Squid Game reminds me of Cyberpunk 2077 in a funny sense. Kang Sae-byeok, Judy Alvarez, and Panam Palmer are all strong female characters in both films. Both, however, appear to have a deep resentment of women, whether it’s in their adherence to gender roles, their unflattering depictions of supporting female characters, the violence they inflict on women (which goes beyond that inflicted on men), or the ways they’re deemed unimportant to the larger story, despite driving the plot. Squid Game is a terrific show, one of the finest of 2021, but it treats women in a strange way.
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At one point in the show, the characters are ordered to get into teams. Immediately, everyone has the same idea – we need men. The unflinching desire to bring men and only men aboard their teams makes the Squid Game players look like triple-A studio executives, with women being discarded as a possibility almost instantly. Watch now
There’s no time for political correctness in this life or death game, where one wrong option equals a gunshot in the head. True, men have traditionally been physically stronger than women. However, these are children’s games, so physical strength isn’t a factor. It’s strange that the men spend so much time patting each other on the back and wanting to link up with other males in a play that is so sophisticated and complex in its critique of capitalism, only for the program to prove them entirely accurate. This game does necessitate the presence of guys! The best are men! Huzzah!
It’s not just in the reliance on physical strength that Squid Game puts a weird lens on gender roles either. The aforementioned game where the search for men proves to be the correct one is tug of war. In it, player 001, a weak and elderly man, is the one who comes up with the strategy. Later episodes provide greater context as to why 001 is such a valuable player, but the fact remains that even in a game where women are maligned for being weak, the weakest man still has value. Meanwhile, it’s Sang-wo’s strategy that eventually wins this game – a strategy Han Mi-nyeo, one of the women on the team, is initially too scared to follow through with.
Han Mi-nyeo is an especially interesting character in Squid Game
It should be noted that native Korean speakers have criticised the English subs and dubs of Squid Game, particularly around the context of Han Mi-nyeo’s arc. If that’s true, we can take much of this article as a criticism of the subs and dubs, although many other incidents still remain. Han Mi-nyeo is portrayed as a street smart character – she helps Sae-byeok explore the vents and sneakily uses her lighter to win at sugar pancakes.
But she’s also cloying and defined by her sexual impulses – she teams up with the villainous Jang Deok-su after sleeping with him, only to be discarded when he has no use for her. She begs him for salvation, and even though she eventually kills him, it’s in a murder-suicide that indelibly ties her to a man she slept with once. For all Mi-nyeo’s street smarts, she is often portrayed as naive, foolish, and pathetic.
Another big example of casual misogyny is shown in the show, but it passes by so quickly that many viewers may have missed it. Hwang Jun-ho, a police officer, infiltrates the game as one of the guards in a subplot in the series. He interrogates another guard, fearing that one of the bodies dumped recently belonged to his brother. It couldn’t have been his brother, the scared guard says, because it was a woman. What’s the proof? The guards all gang raped the body, and they’d never do something like that to a man, right? This line is nearly wholly unquestioned, and the fact that several of the guards are rapping the game’s dead and dying ladies is never mentioned again. Less damning minor instances include the fact the first contestants to fall to their knees and tearfully beg for mercy are women.
Kang Sae-byeok. As the show’s best character, you’d think she could be held up as evidence against the idea that Squid Game has some odd issues with women. Certainly in episode six, Gganbu, we see Sae-byeok treated with respect. It’s the only essential episode of television I’ve seen in 2021, and Sae-byeok, plus her teammate in this episode, Ji-yeong, are most of the reason why.
While the men try to outwit each other and send the other to their doom, the women just talk. In some ways, it’s another example of gender roles taken to extremes, but it’s so tender and heartfelt that it never feels that way. We see two girls, isolated in the real world and within the squid game, bonding before oblivion. When Ji-yeong, an orphan who murdered her father after he murdered her mother, learns Sae-byeok is playing the game to save her brother, she offers her life willingly. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, especially when surrounded by men competing, meddling, and fighting with each other to cling to survival.
Unfortunately, Sae-byeok is not offered a glorious ending. She, along with male characters Sang-wo and Gi-hun, makes it to the final three. However, rather than fighting to the end in a grand battle, Sae-byeok is killed off before the final game in her bed. Already wounded from the last game, Sae-byeok is neatly disposed of in order to facilitate the final showdown between Sang-wo and Gi-hun. She is no longer needed, and therefore no longer deserving of any character development.