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Much Ado About Squid Game

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Sapan Shah, Community Editor

As Netflix’s newest binge-worthy sensation took over the HBS community (and the world), the Harbus asked K-drama enthusiast HBS Professor Sandra Sucher to weigh in.

You mention in your blog that over the last year you have watched more than two dozen Korean shows. What about K-dramas fascinates you?

Let me first admit that a lot of my opinions about K-dramas come from mentally comparing them with all the Hollywood that I am familiar with, and not just what they are by themselves. There are several things that I think are distinct about them, and one of the things that I love is that they are quite willing to mix genres. For instance, if you watch Vincenzo (which is probably one of my favorite K-dramas on Netflix), it is an absurd story about a Korean man raised in Italy who becomes consigliere to the Mafia and later comes back to South Korea to repatriate some gold. Even within this premise, they mix an enormous amount of humor. Within these terrible situations in some of the most extreme dramas, you will find some humor. I believe they have something quite special to tell us, that life is not just one thing.

These shows are also very good at character development, and the viewer truly empathizes with the characters that they are watching. In Squid Game, you see 10 minutes of a backstory for each character, that comes in and out of scenes, really driving home the history of these characters. And so, some of the emotional force comes from knowing more and caring more about the characters than we would ordinarily. This goes beyond just the plotlines because it organically makes sense that A loves B or that C is really ticked off about a situation. There is an emotional texture that comes through.

Another thing that I like is that they are unafraid of crossing over into fantasy. I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, and Korean shows bring the genre to life in a way that is quite wonderful. In Crash Landing on You, you will see a South Korean heiress paragliding into North Korea by mistake. By the time you have accepted the premise, you are hooked. That kind of playful attitude toward life is actually quite inspiring because it really does show that we can get enjoyment from engaging with something that we find improbable. And for extremely rational people, like all of us at HBS, this notion of suspending disbelief and just going with it is exhilarating.

Over the last few years we have been seeing trends reflecting the Korean Wave (or Hallyu), with the rising popularity of K-Pop groups like BTS, the Oscars sweep by Parasite, and now, Squid Game. What is your take on this deliberate phenomenon of “culture as an export”?

If you are asking if is it okay for a society or for a country to try to export its view of the world to the rest of the world? I would say, as your typical HBS professor, it depends. And what it depends on is the quality of the content that is brought to the table. There are some worldviews that I would not be that interested in, and this happens to be one where I think there is a lot to learn from, and I appreciate learning about a culture that is so different from my own, even if it has these strands of familiarity. And so I think it is great that South Korea is breaking the hegemony of the United States over global popular culture. I think it is good for the world that a country the size of South Korea, which is not huge in population but an economic powerhouse in itself, is doing this.

In your opinion, what is it that made Squid Game so universally popular? More specifically, why do you think the HBS community was so enamored by it?

I think it has to do with several things. One is about competition. There are reasons why we go to sporting events and bet on horses—or even people for that matter. There is always a great appreciation for people who can best themselves in a competitive environment. Moreover, because it is a fiendishly clever competition, it is weirdly appealing. There is a design to each of these games that are calibrated to promote betrayal. You go from one game where you have to cooperate with the people on your team to the next game where only one of the two of you is going to win. On the one hand, it is quite compelling to watch that, but also, it violates our sense of morality because we do not like that changing of the rules. These morality plays are some of the most compelling themes in various K-dramas. Squid Game, albeit unintentionally, takes it one step further. An October 7 article in the Wall Street Journal talks about how one of the phone numbers on the business cards flashed on the screen actually belonged to someone, and they were inundated with calls. And none of the producers at Netflix really did anything to protect those harmed as a result of the show’s popularity. For a show and a production house that makes big talk of morality, it inadvertently also raises all these other issues. When we speak of universal popularity, what I find interesting is that there has been lots of media coverage of this—Bloomberg, the Economist, the New York Times, and what have you. Every OpEd takes a different stance, but it has been written about in business domains. It speaks volumes about income inequality and rigged systems. 

Speaking of inequality and rigged systems, you observed how morality often plays a central role in a majority of Korean media, more prominently so, in Squid Game. And you have—quite literally—written a book on morality. How do you reconcile the general correlation of capitalism and immorality, especially being at Harvard Business School?

