Tropes In Action: Homophobia in “Squid Game”

Is Squid Game Homophobic?

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

This week, I want to try something different and take a look at a specific piece of media, what it got wrong, and why. For my first ever installment of Tropes In Action, I’m going to be focusing on the Netflix series Squid Game.

I make no promises of being this topical in the future.

As a note: spoilers ahead! Also, content warning for discussion of sexual assault.

The Trope In Action

Squid Game is not a queer show.

There’s only a single canonically queer character, and he’s going to be the subject of our deeper discussion here. Other than that, there’s a moment of apparent sexual tension between two women, but one of those Schrodinger’s Gays gets buried pretty quick, so that’s queerbaiting at best.

This on its own isn’t such a bad thing. I don’t prescribe to the idea that all media needs queer rep, even though I DO love to see it. I will say that a show that’s supposed to be a critique of capitalism featuring stories of oppressed, marginalized, and financially insecure individuals grappling with a brutal and uncompromising system of control which is predicated on an illusion of fairness and choice could PROBABLY do with a queer voice or two in there, and that the capitalist critique is wholly incomplete without some sympathy and visibility for queer characters.

But I very much digress.

The problem I have with Squid Game — and the moment that made me personally uncomfortable and very sad in the existential “oh this is what the straights think of us” kind of way, was the Lion-Mask VIP.image of a white man wearing a shiny gold mask shaped like a lion, holding a cigar and wearing a fancy brocade robe

Only one VIP was really given any focus. The others were set pieces, but Lion-Mask was shown to be loud, slovenly, and decadent even beyond his peers. And while all the VIPs were vaguely queer-coded, only Lion-Mask was made explicitly queer when he attempted to sexually assault one of the male characters on the show.

A common trope for all queer characters is the “Depraved Homosexual,” which plays into some tropes that I’ve mentioned on previous Tropes to Avoid posts such as the Predatory Lesbian or Gays Like Them Young. This general trope is why queer-coded villains are so widespread. Since the dawn of Hollywood, queer people have been used as shorthand for morally depraved characters. The VIPs really didn’t need any more coding for us to view them as morally horrific — they were using humans as furniture while watching the impoverished compete in a deadly bloodsport, all while treating the gory spectacle like a high-end sporting event. Still, the queer-coding of villainy runs deep, and it came through in the portrayal of the VIPs. They weren’t rugged men of means or ruthless businessmen; they were effeminate and perverted.

Combining all of this with the fact that Lion-Mask VIP attempts to sexually assault Hwang Jun-ho, we get a depiction of a villain whose queerness is tied directly to his moral shortcomings. The two are intertwined through tropes that portray queer people as destructive to society and morally depraved, beings of indulgence and lust who must be overcome and to whom justice must be meted out.

Is All This Homophobic?

But is Squid Game homophobic just for having a gay villain? Shouldn’t we have gay people in all different sorts of roles in media?

There are lots of bad people in Squid Game, obviously. I’ve seen people argue that everyone in Squid Game is a bad person, and I think that itself is a failure of the show’s attempted critique. Is Ali a bad person for demanding payment from his corrupt boss? Is Sae-byeok evil for being a traumatized political refugee? Sang-woo’s a piece of shit and Gi-Hun has some bad habits, but the majority of the characters are living under horrific situations and struggling to survive. To equivocate that to the horrific consumption and blase attitude toward death displayed by the VIPs is to miss the point of the narrative entirely.

Image of Sang-Woo, a middle-aged South Korean man with black hair, wearing a green jumpsuit with white rectangles on the shoulders and the number 218 on his chest
Seriously, screw this guy.

It’s the direct link of homosexuality to villainy — and specifically sexual assault — that makes this execution of the trope homophobic. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been that upset about Lion-Mask’s queerness if Jun-Ho had seduced him, perhaps utilizing some implied foreknowledge of American gay culture That, of course, would have potentially depicted Jun-Ho as gay, and the show really, really tied homosexuality and femininity to depravity and weakness. Jun-Ho (apparently) cannot be either of these things for his character arc to work, and so the show took a more homophobic path.

Of course, the show could definitely have benefitted from having a queer or two in the player line-up — as I said, the critique of capitalism isn’t really complete without depicting the marginalization of queerness in capitalist societies. That alone would have also helped to mitigate Lion-Mask’s impact, provided it was done decently well (though I don’t know that I would’ve trusted these writers to do it well, so grain of salt).

There are also cultural considerations here. Squid Game is a Korean show, and a lot of cultural context was lost in translation. I don’t know very much about the status of LGBTQIA+ individuals in Korea, or the specific struggles they face. Simply declaring Squid Game homophobic, then, is a bit fraught for someone outside that culture.

These tropes originated in Western cinema, though, and have pervaded the cinema of countless other countries. South Korea doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either.

So… IS Squid Game Homophobic?

I mean, yeah. 

It leans into homophobic tropes, demonizes queerness, and portrays its sole canon gay character as a rapist. So that’s, like, not great.

I’m not trying to “cancel” Squid Game.  It’s a fine show, even if it falls a bit short in its critiques and plays into some harmful tropes. Declaring Squid Game homophobic is not to say that the show should be avoided and reviled.

Rather, this is a fantastic learning opportunity. Watch the show, read the criticism, and understand what it could have done better and where it fell short. Now you can understand what not to do, and even try and figure out how you might have changed the narrative to be more nuanced and effective. By critically engaging with the show, you can improve your own writing!

That’s it for this week. I’ll be taking next week off for Thanksgiving, so until next time stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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