Hundreds of millions of people all over the world watched Netflix’s Squid Game, but only one turned the hit series into a university course. Paolo Granata is the head of the media studies program at the University of Toronto, where part of the mission is to study contemporary media in real time. In his class “Squid Game and the Media,” Granata’s students examine the broader implications of the show’s global success—and occasionally dress up like the main characters.
Before we get into your class, Squid Game was the most popular series in the history of Netflix. What was it about the show that made it such a hit?
I think you can look at the rise of the Hallyu or, in English, the “K-Wave”, which had been in the air for several years before Squid Game came out. It started with Korean dramas, and then the rise of K-Pop in general and BTS in particular—the whole world developed an interest in the Korean aesthetic and sensibility, which are very much rooted in contrasts and dichotomy: bright, extreme colours to emphasize darkness, comedy to highlight tragedy, childlike visuals and sounds during the most brutal scenes, which we see a lot in Squid Game and, before that, in Parasite. When that movie had the success it did, that was a significant benchmark.
Netflix has gotten ahead of Hollywood by developing culturally authentic programming for a global audience, which is essentially the opposite of what they started out doing—bringing Hollywood content to foreign countries. Squid Game is a perfect example of a very region-specific piece of entertainment with mass appeal.
Squid Game is also a story about wealth disparity, which became a very hot topic during the pandemic. Did that also play into the way the show resonated?
Absolutely. I’m sure you remember that people talked about the pandemic as being the “great equalizer,” but unfortunately that was not the case. Instead, we saw a lot of pre-existing inequality that was exposed. Similarly, in Squid Game we see this illusion of equality. All the players are “equal”—they all have the same chance to win the prize money. And they seem to have options.
In the first episode, every player is given the chance to leave the world of the game and go back to their regular lives. Many do, having realized that they are likely to die pursuing the prize money. But most of them come back because they realize that their financial circumstances leave them without options, which is where we see the illusion of free will, and the illusion that equality means equity, when in fact these are two very different concepts. Ultimately, the conditions created by a capitalist society do not make people free.
I really liked Squid Game and I talked about it with my friends. You must have really liked Squid Game to create a university-level seminar course based on the show.
I definitely enjoyed it enough to watch the entire series in just a couple of days. And then I went back and watched it again in the original Korean with English subtitles, which is a far better experience in terms of appreciating the performance. But it was only when I saw the numbers—hundreds of millions of viewers, the number-one show in 94 countries—that I started thinking about it from a media studies perspective. This was fall 2021, when we were starting to talk about the 2022-23 curriculum. Our motto in the media studies department is “media in real time.” In 2019 we started offering courses that capture a big trending topic. We did “Trump and the Media,” then “#MeToo and the Media,” then “#BlackLivesMatter and the Media,” and “Indigenous Cultures and the Media.” I thought Squid Game would be great because of how relevant the story was and, of course, because so many people had seen it.
Did the course fill up immediately?
We decided on an application process because I wanted to avoid students enrolling just because they loved the show. This is a fourth-year seminar class with a group research component. Every applicant had to explain their interest in the class and also what resources they would use to approach the show from an academic perspective. We received a total of 52 applications, including students from my media studies program but also from philosophy, anthropology and creative writing. We ended up with a diverse group, which is exactly what I was hoping for. We have three Korean students who have been able to explain some of the show’s linguistic nuances, students from China who can talk about how the show was received in their country, and students from the creative expression and society program, who can share perspectives on narratology and storytelling that help us to analyze the plot.
On your syllabus, the classes have the same names as Squid Game’s episodes. How else did you pay homage to the series?
I had an actor come in for the first class—a former student who was a fan of the show—to deliver the Front Man’s famous monologue on equity… in costume. I thought that was a good way to establish the right mood. I think the class really enjoyed it and they also got into the spirit. One student showed up in the green player’s uniform; another brought the board game, which we will definitely play at some point. And then on the last day of class we’re going to make the Dalgona honeycomb cookies from episode two.
I really believe that playfulness can inspire creativity, which leads to better research. My role is about more than just content. Information is everywhere these days—you can go online or watch a documentary. The professor of the 21st century is an experience designer.
Week 2 is called Red Light, Green Light. On the show, that was the game where a giant doll murdered anyone who moved when they weren’t supposed to. How have you adjusted this to avoid the needless slaughter of students?
Ha! For us, it is about looking at “Red Light, Green Light” and how it is played in so many different cultures around the world. In our group there are students from China, from Korea, from Europe, Canada, so we shared how the game differs from one culture to another and what that says about the diversity of cultures, but also commonalities.
In Canada I think it’s called “What Time Is It Mr. Wolf?”
That’s right. And in Italy, where I’m from, it’s “Un, Due, Tres, Estrella.” The game is an archetype and a metaphor for life, which is true of all the games in Squid Game. In the playground we learn about competition and co-operation. We learn to read symbolic aspects of life, and concepts of justice, equality and inequality. The very nature of play is a symbolic activity; by playing we learn how to live and how to cope. In the show the main character, Seong Gi-hun, comes in as a very childlike character and by the end has transformed into an adult by facing the cruelty of life. It is the idea of metamorphosis that is present in so many classic allegories and fairy tales. I’m a big fan of Pinocchio.
Speaking of archetypes, the VIPs in Squid Game—the evil billionaires who watch the players kill each other for sport—are all white Westerners. The creator of the show has even compared them to Trump. How does your class approach that aspect of the show?
Definitely the VIPs represent the highest peak of capitalism. The fact that they all wear gold masks evokes the old Greek tragedies. And then when you look at how they arrive on the island where the game is taking place—they fly in on helicopters like gods coming down from the heavens, which is part of a whole religious motif. The piggy bank that contains all the prize money hangs from the ceiling in a way that evokes a modern cathedral, only the religion is capitalism. So I can understand the Trump comparison. One of my students is talking about analyzing the games in the show as an allegory of imperial capitalism. The Trump era certainly feels like an accurate manifestation of that.
Season 2 is coming to Netflix later this year, or early next. With the key mystery solved and most of our favourite characters feeding worms, where do you think they’ll take it?
We have talked about this quite a bit in class. I asked my students if they would prefer a sequel or a prequel and most say the latter, so that we could have these characters from the first season return and we could learn more about their already rich backstories. I tend to agree.
In the meantime, Netflix is releasing a reality show called Squid Game: The Challenge. Did you consider trying out?
To play? No. But I will definitely watch. I have heard about some contestants on the set talking about the “intolerable conditions.” Netflix is denying that, so who knows what the truth is.
Any idea of what next year’s trending-topic course might be?
Definitely the hot topic right now, in academia and beyond, is this ChatGPT bot and similar advanced AI language models. I think that might make a good pick.