I spent 20 years in business before I became a professor and I have always thought that there is a core of morality in doing business well, and you do not need to decorate that with philanthropy. I mean, the simple provision of good products and services that people cannot create for themselves, that helps meet people’s needs or creates jobs, to me, that is a moral act. I have not felt much tension because I studied the merits of what we do, and I also spent a fair amount of my time thinking about what is not so good, but I have not concluded that the system is rotten. It is more the people and the organizations in that system that do things that are not very palatable.

That would be more of a “how” question; how do people go about making money? How do they go about gaining market share? How do they go about treating their employees and what are the values that drive the way that they do business? I teach a course called The Moral Leader and I have found that there is a big appetite among students at HBS to try to figure out how they want to behave as leaders. Sure, every student’s heart may not beat to this particular drum, but it gives me great joy to work with students who are trying to figure out what works and what does not.

Even in Squid Game, the caricature of capitalism is very pronounced, you cannot even see the faces of the people who were exploiting the players. And I thought, candidly, that was a little over the top. I did not need them to have the mask to know that they were not great people. I would have liked a little bit more realism because it made it harder for me to take seriously the tension that they were trying to introduce into the series around rich people exploiting poor people.

Popular culture as a whole, and Hollywood in particular, still has a long way to go in rejecting gender stereotypes. How have K-dramas dealt with this?

The typical female character lead in a K-drama would be from a lower socioeconomic background, remarkably capable, smart, and hardworking. And she is someone who has spirit, which helps her overcome the limitations of her status. Almost all of the female leads actually have working lives. And so, I have been fascinated that a lot of K-dramas feature capable women and not just characters who are an appendage to a man. Quite honestly, it surprises me, because even though I am not aware of how women actually fare in Korean society, as a storytelling choice, it is so pronounced when you watch enough of these shows. There is something here about seeing value in the way that women live their lives. Moreover, K-dramas like Mr. Queen have also tried to break free of the rigidity of gender identity and have plot-based reasons why a character is depicted a certain way.

Speaking of the women in Squid Game, one of them [Han Mi-nyeo] has chops—she will do whatever it takes, to survive. Another [Kang Sae-byeok] does not care what other people think, the only thing she cares about is her brother. Filial piety is a huge theme throughout K-dramas, and she is very much on point in that regard. Her portrayal is the reason why you feel so good when the little boy, her brother, gets taken care of. And then there is the third character [Ji-yeong], who just sort of wants a friend, someone to be with. That is not a big theme that I have seen in K-drama women—liking women and trying to be friends. This is where the show steps out in a way that I thought was quite moving because she ends up saying “you have something to live for, I do not.” When you think about the three characters I have described, none of those women is just there because she is associated with a male character. And so, even within this highly stylized drama, there is still this thread of women as having value on their own.

Finally, what would you like students at HBS to take away from Squid Game?

Let me try and turn this around, and ask you to think of it as a case in class. The first thing that I would ask students would be: “which character are you?” That is always the question in any drama: “which is who do you identify with and why?” I think that would stimulate some interesting thoughts from people about why it is that they most identify with X or Y. And I would think that we would have a fair number of people who identify with the character who was in financial services. He seemed like a reasonable individual who got caught up doing some evidently unpleasant things. He evidences a kind of moral flexibility that allows him to do some things that he probably did not feel great about, but that he nonetheless did. I think that there may be a group of people who could see themselves doing that.

Another question is, “what about the show appeals to students?” So what would really interest me is what students’ thoughts are. I could imagine some really good and thoughtful discussions just based on those few questions. You can tell I’m a fun case teacher, haha!


Sandra Sucher is a professor of management practice at HBS and an internationally recognized trust researcher, who studies how organizations become trusted and the vital role leaders play in the process. Her research has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Quartz, Business Insider, CNBC, NPR, Marketplace, and in Germany, Latin America, and Japan. Sucher is also the Section Chair for RC Section F.

Sapan Shah (MBA ’23) hails from India. Before HBS, he worked in consumer goods and non-profit healthcare, and during the latter had been vital in the implementation of India’s HIV/AIDS control strategy. He spends his leisure time immersed in popular culture and quizzing.

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