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Squid Game and the chiaroscuro of its female characters

Sae-Byeok, My-Nyeo and Ji-Yeong represent three different women, united by a broken humanity, but incredibly vivid and multifaceted. Not perfect, but still fascinating.

By Francesca Parravicini

This article contains spoilersss, read at your own risk.

Unless you have spent the last month on a spiritual retreat in the Tibetan mountains, in the depths of the woods looking for yourself (without Wi-Fi) or in orbit around a space station, you have surely heard of Squid Game.

The Korean series produced by Netflix is an explosive in its success, an unlikely mass phenomenon, even more interesting if we take into account that it is a non-Western product. Squid Game is a metaphor for the worst parts of our society, with desperate people, covered in debt and crushed by lives with no way out, that are recruited by a mysterious organization to compete in a perverse game: those who pass the competitions, can continue and have the chance to win a rich cash prize, whoever loses dies.

And the fact that the competitioms are actually children's games, makes us realize how often many aspects of our society are absurd and built literally on games. The plot, divided between moments of anguish, bitter comedy and even poignant poetry, captures, with its characters, multifaceted and complex figures, from the protagonist Gi-Hun, a loafer with a heart of gold, who shifts toward an incredible evolution, to his friend-foe Sang-Woo, an anti-hero willing to do anything to win, to the mysterious old man Il-Nam, who is anything but what he seems.

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In this context it’s interesting to observe how the female figures move. The “society” that is created by the game's competitors is a more brutal version of Korean society, with all its dark sides being brought to light. The mysterious association chaired by the enigmatic figure of the Front Man and his guards is male-dominated.

The competitors placed in front of the games, aim to privilege physical strength and discredit women: it is a context in which sexism i still pervasive (and it’s quite a big issue in South Korea), this is taken to the extreme and as the director explains Hwang Dong-hyuk, the gist is to highlight how a group of people behave in the worst situations, when instincts that are normally repressed come to the surface. A brutal world where survival is the only solution.

The first female figure we meet is Kang Sae-Byeok. Played by the charming Jung Ho-Yeon, a model turned actress, who is already the IT girl of the moment, she is a girl who speaks with her eyes. Sae-Byeok speaks little with words, but her gaze is made of hardened steel, she communicates a continuous tension, like a wild puma about to attack. She fled North Korea with her little brother, who lives in an orphanage in Seoul and she wants to win the money to also help her mother escape. 

Forced into a life of crime, she is a girl who makes her way in a difficult world: there is something fascinating about this petite figure, who is denigrated and underestimated, but who turns out to be one of the strongest and most capable competitors in the game, even reaching the finals. There is nothing glamorous or sweetened in her portrait: moved by a desire for survival, made stoic by a difficult life, she is admirable in her tenacity to preserve the closest affections and for this reason her death is even more heartbreaking.

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If Sae-Byeok appears to be not very emotional, devoid of any traditionally “feminine” connotation, on the other side of the spectrum we find Han Mi-Nyeo. Emotional, chaotic, the so-called elephant in the room, Mi-Nyeo claims to be a single mother looking for fortune, but she oscillates between truth and lies, so, who knows. Mi-Nyeo is a female figure full of shadows: she is theatrical in a way that is at times pathetic, acting over the top, she uses cunning ways and above all of seduction to proceed.

She is not a positive character but at the same time she is interesting, showing the behavior of a woman accustomed to living in a world encoded through the ideology of patriarchy, where her only value passes through the body. Even the way in which she dies, committing suicide together with the gangster Jang Deok-Su, who seduced and abandoned her, is part of this distorted portrait of a woman who lives in a passionate and excessive way to the end. Again she is the distorted representation of a world we know well.

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Finally, one of the characters who gives us one of the most delicate and profound moments of the series, Ji-Yeong. This smiling and sunny looking girl actually hides a past full of darkness: she participates in the game without a purpose, after being released from prison for killing her father, who in turn killed his wife and abused her. With this traumatic background, Ji-Yeong is one of the most positive characters in the series, through the unlikely friendship she forms with Sae-Byeok.

The two, united by their silent natures and the experiences they have undergone, team up in a hostile context and during the test of the game of marbles, where the players divided into pairs are forced to fight each other to win, they are the only ones to confronting each other peacefully, telling their respective stories in a sincere and clear way, imagining a peaceful life outside the game. Eventually, amidst the brutal conflicts of the other contestants, Ji-Yeong proves to be the strongest, sacrificing herself by choosing to lose voluntarily, to allow Sae-Byeok to go on in order to help her family. The final moment between the two girls is full of emotion and suggests what would have happened in a world where both would have been saved.

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Squid Game have been accused of sexism. Sexism because women do not emerge in a positive way and none of the three main protagonists triumphs. If I have to make a criticism in this sense I could say that actually the space dedicated to female characters is certainly smaller than the male ones and it would have been nice to find out more about the lives of Sae-Byeok, My-Nyeo and Ji-Yeong.

But as we have said it is not a question of sexism: it is a question of telling a brutal reality. It is not a sweetened world, it is an unfair world, built on structures in which we do not recognize ourselves and in the end no one wins. Sometimes it is necessary to recognize that there are gray areas and it is not always possible to follow an ideal, to paint a picture made of light. There are no good women and bad women, but women trying to survive and that's right too.