No, Netflix's 'Squid Game' Isn't Misogynistic—Here's Why

Netflix's dystopian survival K-drama Squid Game may have captured the imaginations of viewers all over the world, but it has also been in the firing line over its "misogynistic" storyline.

Some viewers have taken issue with the show's portrayal of women, pointing to Mi-nyeo's (Kim Joo-ryoung) relationship with gangster Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), Sang-woo's (Park Hae-soo) reluctance to accept female teammates, and the VIPs quite literally using naked women as objects.

One fan said: "The farther I get into Squid Game the more misogynistic it becomes," while another tweeted, "They're misogynistic as hell! Why they assuming women suck???"

Squid Game director Hwang Dong-hyuk has fiercely denied these allegations, telling Hankook Ilbo that the behavior highlighted is how he imagined characters reacting "when placed in the worst situation."

He explains the show is an "allegory or fable about modern capitalist society," and that "[the story] was to show the actions of someone that can do anything (to survive) in an extreme situation."

Other fans have defended the Netflix show, claiming it focuses on "creating realistic [female] characters" and that the sexist elements are designed to highlight these problematic societal views, rather than to promote them.

Here's why Squid Game isn't sexist, but, rather, a chilling examination of the human condition — with fully-formed female characters to boot.

The players are sexist — the game is not

A still from Netflix series "Squid Game."
Characters from "Squid Game," the new Netflix K-drama series about a deadly survival game. Netflix

Of the 456 original contestants, it is mainly Sang-woo (No. 218) and Deok-su (No. 101) who are discouraging about female players, rejecting them from their team before knowing what the game entails.

However, at no point does this tactic of excluding women give anyone a significant lead. Despite the sexist and antiquated views of some of the male contestants, the women prove time and again that they are just as capable as their male counterparts — if not more so.

While Sang-woo and Deok-su allege that the female contestants are lacking in strength, five out of six games (Red Light, Green Light, Honeycomb, Marbles, Glass Stepping Stones and Squid Game) rely on skill, agility and pot luck. Even in the Tug of War round, their argument about physical strength is completely undermined, as the team consisting of three young women and an old man beat their all-male opponents by adopting a clever strategy.

Throughout Squid Game, female players showcase their analytical skills, physical strength, determination and bravery. It is because of Mi-nyeo that Deok-su succeeds in the Honeycomb round, thanks to her lighter trick and Sae-byeok (HoYeon Jung) is the one who tells Gi-hun to "pull it together" in the penultimate round and keeps her composure throughout. What's more, five of the sixteen players who make it to the Glass Stepping Stones phase are women, some of whom are middle-aged or older.

Finally, the only reason Sae-byeok was eliminated, really, was because she was wounded after successfully completing the task — not because she wasn't as good as her male counterparts. Rather than being portrayed as hysterical (a tired and pejorative trope from the 19th century designed to oppress women), she dresses her own wound, keeps her injury to herself and remains composed til the very end.

The challenges do not discriminate against women. If anything, the younger players and Ali (Anupam Tripathi) are at a greater disadvantage, as they have not grown up with the games.

The VIPs objectify everyone, not just women

It's fair to say the VIPs in Squid Game are not presented as heroes, so although their behaviour is unsettling at best, we're not supposed to root for them as viewers. They are depicted as rich Western men, who take pleasure in human sacrifice and bet on players as if they were horses in a race.

While their behaviour is clearly abhorrent, it is not directed towards just women; they lay on both naked men and women when they arrive on the island (who are painted to further strip away their humanity), and one of the more prominent figures in the group seeks to take advantage of the disguised policeman in order to "satisfy" his depraved needs.

Just as Dong-hyuk explains, "Every VIP would have had a female and a male next to them like a figure. It's not accurate to say that it is an objectification of women. I used body painting to show how the VIPs objectify humans."

Instead, the scene is intended to show "just how far they [the VIPs] would belittle other humans."

