Don’t Be A Squid Game Soldier for Halloween

“Dad, I want to be a Squid Game soldier for Halloween.”

My first reaction to this announcement by my 14-year-old was to be unsurprised. We had just binge-watched the groundbreaking, emotionally wrenching, blatantly anti-capitalist Korean series over the course of several days, and the unique, highly symbolic outfits worn by various character groups were naturally on his mind.

“Don’t you think every other costume this year will be that?” I queried.

2021 is indeed the year of the Squid Game costume. Google Trends data show that over the past month, Squid Game costumes have been the most popular in the United States and globally. So, I had to ask my son why he would want to wear something that has become completely unoriginal and cliched.

“Yeah, I know, but the costume is super cool,” he offered.

Sure, the Squid Game soldier’s sartorial flair is super cool: beet-red hooded tracksuit, snazzy black gloves, a facemask with a different geometrical design depending on rank.

“You want to wear it because it looks cool? What about what those soldiers represent?”

This comment caused my highly conscientious and world-aware son to scrunch up his face in a “damn you have a point I guess I did not think about that” kind of way.

What do the soldiers in Squid Game represent, as far as we can tell? Above all, they seem to undertake their sinister duties with unflagging loyalty and reliable commitment, following orders to dispatch any and all hapless losers of the six games without hesitation. Their only morality seems to be a cold, hard attachment to ridding society of those deemed by the one percent as unfit to continue existing. Their character type is not dissimilar to the members of the armed forces of any country who uncritically and violently obey what their governments tell them to do, which often means killing innocent, economically and socially marginalized civilians who absolutely do not deserve such a fate.

Soldiers, at any point in human history, have been limited in their moral agency and forced to regularly do horrible things as part of their job description. Many are recruited from the ranks of working people and may not even wish, deep down, to do harm to another human being in service of ruling class agendas that do not benefit them in a meaningful way. The soldiers in Squid Game are possibly working people who were pushed, by lack of other opportunities, into taking the awful job they have been consigned to. Maybe some are criminals who were given a choice of either going to jail or serving as low-paid assassins in some oligarch’s murderous fantasy. In the show, soldiers are seen inhabiting bare-bones quarters, eating substandard food, and at least one describes himself as more expendable than the players in the games. Maybe this is how soldiers everywhere often feel- inherently expendable, the stuck tools of imperial folly and plutocratic avarice, at once uncritically lionized by the masses in their respective societies yet, at the same time, quickly condemned when visual evidence emerges of their misdeeds, and goes viral.

There is no such thing as a morally neutral costume that anybody, child or adult, can wear on Halloween. Every costume that a person chooses to wear assumes a concrete identity that means something larger, and by temporarily inhabiting an identity, a Halloween celebrant could be said to approve of that identity. Thoughtlessly wearing an offensive costume with immoral implications is really not okay, yet this Halloween, thousands of people will don the Squid Game soldier garb for a day or two. Some will pay far too much for the chance. Many, if they think about it at all, will tell themselves the costume just looks cool, and is trendy, and who wants to sit out the larger global cultural moment that this hit show has spawned? A smaller number may perversely admire or identify with the unjust power that the soldiers brutally wield throughout the nine episodes of the show. Even fewer may think they are wearing the costume ironically, as if the average person they pass while trick or treating, or coursing through a crowded dance party, would actually get the irony.

Halloween costumes always mean something. Most of the time, we may not want them to mean very much. Donning a Squid Game soldier costume links the wearer to a group that is purely evil, plain and simple, and not deserving of much sympathy, which I feel the show itself also reflects. Sure, we might pity the soldier’s material circumstances and virtual expendability, but on the other hand, they do not have to be doing what they are doing. They are choosing to do what they do, much as the guards in a nazi concentration camp did in the distant past, or as the employees at an immigrant detention center currently do now.

If, on the other hand, my son wanted to be a Squid Game player for Halloween, then at least, in a moral sense, he would be directly identifying himself with the literally billions of individuals around the world who have been ensnared in capitalist oppression and have little or no control over their economic destinies. And their costumes are super cool too.

Rampant recorder of a riven world that always shoots a tractor beam of Hope.