The logo for the Netflix hit series, Squid Game.

Netflix’s Dystopian "Squid Game" Dives Deep Into Gender Inequalities in Korea

Netflix’s Dystopian "Squid Game" Dives Deep Into Gender Inequalities in Korea

Squid Game, a South Korean survival show that took the world by storm on Netflix since its release in late September 2021, has prompted the audience to reflect on its lessons of horrific violence and the dehumanization of predatory capitalism. The debt-ridden players – designated by numbers on their uniform green tracksuits – are eliminated one by one and sometimes in large groups. It is not surprising that the main female characters all meet gruesome deaths. These deaths are somewhat considered "heroic,” but it is evident that their stories are just bulked up enough to provide leeway for the series' male characters, despite how the dystopian show has captivated millions of international audiences, ascending to be Netflix's biggest series launch of all times. The widespread gender discrimination and misogyny present in Korea is a recurring theme in the series, brought to life through the character of Han Mi-nyeo, whose name translates to "beautiful woman." The character has resonated with women in Korea and has claimed that the show presents a distorted portrayal of women, irresponsibly depicting them as objects of violence, hypersexualization, and sacrifice. When the Squid Game participants were choosing teams for a mystery reason (that ended up being a game of tug-of-war), women are less likely to be selected even in cases where no one knows if it's a game of strength, wisdom, or any other - or not a game at all. Especially in countries like South Korea, where gender inequality is systematic, women are forced to contend with entrenched discrimination in the workplace, strict gender roles at home, and the various threat of sexual violence from physical assault to online body-shaming. Women who stand up for their rights face the fear of being pinned down to hostility, stigmatization, gaslighting, or even fake accusations of discriminating against men. For such reasons, individuals claimed that portraying female characters as "left-over sources" that are warped to satisfy men's perceptions is quite dangerous and heavily biased. 

The Main Female Case of Netflix's Squid Game


In many scenes, Mi-nyeo is considered the "last choice" because of her lack of physical power and education, according to the men. She fights back by claiming, "I'm pretty smart; I just didn't get the opportunity to pursue higher education." The scene has struck a chord with women in Korea, as gender discrimination has become less overt but still permeates educational institution. Women have outperformed men in entering college in Korea since 2005, with the female entrance rate 7.9 percentage points higher in 2018. Despite this, gender inequality has been carried out for children from preschool to high school. Most children encounter some degree of "gender tracking"-- the expectations and stereotypes that can deteriorate their mindsets on a lifelong path. Standard teaching practices that reinforce gender bias against girls include illustrations used in pictures, text, and drawings that portray women and girls being in charge of conventional socially assigned roles: cooking meals, cleaning the dishes, and doing the laundry. According to an Early Gender Bias study conducted by the American Association of University Women, research has shown that "higher-income families invest more in sons while lower-income families invest more in daughters, based on beliefs about their pathways for future earning and job opportunities." Women, like Mi-nyeo in Squid Game, have always had a strong ambition to pursue higher education, but they did not get the opportunity to do so due to nation-wide hindrance. According to Ju Hui Judy Han, an associate professor of gender studies at UCLA, Mi-nyeo's representation must raise questions to "what sexual empowerment means and how that could look in real life." Furthermore, this gender discrimination does not just stop with higher education, but continues throughout the workforce as well. Jiyeun Lee, a writer at Bloomberg, wrote that in Korea, "despite policy efforts, women earn 30% less than male workers, by far the biggest pay gap, among the 38 OECD countries." Yet, a notable drop in female labor participation in their mid-30s and 40s speaks to the difficult task of both holding down a career and raising children. In a society where men still barely participate in domestic life, women are increasingly opting out as well: Korea's fertility rate sank to 0.84 last year, the lowest in the world. 

The Extreme Gender Gap in South Korea

Lastly, Kang Sae-byeok, one of the main casts of the Squid Game, is a North Korean defector who wants to win the prize money to smuggle her mother past the border and take her brother out of an orphanage. Her character represents a group that goes to great lengths to reach the South, only to struggle to find a job and fit in. According to the South Korean Unification Ministry, "the employment rate for North Koreans was 54.4% as of 2020, down from 58.2% in 2019 and lower than the nationwide average of 60.4%... defectors' jobless rate was 9.4% last year, three times that for South Koreans." Compared to North Korean men, North Korean women that are pregnant or even with babies are granted very few job opportunities and are substantially more likely to experience poverty. The game that makes the Squid Game more miserable for Sae-byuk is the marble game, which asks partners to compete against each other, and whoever can obtain all of the opponent's marbles advances while the opponent is killed. Here, Sae-byeok is partnered with her friend Ji-young. But amid the competition, Ji-young unhesitatingly sacrifices herself for Sae-byeok to proceed with the next round. Unfortunately, Sae-byeok is not offered a glorious ending. Along with male characters Sang-wo and Gi-hun, she makes it to the final three. However, rather than fighting to the end in a grand battle, Sae-byeok is killed off in her bed. She is no longer needed and no longer deserving of any character development. In contrast to any female characters harshly neglected and sacrificed in the show, the main protagonist Gi-hun is granted unlimited narrative attention. This allows him to re-polish his image of being a sympathetic everyday man despite his countless mistakes and failures. It is apparent that Squid Game highly privileges Gi-hun's character while relegating the women cast to represent the minority. It's only when looking into the show's details that people start paying attention to the importance of the more marginalized characters and that such flattening portrayals of women's identities perpetuate harmful stereotypes that normalize women's injustice. 

Lee Yoo-mi as Ji-young and Jung Ho-yeon as Kang Sae-byeok in Squid Game

Squid Game is a phenomenal television series, but, oddly, the show is so dismissive of fascinating female characters like Ji-young, Mi-nyeo, and Sae-byeok. Ultimately, the premature deaths and neglect of female characters like Ji-young and Mi-nyeo are obvious economic messages and gender critiques of Squid Game that tell the story of gender inequality and financial predation. The clear messages of Squid Game don't have to be inclusive and further explore the implications of individual identities in economic marginalization. Instead, gender and identity should have received even greater focus through the story of inequality and financial predation, considering how inextricably capitalist oppression and gender roles intersect with the mutilation of women's independence and ambition.