Mi-nyeo's character arc shows huge depth

Player 212 han mi nyeo squid game
Player No. 212 Han Mi-nyeo during the honeycomb challenge in Netflix's "Squid Game." Netflix

Rather than being a one-dimensional, secondary character, Mi-nyeo is complex and divisive, and continues to progress over the course of the show.

She is ruthless throughout the games, skipping the food line so other players starve, sneaking in contraband and joining a gang to protect herself. She even seduces Deok-su to cement him as an ally.

Although some viewers have claimed this element of her storyline is sexist, it is clear throughout the scene that is a calculated decision by Mi-nyeo herself and she has agency over her body and sexuality.

Dong-hyuk acknowledges that Mi-nyeo "uses her body as a commodity," but reiterates this is just another example of how someone may respond to a life or death situation.

Ultimately, during the Glass Stepping Stones round, Mi-nyeo exacts her revenge of Deok-su after he broke their alliance, calling him out on his cowardice and taking charge of the situation. She is not portrayed as weak at all, but, rather, cunning and resilient.

It has also been pointed out by a Korean-speaking social media user that many of Mi-nyeo's lines have been mistranslated into English, which in turn dilutes her character's essence. Rather than saying "I'm not a genius, but I can work it out," as the subtitles claim, @ymmayer states the line is actually: "I'm very smart, I just never got the chance to study."

Sae-byeok is the strongest character from start to finish

Player 067 Kang Sae-byeok in Squid Game
Player 067 Kang Sae-byeok in "Squid Game". Netflix

Sae-byeok is another fearless female character in Squid Game, but unlike Mi-nyeo, she has proven much more popular with fans. No. 067 is smart, strong, introverted and, once she learns to trust others, kind.

Her heartbreaking backstory is the most detailed of all the women in the show; initially introduced as a pickpocket, we learn she is a North Korean defector who needs the money to reunite her family after a dangerous border crossing where her father lost his life. She is now the guardian of her younger brother, who is currently living in a shelter.

What's more, Sae-byeok's character is not a love interest and her relationship with Gi-hun is one of mutual respect. She constantly helps him advance in game, as we've touched upon above, and they become each other's source of support.

As also mentioned previously, her death was not a result of losing the game but through injury. It also increases the sense of pathos in the viewer, as Sae-byeok got so close to the end and we'd been rooting for her all along, as she she had the most selfless goal of all of them.

Rather than being a sexist decision based on gendered stereotypes, Sae-byeok's death is simply a narrative tool which allows childhood friends Sang-woo and Gi-hun to face one another in the final round — a plot device which is common within the K-drama genre. The final game was intended to test the two men's friendship and expose how far people will go to improve their financial and social security, and, most importantly, survive.

Ji-yeong's final act of bravery

Ji-Yeong and Kang Sae-nyeok in Squid Game
Ji-yeong and Kang Sae-nyeok play a deadly game of marbles in "Squid Game." Netflix

Ji-yeong displays a completely different personality to the other women. At first, No. 240 seems cruel as she is quick to berate another player for praying after a game, however in the next challenge her bubbly personality is revealed.

She chooses to be Sae-byeok's partner, which ultimately becomes a deadly decision, serving as one of the most poignant scenes of the series. As the men around them panic and manipulate to get through the Marble game, the two women share their stories, vowing to only to participate in the round in its final minutes.

We learn Ji-yeong was approached by the Squid Game recruiters after she left prison, where she was put away for murdering her abusive father (who was also a pastor, which explains her previous disdain for religion). Amid the dark story, she also talks of films and drinking mojitos, and hopes someday she and Sae-byeok can do this together, before sadly remembering only one of them will make it out alive. It is the first time we see vulnerability from Sae-byeok, as she is moved to tears.

In a revealing moment of bravery, after hearing about Sae-byeok's family, Ji-yeong sabotages the game so the former can live, claiming she has nothing to live for unlike her new-found friend. The moving scene is difficult to watch, with viewers catching a glimpse of a wonderful female friendship that was never meant to be.

Squid Game is available to watch on Netflix now.

Squid Game misogyny
No, Netflix's "Squid Game" Isn't Misogynistic—Here's Why. Netflix