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Under the Magnifying Glass

Squid Game, The Activist, #FreeBritney, and the illusion of choice

Issue 2: 12.19.2021

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Introduction from our Head of Content, Emily Chen:

Welcome to our second-ever issue of Under the Magnifying Glass, our newsletter series that takes a closer look at our Understanding topics through pop culture analysis.

This particular piece reflects on the idea of agency—or lack thereof—as demonstrated through the hit Netflix show Squid Game, the canceled reality show The Activist, and the #FreeBritney movement. Our goal is to highlight how much capitalist structures have normalized a certain inability to influence decisions that deeply impact our futures.

Writing this newsletter has been both a joy and a challenge. It has given me a space to thoughtfully critique how the news cycle and media narratives shape our perspectives in real-time, and I'm excited to continue drawing from the latest pop culture events (of which I now really keep up with!) to explore its deeper roots in our society.

I'm always eager to hear about what topics you'd like us to explore in future issues, so please direct any and all ideas and feedback to me over at emily@studioatao.org. Also, look out for upcoming Group Huddles, our small-group learning series that complement these newsletters, starting back up in 2022!

What is the throughline between Squid Game, The Activist, and #FreeBritney?

Squid Game took the world by storm this fall, when it became Netflix’s most watched series of all time. If you haven’t already binged it (warning: spoilers ahead), the series follows a group of cash-strapped contestants as they compete in life-or-death versions of children’s games for a chance to win ~$40 million USD. While the show is fictional, its haunting depiction of how capitalism has stripped so many of their ability to influence the outcome of their lives—so much so, they are willing to sacrifice their lives in an attempt to gain some semblance of autonomy within the system—is not altogether detached from our own reality.

Once contestants willingly re-entered the games, they are required to accept the rules and conditions in order to compete for the final cash prize. At no point are they allowed to question how, or why, the rules were designed as they were—in fact, contestants caught “cheating” are publicly hanged as a warning. As the stakes increase over the course of 9 episodes, we witness the contestants becoming more comfortable—and even rationalizing—the logic behind the games orchestrated by wealthy funders. A major turning point comes when the contestants themselves begin taking each other out during non-play periods. While this may seem like an independent decision, in reality this illusion of choice still plays into predetermined outcomes designed to benefit and entertain the wealthy. (In this case, the masked VIPs betting on the winner of the bloodshed.)

Squid Game’s shocking, morbid pretense corralled public attention to the ways capitalism slowly strips away our influence over decisions that affect our futures. This indoctrination starts young: our public education system is built upon students relinquishing their control over the very curriculum that shapes their perspective on everything from racism and colonialism, to mental health and addiction. Unsurprisingly, this has led to severely inaccurate retellings of American history, often from a privileged group of authors, using softened or scrubbed language around historical realities such as Indigenous genocide or slavery. In fact, even class textbooks are predetermined through a highly political process far removed from students’ needs or wants.

While educators, school systems, and even politicians may be villainized for the lack of progress in our school systems, capitalism drives the power dynamics that have the final say in these decisions. The commoditization of education is especially prevalent at for-profit charter schools run by private corporations, where student education is treated as a business investment. Even within the public education system, measures of success like standardized tests are shown to be deeply inequitable, but remain in place due to immense lobbying from for-profit companies such as McGraw-Hill and Pearson.

While decidedly not the intent, another TV show, The Activist, also threw the absence of participatory decision-making into great relief when it was announced. The reality TV show was intended to be a competition pitting six activist contestants against one another in activism-related contests, culminating in an attempt to fundraise at G20 from world leaders. Within this framing, social justice work became entertainment to be judged by subjective means like social media metrics, popular engagement, and the feelings of celebrity judges such as Usher and Priyanka Chopra.

