Why the "Dark Side of K-pop" Suicide Trope Is Harmful
In this op-ed, writer Aamina Khan explains why the conversation around suicide and mental health in the K-pop industry deserves more nuance and complexity than the reductive “dark side of K-pop” trope.
(Content warning: this article contains discussion of suicide and sexual misconduct.)
Last month The Los Angeles Times published a piece examining the recent deaths of K-pop idols Goo Hara and Sulli. Former f(x) member Sulli, whose birth name is Choi Jin-ri, died by suicide at age 25 in October. Six weeks later, former Kara member and soloist Goo Hara did as well; she was 28.
A common response among media and fans is to frame these incidents as problems exclusive to K-pop, with publications labeling the events as part of the “dark side of K-pop.” Many fans within the community will agree that the industry often fails artists; generally speaking, entertainment companies could do more to protect and advocate for the well-being and success of the idols they manage.
But here’s the thing: suicide is complicated.
It’s true that Goo Hara and Choi Jin-ri were both K-pop idols, and it’s true that female idols in particular are victims of intense scrutiny and misogyny from the public. But like almost anyone, their circumstances were complicated. Both women experienced their fair share of things like harassment and scrutiny, but there’s never one reason for suicide. By trying to look for one, we run the risk of reducing the complex factors of their suffering to our limited understanding of these individuals and their experiences. To link the suicides of celebrities solely to their K-pop careers is strange at best. But more than strange, it’s insulting to the circumstances of their private lives.
Suicide contagion, the idea that exposure to death by suicide can increase suicidal behavior in others, is a real thing, and of course any possible link tied to the K-pop industry deserves to be investigated. However, the leading conversation surrounding suicide needs to combat that contagion and prevent it from spreading.
Language suggesting a mystifying “dark side” to an already misunderstood industry arguably promotes the problem. Simplifying a conversation as complicated as suicide and mental illness may be an attempt to place blame for these deaths, but the truth is that there is no one thing or person to blame for suicide. Rhetoric like this does little to actually help those affected.
In many parts of the world, mental health is still a taboo subject, and although that is slowly starting to shift, South Korea still has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, the fourth-highest in 2019, according to the World Health Organization. As the statistics around suicide reveal, this conversation goes far beyond Korea’s entertainment industry, and it would be unjust not to address the larger sociocultural factors at play. \
A more productive alternative would be to talk about this cultural taboo. Not discussing it may prevent people from seeking treatment and support, and it may contribute to the stigma and compounding social pressures that make mental health resources feel out of reach to some.
The “dark side of K-pop” is a narrative that reflects people’s tendency to attempt to connect the dots, but using sensational headlines to try to make sense of suicide is, ultimately, counterproductive.
As important as it is that attitudes toward mental health increasingly embrace conversation and openness, both within the K-pop industry and society at large, it’s also important to reflect on areas we need to improve. Just talking about suicide is not enough — how we do it is critical.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue