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In this episode, Chelsea dissects our cultural obsession with 'Squid Game,' 'Parasite,' and other capitalist dystopian media.

Source links:

Dissecting dystopian obsessions:
https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/12/18/536007249/why-teens-find-the-end-of-the-world-so-appealing
https://www.livescience.com/63563-world-emotions-gallup-survey.html
https://www.forbes.com/sites/roberthart/2021/10/12/americans-more-pessimistic-life-will-ever-return-to-pre-pandemic-normal-after-brutal-summer-poll-finds/?sh=18784df0477d
https://www.newstatesman.com/uncategorized/2020/02/william-gibson-apocalypse-it-s-been-happening-least-100-years

Squid Game:
https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/squid-game-netflix-1.6195607

South Korea:
https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/10/15/south-korea-politics-state-department-squid-game-netflix/
https://www.statista.com/statistics/789375/south-korea-suicide-death-rate-by-age-group/
https://www.ceicdata.com/datapage/en/search?search_query=south%20korea%20debt

U.S. wealth gap:
https://www.statista.com/statistics/248283/household-debt-ratio-to-gdp-in-the-united-states/
https://www.forbes.com/sites/chasewithorn/2021/04/30/american-billionaires-have-gotten-12-trillion-richer-during-the-pandemic/?sh=418ef09ff557
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/09/poverty-america-united-states-covid-coronavirus-pandemic/

Celebrities and the rich:
https://ifunny.co/picture/puddy-pooped-on-the-rug-again-wet-i-am-gonna-1pl1O4Ze7
https://junkee.com/parasite-rich-celebrities/241381

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Hey, guys.

It's Chelsea from The Financial Diet. And last week, we were talking about billionaires, boo.

And this week, we're talking about Squid Game, yeah. But more seriously, this week, we are talking about why we love capitalist dystopia in media. I, like millions, billions of people throughout the world, really enjoyed binge watching Squid Game and felt very compelled and moved by its overall message, even with the less-than-stellar subtitling going on.

But I think given it's absolutely phenomenal worldwide popularity, it's worth confronting why we as a culture are becoming more and more interested in capitalist dystopias as a theme. Because these days, it is feeling increasingly like there are really two kinds of media out there. There's the turn your brain off and be uplifted kind of media, like Queer Eye, Great British Bake Off, and Ted Lasso, or desperate people trying to navigate a hellscape, like Parasite or Get Out or Squid Game.

And of course, this is a classic dichotomy as old as literature and media itself, a utopia versus a dystopia. But the tone and popularity of this dystopian content in our culture today and in its broader cultural context is something worth examining from a financial perspective. Dystopian fiction has been particularly popular since the middle of the last century starting with post-war novels from the likes of Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury, progressing to the works of Anthony Burgess and Margaret Atwood.

In 1993, The Giver by Lois Lowry became one of the first major dystopian novels written from the perspective of an adolescent protagonist. Dystopian media has only gotten more popular throughout the years, and especially in the last decade. It's what's resulted in wildly successful adaptations for The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Handmaid's Tale, Parasite, which did earn the Best Picture Oscar.

And the appeal of dystopian fiction actually starts quite young. Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, told NPR in 2017 that dystopian novels are actually perfect for the developing adolescent brain because, among other things, they help teens to process emotions related to things like justice, fairness, loyalty, and morality. And by cranking up all of these dynamics to such an extreme in dystopian literature, there's also a cathartic factor, especially when the protagonist triumphing is also a young person, as in the explosively popular Hunger Games, Chrysalids, or Divergent.

But the interest in dystopian fiction does not stop with youth. And there is no more prescient example of that than the aforementioned runaway hit Squid Game, which is currently the most popular show on Netflix and is on track to become its most popular original series of all time. And this may have something to do with the fact that our worldview and outlook have become increasingly negative.

Analytics firm Gallup has been conducting a global survey on people's emotional outlook around the world. And in 2017, people all over the world had a negative experience score of 30, the highest negative experience score measured by Gallup since the start of the survey. Now, with the pandemic, optimism of the world looking anything like it used to has been dropping.

In an October poll by Axios-Ipsos, 30% of Americans thought that it would take more than a year to get back to normal, up from 9% only four months earlier, indicating that pessimism is accelerating. And this is why dystopia in this moment can feel so particularly cathartic because it's expressing, in many cases, our worst fears and anxieties. Chris Alexander, editor-in-chief of the horror magazine Delirium, said about Squid Game, the backdrop is new, but the fears and anxieties are perpetual and evergreen.

So why do we love Squid Game so much? It's not just because Sang-Woo is hot, though he is. And listen, yes, it's wrong what he did to Ali, but he's just playing the game.

He can't go back to his mother like that. He needs the money. No, I'm kidding.

I do love Ali. What he did was wrong. Now, what may be particularly compelling about Squid Game to Western audiences is how the somewhat unfamiliar background to us, i.e. being set in modern Korean culture, allows us to feel that the context we're seeing is somehow different from our own.

It doesn't have to have some futuristic landscape and an entirely new world building in order for us to feel that sense of being out of place. But ironically, the narrative and context in which Squid Game is set is actually much more familiar to our American circumstances than we might think. Novelist William Gibson famously said about the apocalypse, "It's been happening for at least 100 years.

