Why 2021 was the year pop culture finally overcame the subtitle barrier

Parasite (Curzon)

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” Parasite director Bong Joon-ho famously told the audience at his Golden Globes acceptance speech in 2020, “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films".

When Joon-ho’s bruise-black anti-capitalist satire went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was a landmark moment in Oscar history. No other foreign-language movie had ever scooped the top prize, and it was a moment so seismic, even Donald Trump waded in, even if it was to cry, with typical xenophobic zeal, “What the hell was that all about?!”

Just 21 months on from that triumph, the idea of a film from South Korea becoming one of the biggest cultural talking points of the year, doesn’t seem nearly so absurd. Squid Game (South Korea), Money Heist (Spain), Lupin (France) and Who Killed Sara? (Mexico) are now among Netflix’s most popular TV shows. For the streamer’s German-language SF thriller Dark, more than 50% of its audience is international.

But that’s not necessarily the most interesting point. Netflix’s default with foreign-language programming is to stream them dubbed, which means watching whatever show it is with comically inappropriate American accents that never quite match the characters’ lip movements.

Read more: The best TV of 2021

To view it in its original language you have to click right to find the English subtitles. Or, if you want the full audio description, offering pop-up text like ‘ominous music plays’ or ‘laughs heartily’, there’s the closed caption option.

A still from the hit Netflix show Squid Game (Netflix)
A still from the hit Netflix show Squid Game. (Netflix)

What’s remarkable now is that Generation Z-ers are almost four times more likely than those aged between 56 and 75 to plump for subtitles over dubbing, despite those in the older bracket being twice as likely to be deaf or hard of hearing.

A study by captioning charity Stagetext found that four out of five viewers aged 18-25 said they use subtitles. "I think there's far more acceptance of subtitles by young people because it's the norm,” said Stagetext's chief executive Melanie Sharpe, “whereas with an older age group, it isn't necessarily the norm."

“Young people,” she went on, “can take in far more information quickly because they're used to it."

Many point to TikTok and Instagram, which regularly marries images with text, to explain younger people’s ease with subtitles. Others suggest that, by choosing the subtitle option, viewers that are prone to distraction can better anchor themselves to the show they’re watching.

The Spanish crime drama wraps up its story. (Netflix)
Spanish crime drama Money Heist wraps up its story. (Netflix)

Not that subtitling is always the preferred option for programme-makers. There was much hoo-ha recently over the subtitling of Squid Game. One of Netflix’s most watched shows (it took the number one spot in 90 countries within 10 days of its release), the streamer soon came under fire for supposedly mistranslating much of its dialogue.

Youngmi Mayer, the Korean-American co-host of the Feeling Asian podcast, went viral back in October with a tweet highlighting the disparities between the original Korean and its English subtitles.

Read more: Parasite breaks UK box office record

“Not to sound snobby,” she wrote, “but I’m fluent in Korean and I watched Squid Game with English subtitles and if you don’t understand Korean, you didn’t really watch the same show. Translation was so bad. The dialogue was written so well and zero of it was preserved.”

Questioned about the quality of its subtitling earlier this month, a Netflix spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter, “Generally, we think our subtitles and dubbing are good but not yet great. So we’re constantly working to improve them.”

Watch: YouTuber recreates Squid Game for real

But this isn’t just about those words – accurate or not – at the bottom of the screen. The sky-scraping success of Squid Game, Call My Agent!, Money Heist et al suggest that audiences are hungry for something that isn’t cookie cutter Hollywood fare, something that provides a window to another culture. Steven Spielberg recently won praise from Latinx audiences for **not** subtitling the Spanish-language scenes in his latest West Side Story remake.

“Viewing audiences as culturally nuanced,” tweeted ABC news reporter Kiara Alfonseca, “makes your stories more authentic.”

Our increasing openness to shows from other cultures can only be a healthy thing. It used to be that if a foreign-language programme was a smash in its native country it was – like the ​Israeli series Prisoners Of War or the Colombian Yo soy Betty, la fea – remade in English (Homeland and Ugly Betty, in case you’re wondering).

A still from the hit Netflix show Squid Game (Netflix)
A still from the hit Netflix show Squid Game (Netflix)

With the streaming services now providing a global platform for shows made overseas that’s becoming rarer and rarer. Significantly, with a survey suggesting that one in four Americans have watched Squid Game, there’s no talk of it being given an English-language makeover.

Nearly two years on from Bong Joon-ho’s heartfelt plea for audiences to conquer that “one-inch-tall barrier”, it seems we’re finally taking notice and venturing outside of our cultural comfort zones.

Watch a trailer for West Side Story