Squid Game and the West’s Subtitle Phobia

Mia looks at the success of Squid Game in the West and how it has opened up audiences to foreign media.

It has been one year since the Netflix sensation Squid Game came out on the streaming platform. The Korean drama had the west in its grip as it received rave reviews, flooded social media and became Netflix’s most watched series to date. It’s impact on Western media continues as just last week, Squid Game made history at the 74th annual Emmy Awards. The esteemed television awards gifted the series with two of its major prizes: outstanding lead actor in a drama series for Lee Jung-jae, the first Asian actor to win this award, and outstanding directing in a drama series for Hwang Dong-hyuk, the first non-English drama to receive this award. Hwang, in his acceptance speech, brought up the topic that this article aims to discuss:

            ‘I truly hope that Squid Game won’t be the last non-English series to be here at the Emmys’

Lee Jung-jae and Hwang Dong-hyuk at the 74th Emmys (Source: NME.com)

The glory of Squid Game at the awards calls back to Parasite’s success in 2019 at the Academy Awards. So why did it take it so long for non-Western media to cause such a stir? While there are numerous reasons ranging from cultural barriers to ideological differences this article wishes to focus on a more simpler cause – a resistance from English-speaking audiences to read subtitles on a foreign film or television show.

Some viewers feel as if subtitles removes them from the experience – that they may be too fast or distracting. Others claim that it removes the comedic timing or that tense scenes lose their surprise factor. People may simply be feeling lazy and watch TV with the aim of relaxing; reading subtitles then becomes a task for them.  A ‘solution’ to this problem comes in the form of English voice dub over the original audio. In my view, an off-sync dub in an American accent over a Korean actor is even more off-putting and distracting than subtitles.

Lately, the trends have been are shifting. A 2019 study from Netflix shows the use of subtitles is becoming more mainstream with over 80% of members using subtitles at least once a month with users claiming it is to help them ‘learn new languages’ (Source: TheWeek). European shows like Money Heist, Elite and Lupin surely played a significant part in this statistic. However thanks to shows like Squid Game, Western audiences now seem to be opening up to television from the East. An area that was previously neglected by Western critics. Netflix has perhaps played the biggest part in that; releasing the Japanese sci-fi Alice in Borderland and the Thai thriller Girl From Nowhere – both of which topped international streaming charts. Korean television has perhaps faired the best of all with Netflix produced dramas consistently topping the charts since Squid Game’s release: All of Us are Dead, Business Proposal and Extraordinary Attorney Woo. So clearly the trend is there so it looks like Hwang’s wish for more critical recognition of non-English series may be coming true sooner rather than later.


                                            Alice in Borderland (Source: medium.com)

Ultimately Western audiences shouldn’t close themselves off to a whole world of media simply because they view reading subtitles as an obstacle. It could allow us to open up ourselves to brand new perspectives on cultures that we previously knew little about. Thankfully, the tide seems to be going in that direction.



58 thoughts on “Squid Game and the West’s Subtitle Phobia

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