try to understand what her objections to it are about when Squid Game comes up in conversation. “Why are you being so sensitive,” male friends have asked her. “Isn’t its portrayal of women just like every other show anyway,” some female friends have likewise wondered. In Park’s case, when she told some of her friends about her decision to boycott, they stopped responding to her texts altogether.

The reaction has been worse online, boycotters say, where much of the nation’s anti-feminist backlash is known to unfold. Kim has observed many trolling comments in various “cafes”, or online forums. “Anti-feminists are making fun of feminists and ridiculing us,” she said.

In one cybercafe on the popular Korean web portal Daum, a user reposted a list of feminist criticisms about Squid Game that had originally appeared in a women’s community. Alongside it, the user posted a cartoon meme depicting such feminist critics as oinking pigs. In the Naver portal hosted cafe for New Men’s Solidarity, a men’s rights group in South Korea, users accused feminists of “persecution paranoia” and joked: “If you’re uncomfortable, you should’ve fixed the way you sit.”

New Men’s Solidarity is the same group that in July orchestrated a cyberattack on Olympic gold medallist archer An San, bullying her for her short hair and trying to tarnish her reputation by calling her a feminist, a term that anti-feminists have co-opted to accuse a woman of misandry. In August the group’s leader turned up at a feminist protest organised by Haeil and threatened to murder them while live-streaming the harassment on their YouTube channel.

Another forum post, which shared a woman-authored article published on the news site TV Daily titled “The reason why I can’t like Squid Game”, drew comments like “Feminists are mentally ill”, “Are you jealous that your country’s drama is doing well?”, and “You’re complaining again. Is it because your life is trash?”

Raising awareness

Comments like these are common in South Korea, and Shim says they are part of a larger effort by anti-feminists to demonise feminists as “terrorists” who pose a threat not only to Korean men but also to the Republic of Korea. But Squid Game boycotters like Lee, Park, and Kim say they will not be silenced. Instead, they hope their voices will raise more awareness of the reality of anti-feminism in South Korea.

There is also the hope, as Yoon, the cultural studies professor, points out, that a more constructive debate can ensue. Such a debate would go further than making simple binary conclusions about whether Squid Game is misogynistic or not to open up a more expansive discussion on what the series’ missed — and future — opportunities to approach gender politics might look like.

“There is this pressure, or even desire, to see more that it can do,” she said. “In the not-too-distant future when we see these types of popular K-dramas produced, how will they do to address intersectional discussions? … This is something either Squid Game or other Korean movies or dramas have to deal with at some point, one way or another.”

*The interviewee requested a pseudonym to protect herself from possible backlash and trolling.

Source: Al Jazeera