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The Squid Game Reality Show Erases Asians

The Squid Game Reality Show Erases Asians

When I was young, I used to spend entire days with other kids in small alleys of Incheon, South Korea, playing various childhood games. We all lived in the same neighborhood, so there was no need to arrange playdates for us to meet. We simply walked outside and played till the sun went down. Every day, the members changed—some were friends of mine, some were fresh faces, but it didn’t matter. We played the game together once we were in the same alley. Due to the varying ages of the children, there was always a “kkakdugi” in our plays. Kkakdugi is a sliced radishi kimchi that represents the weakest player in children’s games. The youngest member usually becomes kkakdugi and plays for both sides. In this way, no kid was left out, and we all played together. No exclusion was the key for these childhood plays.

Two years ago, a Netflix series named after one of our childhood games, Squid game, was released. The Korean TV show became a huge hit worldwide. It feels surreal for me, having lived in the U.S. since 2007 and studying and teaching media representation of minorities in university, to see a show that speaks to Koreans and features familiar games become a global sensation on Netflix.

Recently, it was remade into a reality TV show in Britain. Similar to the original, the reality show debuted at number one on Netflix in the U.S. and quickly became a trend. Despite criticism for deviating from the original show’s theme, which was a critique of capitalism and the system of inequality, the reality TV show certainly shares many similarities with the original, including the same number of players, games, sets and dormitory, and prize money.

However, a significant difference exists between the two shows: in the reality TV show, there are no prominent Asian players until Episode 4. Naturally, the original show is South Korean, and the reality TV show is British. As a result, they cannot be the same. Nevertheless, it is still peculiar to observe the absence of Asian players until the middle of the show. Considering that approximately 9.3% of the British population is Asian, one might expect to see more significant Asian representation than just a handful of Asian representation than just a handful of players.

With the increasing focus on DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), there has been improvement in the media representation of Asian communities in Hollywood. According to a USC study, the percentage of Asian characters with speaking roles grew from around 3% to nearly 16% from 2007 to 2022.

For example, movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang Chi featuring Asians as main characters mark a significant shift, considering that Asians were rarely cast in leading roles in U.S. media. They are portrayed as social, powerful, and expressive individuals. Some are seamlessly integrated into mainstream society, while others are actively engaged in larger tasks beyond their ethnic community.

However, there is still ample room for improvement in the portrayal of Asians in the media. Asians are frequently overlooked, lacking proper representation, visibility, and thoughtful consideration in the media landscape. They are often depicted as “others,” not fully part of the depicted community. A similar situation unfolded in the realty TV show as well. Asian players were rarely highlighted in the show until it became necessary. In fan communities, audiences wondering why Asian players were underrepresented, and their contributions were not showcased as others.

Yet, during the “red light, green light” game, the instructions were given in Korean with the command “Mugunghwa kkoch-i pieossseubnida (The Rose of Sharon flower has bloomed),” reflecting its Korean version.

Visibility matters, and correct media representation is crucial. When people see faces similar to theirs on screen, it fosters a sense of inclusion in the community. Accurate representations without bias not only benefit individuals but also contribute to a broader understanding of minorities. In this sense, it is essential for Asians to be included in Hollywood storylines and media in general, avoiding portrayals as sidekicks or mere tokens of culture.

I recently watched Squid game: the challenge. It felt odd to see that none of the players look like me, yet they played my childhood games and ate my childhood snack—dalgona. It was a bittersweet feeling: sweet because I heard familiar Korean in a British TV show, but bitter as if I have been excluded from the games and playground. I imagine an inclusive TV shows, perhaps one with kkakdugi, where no minorities feel excluded.

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