For the last century, if not more, various parts of the world have been in essentially apocalyptic conditions-- be them environmental, social, economical, or, most commonly, a mix of all of them." But while we can easily identify the problems in other societies, it can tend to detract from how much of these same problems we're living out on perhaps just a slightly different scale back at home. For example, in Squid Game, much has been said about how much the entire series premise is based on the extreme wealth inequality present in South Korea. Foreign Policy noted that it is a timely portrayal of extreme economic frustrations currently being felt by the average South Korean.

Indeed, a lack of upward mobility in South Korea is a pressing issue. And as of September 2021, suicide is reportedly the leading cause of death amongst people aged 10 to 29, a trend which has been attributed in part by the burdens of poverty. And household debt in the country has risen to more than 100% of the country's GDP.

And the top 20% of earners in the country have a combined net worth of more than 166 times the bottom 20%. But let's not be so quick to judge South Korea or to feel that the context in which Squid Game takes place is not something that we can relate to. In the US, the household debt to GDP ratio isn't exactly flattering.

It's been as high as 91.86% in the past decade. And while it has fallen steadily since the financial crisis, COVID has driven that back up again. And it's currently sitting at about 78.16%.

In fact, COVID is exacerbating all sorts of inequalities around the world and at home. According to Forbes, the wealth of US billionaires increased by 35% or $1.2 trillion between January of 2020 and April of 2021, making America's billionaires, of which there are just over 700, worth a total of $4.6 trillion. But has that been reflected for the average Joe?

As of September 2021, the amount of Americans in poverty has increased by a full percentage point, up from 11.4% the year before. And even for those on the more economically average side of things, household incomes decreased by 2.9% in inflation-adjusted terms. The average US household income is now $67,591.

And quite frankly, when we look at the past year in the US as an example, is there anything more practically dystopian than deciding between having enough food to eat at home or risking exposure to a deadly virus by going to work as an underpaid cashier at Sam's Club? And for the record, someone actually did try to make that into a dystopian film-- in the Michael Bay produced film Songbird, which takes place about four years after COVID. The critical consensus was largely negative.

And the overall take was that basing it on real events was, at best, clumsily executed and, at worst, exploitative. With Culture Mix's Carla Hay calling it, quote, "Horrifically tasteless." So we can see that the dystopia as portrayed in Squid Game, especially for Western audiences, allows us to have just enough distance on the subject matter to not feel as though it's an exploitation playing on our fears. Because it takes place in Korea, a country that most Americans are not overly familiar with, we already feel as though this is their problem.

And because, obviously, there are some elements of the story that are fantastical, we have a tendency to feel that they are just that-- fantasy and not simply metaphors for the life or death decisions that many working Americans have to make under capitalism every day and quite literally so during the worst of the COVID pandemic. And when you look at other films throughout the years which have touched on that capitalist dystopia horror, you see how much our unexpressed and sometimes unexpressable anxieties with the context economically we all have to get by in are best able to be spoken by fictional characters. Parasite is simply a movie for the history books, becoming the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars.

And while it is often billed as a dark comedy and a thriller and not necessarily a dystopia, in many ways it fits the bill quite clearly. And the tiny bit of contextual difference provided to Western audiences via, again, the film, taking place in Korea allowed the message to be lost on many people who it was very directly satirizing. With people like Elon Musk and Chrissy Teigen tweeting about how much they loved the movie, which people were pretty quick to contrast with, for example, Chrissy Teigen's tweet about lying so that her maid would clean up her dog's poop.

In Junkee, writer Michelle Rennex wrote about the disconnect between the dystopia on screen and those watching, who seem to perceive it as a mere work of fantastical fiction. These celebrities celebrating the film fail to understand one giant glaring point-- they are the Park family, oblivious that they are the real world inspiration and too self-absorbed to realize. Or if we look at Jordan Peele's massively popular movie Us, we can see the extent to which the film's perpetually oppressed underclass coming up and literally going on a murder rampage of the upper class that's been oppressing them is a barely removed expression of the way in which class actually works in this country.

In order for the wealthy in America to live lives of incredible convenience and luxury, there, by definition, has to be a class of people whose labor is consistently undervalued. We like the fact that you can get certain packages delivered same day, but we don't necessarily like to think of the underpaid and overworked person riding a bicycle in snow in order to deliver that package to you. The entire premise of Us as a horror film works primarily by taking the already very deeply felt class disparities in our country and ratcheting them up to 11.

Ultimately, one thing that I have learned on TFD as we've gotten more open about talking about political and macroeconomic issues and how they inform and affect all of our personal financial decisions is that a lot of people have a hard time letting go of many of the myths that were sold about the country and economic context that we live in. In America, the truth is social mobility is quite low. Wealth inequality is extremely high.

The lives and options for the working poor are increasingly limited. And the relationship between what we produce as a country making us still the wealthiest country in the world, and how well our average citizens are taken care of is decreasing almost year over year. On some level, the average American knows that the economic context that they're living in is simply not very fair.

But both politically and in our day-to-day culture, we don't often have the tools to talk about it. We're told that talking about money is tacky. Or that if we are poor, it's just because we're lazy or don't work hard enough.

When it comes to the grotesque wealth of the super rich and the extent to which most wealth in the United States is inherited, we're simply gaslit into believing it's because they work harder. And you can watch last week's video for a breakdown on why that's definitely not true. In any case, the rising and now explosive popularity of capitalist dystopia, particularly with Squid Game, teaches us that all of these economic anxieties and the latent understanding that what we're dealing with is not normal or fair, exists throughout our culture.

We just needed the right Netflix show to help us express it. As always, guys, thanks for watching. And don't forget to hit the Subscribe button and to come back every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for new and awesome videos.

Goodbye.