Squid Game:  The ‘Bread and Circuses’ of Today

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2021/11/07/squid-game-the-bread-and-circuses-of-today/

I talked to one of me teens recently about the Roman concept of “bread and circuses,” things leaders used to comfort and distract the masses.

Bread came in the form of free wheat for Roman citizens, and circuses came in the form of the Colosseum in Rome and other “circus” structures like it.

The Romans just wanted to be fat and happy, you see, and so long as they were … they didn’t pay much attention to things happening in society, or kick up much fuss over the quality of their leadership. “Two things only the people anxiously desire — bread and circuses,” wrote Juvenal, second century poet and satirist.

This observation transcends time and place, and it’s the reason why the term “bread and circuses” is still around today. We humans like our comforts and amusements. We’re inclined to go after temporary pleasures instead of concerning ourselves with things that create lasting happiness.

In today’s world, the temporary pleasures come to us mostly through our screens.

The “bread and circuses” concept came to mind when I learned about the new hit Netflix show out of South Korea, Squid Game. This fictional “survival drama” show places desperate, debt-ridden people into increasingly deadly games in which a few eventual winners claim heaps of money; all losers are killed.

The message is ostensibly about debt, capitalism, and where desperation can lead us. The bigger issue is the incredible violence and bloodthirst of the show, new (in scale and popularity) for our era. Its creators intentionally twist and corrupt symbols of innocence, best seen in the children’s games the contestants “play” — like a version of Red Light, Green Light where anyone who moves when the music stops is shot.

It’s our culture’s current version of the kind of competition-driven bloodlust in Rome’s gladiatorial competitions. They were the ultimate form of “entertainment” for the masses, because the fights (with man or beast) were to the death … and interest is maximized when life is on the line. The knowledge that someone would die in the ring added a psychological element, heightening people’s curiosity and pricking their capacity for sadism. They couldn’t look away. Where human life is not valued, acceptance of pain and death increases, to the point where death can be seen as sport.

The rise of and enthusiasm for Squid Game shows us that our culture is reaching a Roman-Colosseum-level of “circuses.” Consider Forbes’s review of the show:  “Squid Game is not one of those shows that you necessarily enjoy, though it can be quite funny at times. It’s a show you can’t really look away from — its violence so engrossing and terrible, its characters so clearly desperate … in the games where they fight for their lives.” And usually lose.

But, we moderns say, this form of death-sport “isn’t real.” We’re watching something fictional happen through a screen. And they’re just actors, after all, no one is actually dying.

This matters not at all … and adopting that faulty logic is our undoing. The ancients knew that vice and virtue occur in the human heart; our hands and feet are simply the tools that enact a reality that’s already under way, in the unseen realm. The best among the ancients was the one who said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” What we look at shapes us. What we ponder molds us. Where we cultivate an appetite for violence and depravity, we open our internal door to those things — and unleash a craving for more. Where sadism grows in our heart, there it exists in us — whether we act on it or not. Stealing life and seeding darkness.

“Circus,” sure – everyone loves the tightrope. But “circus” in a screen-driven world that prizes adrenaline, shock value, and the next flash in the pan? Beware. Put down the cell phone. Lay off the Netflix clicker. We’ve left Bozo the clown and are heading down a road that leads us someplace we do not want to go — if we value human flourishing and care about our souls.


Susan Arico is a Connecticut-based screen coach and writer who focuses on how phone use affects our souls. She has written the guide Reset: 21 Days to a New Relationship with Your Phone. You can follow her on Instagram at @susanbarico and find her work at www.susanbarico.com.


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