By Ayaan Ali
New York City, New York
Mass quarantine in the pandemic’s early stages shed light on the fact that people are more than just their work. As a result, anti-capitalist arguments began to appear more frequently in politics, news, social media activism, and simple day-to-day discussions. However, the root of these newfound sentiments goes beyond just the pandemic. In recent years, there has been a spark in the production of movies, music, fashion, and TV that have layered themes of socioeconomic inequality and class consciousness. This raises questions about the efficacy of this new artistic output in actually combatting the norms of capitalism in Western society. To answer these questions, we must analyze several case studies in the past two years.
The film Parasite, directed by Bong-Joon Ho, is a story about a destitute family infiltrating the home of a wealthy one by masquerading as highly qualified workers. The movie won Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature at the Oscars and became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In his award acceptance speech, Ho argued that U.S. audiences should make the effort to overcome a “1 inch barrier of subtitles” and expose themselves to a plethora of powerful foreign-language films like Parasite.
More recently, another Korean drama has made headlines in the United States: Squid Game. The show follows several characters, all ridden with enormous debt, while they play a series of children’s games and try to eliminate each other in order to win a monetary prize. The main caveat is that each player who gets eliminated is killed. The show is a staunch critique of the inequality crisis in South Korea and its social effects on the population. It garnered 111 million viewers within only two months of its release, a testament to its massive popularity.
In fashion, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earned both praise and harsh backlash for her dress at the 2021 Met Gala, which had the phrase ‘Tax The Rich’ embroidered on the fabric in deep red. A common critique was that her action was performative; the Congresswoman enjoyed mingling at a gala filled with some of America’s wealthiest people, while police were arresting Black Lives Matter protesters outside the event. The protestors outside argued that the very concept of the Met Gala is an excessive display of wealth and high-fashion. Pose star and Gala attendee Indya Moore, one of the few celebrities to actually acknowledge the protests, said on Instagram that “[w]e organize millions for a museum, on stolen land that black and brown people suffer on unless white supremacy thinks they are exceptional — but not for the people?” Despite the controversy, AOC still views the dress as a success. While on the red carpet, she stated, “while the Met is known for its spectacle, we should have a conversation about it.”
Though, which approach was more effective: the allegorical symbolism of the dress, films, and TV shows or the legitimate protest by the activists outside the Met Gala? If the intent was conversation, then it was certainly achieved. It’s important, however, to differentiate between real movements and commodified activism. The messages that AOC and Squid Game portray to their audiences essentially utilize the fruits of capitalism—mass media, high fashion, and consumerism—to combat the pitfalls of capitalism itself.
Consider the controversy surrounding The Activist, a show that was supposed to have six different activists compete with one another in order to gain international funding for their organizations. Production was met with fierce opposition. Many argued that the show was the epitome of commodification, and undermined the actual, critical work of the activists. The negative backlash galvanized the producers to turn the reality show into a TV documentary.
Critiques of capitalist ideology and mass wealth in film and TV, expose social inequities through underlying themes. Overtly, they are still forms of entertainment. It’s ironic that Squid Game was released on Netflix, a media giant that essentially monopolized the streaming industry until the rise of even more corporatized competitors like Disney+ and Hulu. The same goes for fashion. No matter how many dresses are plastered with messages, there will not be true reform until global fashion houses and fast fashion companies are held accountable for their contributions to dangerous overproduction, waste management, and environmental degradation. Media isn’t entirely useless in combating capitalism and oppression. In regards to systemic change, however, media and fashion functions as an additive factor. To push through meaningful change, one must vote, protest, and actively campaign their platform.