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What the Heck Is Going On Inside That ‘Squid Game’ Reality Show?

'These people were willing to die'

Squid Game: The Challenge

The other night, I watched Squid Game: The Challenge back-to-back with Squid Game. It was a strange, unnerving experience, to the say the least. Netflix’s reality TV competition series feels like a love letter no one asked for, a joyful and passionate recreation of the very thing Hwang Dong-hyuk’s series looked to critique.

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Hundreds of contestants face off against one another in The Challenge to land $4.56 million, and the first episode alone features plenty of contestants who clearly need the money very badly. You know, not unlike Squid Game. The only difference is that The Challenge doesn’t kill its players—it simply puts them through a series of intense childhood games, all part of a battle royale competition for a life-changing sum of money.

I had plenty of questions about The Challenge after I watched it. Like, “why?” and “who is this for?” But now I have even more questions, particularly after I learned the show’s crew didn’t foresee the need for a simple, basic skincare item on set: lip balm.

What is the Squid Game: The Challenge condom controversy?

As reported by Entertainment Weekly, The Challenge’s players weren’t initially given proper lip moisturizer during their stay in the game’s enormous shared living quarters. Players quickly became desperate, looking for all possible solutions to keep their lips from getting chapped on the show’s set.

That’s when many players came up with a fantastic idea. Condoms come lubricated, right? Why not try putting condom lube on your lips?!

“There was lotion, there was conditioner, and those were the first two tries,” Trey (also known as Player 301) told EW. “And after I tried those and they weren’t working, I was like, ‘Well, that’s all of our options, because obviously we’re not going to use the condoms.’ And within a day, maybe a day and a half, all the condoms were gone. It was absurd. And it still didn’t work!”

Don’t worry. Eventually, players received chapstick from the show, assuring they were finally able to keep their lips from going dry without resorting to drastic measures. Trey, however, figured that using lubrication from a condom was “so stupid” from the start, and he refused to try doing so despite his fellow competitors’ attempts.

“When people tried it and they kept trying it and it didn’t work, and I was like, ‘Obviously!’ So yeah, that’s 100 percent true,” Trey said to EW.

‘These people were willing to die’

Red light green light aerial view Squid Game: The Challenge

This isn’t the first time Squid Game: The Challenge has come under scrutiny for its conditions on the set. Early this year, anonymous players criticized the show’s initial “Red Light, Green Light” shoot in the press. Rolling Stone spoke to four players about their experiences on The Challenge, with one calling the game “the cruelest, meanest thing I’ve ever been through.”

According to that report, players were forced to spend “up to nine hours inside a freezing airport hangar” while engaging in the first episode’s “Red Light, Green Light” game, which led to nearly a dozen people collapsing mid-shoot. Contestants felt the game was purposefully fixed to assure influencers advanced to the next stage.

Given the rigorous conditions involved with stopping and freezing on set for significant portions of time, players who spoke to Rolling Stone also said they faced medial issues and injuries from the first day’s shoot. These reportedly ranged from pneumonia to a herniated disc.

“I noticed a lot of people with the idea that they are going to change their family’s lives. These people were willing to die,” one anonymous player said. “Somebody says, ‘I’m going home with this, I don’t care what it takes.’ I think the producers wanted that. They wanted people to not think about their health, to not care about their safety.”

Executive producer John Hay admitted that the “Red Light, Green Light” shoot was “quite cold,” although he said there was only “a very small number of people who were treated for medical issues,” per EW. He also claimed that certain accounts “given anonymously by those who were eliminated were not accurate.”

Still, one must wonder what the hell went on inside the Squid Game: The Challenge dormitory. From the start, The Challenge seemed to miss the entire point of Squid Game, and that lack of awareness has seemingly recreated many of the tensions depicted in Squid Game.

Art imitates life. And in this case, life seems to have imitated art a little too closely for comfort.

(featured image: Netflix)

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Ana Valens
Ana Valens (she/her) is a reporter specializing in queer internet culture, online censorship, and sex workers' rights. Her book "Tumblr Porn" details the rise and fall of Tumblr's LGBTQ-friendly 18+ world, and has been hailed by Autostraddle as "a special little love letter" to queer Tumblr's early history. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her ever-growing tarot collection.

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