Analyzing queer representation in hit show ‘Squid Game’

Graphic courtesy of Karen Mogami ’24.

“Squid Game” has become Netflix’s most-watched show ever, drawing 111 million views in total (Forbes, 2021). The South Korean horror drama’s soaring popularity transformed it into a global phenomenon. In the first season, a grueling competition of deadly children’s games pits poverty-stricken contestants against each other, all of whom hope to survive and leave with a large cash prize.

Fans loved the show: People from all over the world engaged in animated discussions about the plot, praising the show for its criticism of various social issues like capitalism, socioeconomic inequality and meritocracy. However, some people raised concerns about homophobic stereotypes and queer representation within the show (Digitalspy, 2021). 

In the seventh episode, the VIPs, mask-wearing billionaires who watch the game from behind the scenes and bet on the winner of the games, are having a blast. One of the VIPs, an American billionaire wearing a panther mask, expresses his interest in men by making suggestive remarks to a male servant, who is actually a police officer in disguise. The flirting continues in the next scene, in which the panther VIP coerces the officer into sexual acts. The scene quickly takes a violent turn: The rich man doesn’t get his satisfaction as the officer easily overpowers him and saves himself from potential rape. It was a disturbing scene to watch. 

For a while, the scene disturbed me; this perverted, hedonistic and promiscuous man absolutely disgusted me. But then a second thought crossed my mind: this scene seems to have homophobic undertones. The panther VIP is the only openly gay character in this series, yet he is portrayed in an incredibly derogatory way. As a result, the audiences might shift their feelings of disgust towards the officer to the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. This harmful depiction has its consequences, and I wonder about the intention behind this homophobic portrayal. 

One might argue that since most characters in the show are portrayed as villains, portraying a gay character a villain is not necessarily an in itself issue. However, like in the aforementioned scene, “Squid Game” can’t seem to escape the long-existing stereotype of gays as morally-unprincipled compared to heterosexual people. Such negative representation of queerness not only appears in Korean shows but frequently pervades western media as well. As I watched “Squid Game,” I recalled lessons about queer analysis from a media studies course I took last year. One quote in particular came to mind. Authors Brian L. Ott and Robert L. Mack stated in their 2014 book “Critical Media Studies: An Introduction” that “[P]opular media often depict individuals who desire the opposite sex as morally upright or responsible, whereas mainstream portrayals of queer individuals habitually associate them with corruption and criminality.” The panther VIP in “Squid Game ” doesn’t have a personality beyond his sexual identity, unlike other characters who are also evil but have other justifications for their behavior. Therefore, viewers might only remember the VIP’s twisted character and moral wrongdoings and associate them with his homosexuality. Besides, the fact that there is little queer representation in mainstream media makes one negative representation all the more conspicuous. 

Another consideration is South Koreans’ attitudes towards queerness. In general, most South Koreans remain uncomfortable with homosexuality, and such a topic is taboo (Human Rights Watch, 2021). Most Korean dramas that include homosexual characters mock some aspect of their sexuality. For instance, in the K-drama “Strong Woman Do Bong-Soon,” people frequently poke fun at Oh Dol-Byung, a gay director in the company for his appearance and hobbies. There are also moments of queerbaiting in the drama “True Beauty,” when the two male leads lovingly feed each other food only to later express disgust for their behavior. This demonstrates that mainstream Korean TV and film lack positive and respectful portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters. 

However, beyond this, “Squid Game” still excels at bringing various social issues into discussion. I hope that in the grander scheme of things, mainstream TV shows and movies are more careful in their depiction of the LGBTQ+ community.

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