What would you do for money? Does it depend on the amount involved? Would you do more for one hundred grand or a million than for ten grand? Or does it depend on how much you need the money? In other words: what are your limits?
More and more series and shows are released in which people seek or cross their limits to win money. Netflix’s hit series Squid Game immediately comes to mind. But similar shows are made in the Netherlands. The Dance Marathon, which was aired a few weeks ago, for example. Participating couples danced for 50 hours straight with only two hours of rest, which resulted in numerous injuries. The couple who remained on their feet till the end won the grand prize of 100,000 euros. Another example from the Netherlands is the new format 4 is te veel (four is too many), in which (ex) students compete for prize money to pay off their student loans.
People competing for money may make for a nice evening of chilling on the couch, I consider it a subtle form of exploitation.
All these game shows prey on the participants’ hope – but particularly desperation – of winning the cash prize. The hope of, in the case of the Dance Marathon, opening a dance academy, visiting family in Colombia or taking acting classes. But also, the desperation when someone is physically and mentally unable to continue but feels the show is their only chance of achieving their dreams.
A game show becomes even more suspect when its participants feel that winning the show is their only way to avert their worst nightmare. This is made clear in Squid Game, where participants pay for mistakes with their lives and still choose to compete. Their debts are so high they feel their lives are all but over anyway if they were to return home without the money. A similar but less intense effect will be shown in 4 is teveel, where participants struggle with (sometimes crushing) debt and its consequences.
Of course, Squid Game is a work of fiction and 4 is te veel is nowhere near as extreme, but a shift is taking place. A few years ago, a similar programme wouldn’t even be developed. Student debt was not nearly as high, and students were not all that worried about its impact. The question is, who would have resorted to being exploited on television to pay off their debt. Probably no-one. The social climate has changed, and student debts are higher and more problematic, so there are more potential candidates.
Squid Game, Dance marathon, 4 is te veel – shows such as these answer the question of how far people (and fictional characters) would go to achieve their dreams or avert their nightmares. But, do the viewers want to know? Is it morally just? I don’t think so!
Emma Mouthaan (26) is a master’s student of Molecular Nutrition and Toxicology and is also taking a master in Writing at the VU. Emma blogs on studying and finances on the website The Stingy Student. Previously, she wrote about fashion and food.