Our culture is made up of the stories we tell. What do our 2020 stories say about us?
I’ve recently been engaged in debates about fiction versus non-fiction and have been firmly on the side of fiction being a useful tool to expand our understanding of the world, to inspire empathy and to learn by seeing the world how others see it. Squid Game has changed that.
Squid Game is the most-watched series in the history of Netflix, by far. It blows the shockingly violent Game of Thrones out of the water (and with that trajectory: where to next?) In the first month of release, 142 million households watched people being killed for entertainment, and by that I mean in the show people are murdered as part of an entertaining game, and in real life people watch this for entertainment. You can slap whatever gloss on this show you like: it’s gripping, it’s well-constructed, it’s social commentary. You’re still watching a fictionalised snuff movie.
Violence for entertainment has always riled me. If there is brutality in a story, I look for the point; what is the author trying to do to me and why? What do they hope to gain? Do they want to draw attention to a little known event in history that we might look at in another way, something that gives insight to modern events? Bring it on. Offer an insider view to the underbelly of society that is real and damaging? Sure, open my eyes to the world. Once is good. Do they want to get me invested in the story so I will go on to the next and the next and buy products in the advertising slots? Is the writing shit but the shock of violence newsworthy, and in being newsworthy does that nudge the culture in some way—normalising something that should not be normal?
With great writers, a huge budget and special effects, a story can manipulate anyone. Cry here. Laugh here. Feel revulsion here, terror there. We are being expertly played for reaction and sometimes we like that. Not long ago the music of Jaws was enough to get that adrenalin rush we craved, but we’ve moved on. Like many other accepted cultural experiences, we just keep winding the shocking intensity up.
How many guns have you seen in the media? How many episodes of brutality, how many smashed cars, torture scenes, rapes? These are not a reflection of the real world, they are crafted stories. But that stuff’s all normal for screen and has become accepted popular culture and I’m the voice on the side banging on about the harm it does to accept this. It’s barbaric entertainment. As blatant as a Roman circus.
Back to stories and the discussions about why we tell them and the power they hold. At a recent conference of the NZ Historical Association, there was plenty of debate on this in the colonial context. Do our historical stories reflect historic truth? Who curates and archives the material from which we build stories, whose stories are kept? It’s the stories of the powerful, of course, with the agenda of justifying and maintaining their position and it’s small wonder that stories of the marginalised are mere footnotes in history, existing peripherally to the dominant narrative.
As a fiction writer, my job is to take half-baked stories and try to find a kernel of truth in them, and imagine the bits that aren’t told. In an NZHA lecture by Australian Anna Clarke she spoke of the loss of stories of Aboriginal people and of women, and she quoted Greg Dening: “Imagination is seeing the absent things because we have seen so much else.” This is permission for a storyteller to extrapolate a story out what they know and, hopefully, make it meaningful.
But Squid Game has become the dominant narrative of the times and it does not reflect our stories, our values, or do anything whatsoever to harness the power of story to help us understand who we are as people. So who is saturating our screens with this addictive culture, and who stands to gain? It’s the usual answer: just follow the money, people.
What will our mokopuna think when we tell them about popular culture in the 2020s? What damage is this psychopathic horror doing to people already damaged by lock down?
Whose bloody idea of entertainment is this?