Some of the hottest shows and films today seem to share a common thread: a critique of capitalism. Squid Game, a show depicting the violence of capitalist competition through a series of life–or–death children’s games, was recently announced the most popular series launch on Netflix. The show follows the massive success of the 2019 film Parasite, a Korean thriller film examining poverty and class antagonism through the interconnecting stories of three families.
This class–focused genre of cinema has proven to be widely appealing, and not just with the general public. Despite their explicit critiques of capitalism and wealth inequality, Squid Game and Parasite have interestingly been lauded by the ultra–rich as well. Elon Musk called Parasite his favorite film of 2019, and in reference to Squid Game, Jeff Bezos recently mentioned that he “[couldn’t] wait to watch the show.” While it seems ironic for people like Musk and Bezos to enjoy Squid Game and Parasite given that they are precisely the individuals that the films seek to vilify, there may be underlying reasons behind why seemingly anti–capitalist films are popular with mass audiences, including the wealthy elite. Chi–Ming Yang, an Associate Professor of English at Penn, explores why this may be the case.
Yang first makes the distinction that “representations of class antagonisms are not necessarily anti–capitalist.” She posits that the popularity of these films to such broad spectrums within society point to the ways in which people enjoy watching the spectacle of wealth on screen. For the rich in particular, there is an appeal to seeing representations of themselves on a major platform, even if it is ultimately a critique of their status. “I [don’t] think ... films that deal with poverty [but] do not feature rich people or have beautiful production designs and luxurious spaces, would be as popular or as beloved by the elite," Yang says. Independent or lower–budget films that explore similar themes of wealth inequality, poverty, and class, for instance, may not have the same level of public appeal or recognition as films that are able to access more costly production budgets.
The ethical conditions behind the scenes of a film are also significant. “I love beautiful production design,” Yang says, “[but] you have to question how anti–capitalist any art form can be if it's such a costly endeavor," and relies on labor exploitation, high–level investments made by multinational corporations, or the millions of dollars that go into celebrity salaries. “There's just going to be a limit to how countercultural or how revolutionary any multi–million budget film can possibly be."
Others have argued that a universal understanding of class that transcends geographical boundaries, or even a fascination with seeing the plight and high–stakes misfortune of the poor, are some of the driving forces behind the genre's popularity. In a YouTube video essay titled Squid Game and the International Fascination with Class, Cheyenne Lin contends that there is a "shock factor" and element of interest in seeing "how terribly poor people around the world live", which leads to an unfortunate "exotification" of the subjects in these films, rather than an understanding.
For many popular movies and shows centered on capitalist critiques, there can be a tendency to individualize larger systems of oppression. Social problems are presented as conflicts between individual characters or groups, rather than direct consequences of capitalist systems and institutions, making it easier for audiences to lose themselves in fictitious narratives or the story of a hapless protagonist. While Yang doesn’t believe films need to depict masses of people in order to have a strong anti–capitalist message, they acknowledge that they find the scenes depicting systemic issues or collective struggle to be the most unsettling, and the most effective. Yang mentions the use of intercutting scenes of Occupy protests from Oakland in Sorry to Bother You, or the explicit commentary on factory farming as a cornerstone of global capitalism in Bong Joon Ho’s Okja, as particularly powerful examples.
This is not to say elements of violence and spectacle don’t have a place in film. In fact, they can be used to point out the dire realities of our current moment, whether it be the devastating consequences of the climate crisis, the growing rates of wealth inequality and houselessness, or the mass evictions taking place across the country. As much as popular films with capitalist critiques are an important starting point for discussion and awareness—particularly for the social problems that they seek to represent and of the violence that occurs under capitalism—we must be wary of their potential pacifying effects that detract from the importance of dissent, collective action, and mobilization.