The Activist faced such intense backlash it eventually pivoted to a documentary, but the actually uncanny part of its premise was not that the show was divorced from reality—but extremely close to it. Real-world activists and nonprofits reliant on money from philanthropists, foundations, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams are regularly subjected to arbitrary requirements to “prove” their cause is worthy of an annual gift. (The irony of this newsletter coming out during the height of fundraising season, while we are also fundraising, is not lost on us.) As a result, the goals of nonprofits often become misdirected by funders far removed from the root problem.

As Paul Vallely writes in The Guardian, “Philanthropy is always an expression of power.” Despite the positive impact major philanthropic ventures like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have had, these organizations “can become fixed on addressing a problem which is not seen as a priority by local people…[for example, their work on] education philanthropy in the US where [Bill Gates’] fixation on class size diverted public spending away from the actual priorities of the local community.” This reliance on the whims of the wealthy once again removes autonomy from those supposedly being served by nonprofits.

As professor & activist Dean Spade summarizes in his book Mutual Aid,

“Rich people’s control of nonprofit funding keeps nonprofits from doing work that is threatening to the status quo.”

Time and time again, the case for removing someone’s agency rests on an argument for paternalism. That is, a justification “on the grounds that the person affected would be better off, or would be less harmed, as a result of the rule, policy, [action], etc.” (Stanford) One salient reminder of how deeply paternalism is embedded in our society is the #FreeBritney movement, which gained enormous traction this past year. This was in part due to the Netflix show Britney Vs. Spears, which followed Britney Spears’ fight for liberation from her 13-year-long conservatorship. While Britney’s story is one with a happy ending, it reveals how our everyday acceptance of having agency taken away from us manifests even under the most extreme situations. As Britney—who is one of the most successful pop stars of all time—admitted publicly, “I honestly didn’t know that [I could petition the conservatorship to be ended].”

Beyond Britney, there are still 1.3 million people in a conservatorship or court-appointed guardianship at any given time in the U.S. While conservatorships are meant to be used when an individual can no longer care for or manage their affairs themselves, that is not the case for many, including the elderly, disabled, and previously incarcerated individuals whose conservators may seek financial exploitation.

The question remains:

How can we regularly and consistently question the ease with which the law strips various people of their rights?

Many of the rules governing our daily lives are arbitrary and heavily influenced by those with power (e.g., mandatory minimum differences between crack versus powder cocaine due to racial demographics), how can we more closely examine who currently has (versus should have) authority over the far-reaching decisions that affect our agency?

We can all recognize that capitalism has concentrated this power in the form of money. With the ever-widening chasm of income disparity, it’s unsurprising that many of us are feeling further and further away from obtaining real control over the outcomes that affect us. Perhaps that, in addition to rampant voter suppression, is why voter turnout remains low year over year in local elections (although those often have a very immediate impact on our daily lives) and many candidates face little-to-no competition in some congressional races. The resounding exhaustion and lack of motivation indicates the system is working precisely as designed: to minimize and undermine the determination of the masses to work towards radical change.

The weight of the status quo is heavy, but we maintain that change is possible. Currently, participatory decision-making structures, like worker-owned co-ops, remain fairly rare and are often regarded with certain skepticism. But that doesn’t need to be the case: Rather than accept our increasing powerlessness in a capitalist society, we can learn to encourage, incite, and demand inclusion in situations where choices are being made for us, instead of with us. Co-creation needs to be our new baseline for an equitable future: We know the narrative of the singular genius is inaccurate and no longer serves us, so together, we can work towards a world where each person has a say in the decisions and outcomes that impact them.

Let that start today: whether it is implementing consensus-based decision-making at your organization, or teaching your children to regularly question authority, our small actions can work towards normalizing active participation in everyday life.


What's Next?

If you're interested in reading more about socioeconomic structures like capitalism, check out our latest Understanding... piece Socialism in the U.S. for a more thorough examination of socialism and capitalism as economic systems, including major critiques of capitalism. We'll also be hosting a variety of community events in the new year to collectively unpack these complex topics.

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