CULTURE

"Suicide Contagion" in K-Pop Highlights Korean Culture's Destructive Flaws

We need to change the narrative surrounding suicide.

James Jean Illustration

The 18th-century writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, "Live dangerously, and you live right."

He also wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel about a man who commits suicide after being rejected by the woman he loves. Afterward the public began noticing what was dubbed the "Werther fever": young men began emulating the character, creating a spike in suicide rates. Nowadays, we still observe the "Werther Effect," also known as suicide contagion. When a prominent figure in a community, such as a high-profile celebrity, dies by their own hand, sometimes it sets off a bizarre "cluster" of suicides. While the causes of suicide are complexly layered and diverse–though commonly attributed to mental illness, trauma, and societal pressures–the modern age of social media (dis)connection, celebrity, and Internet trolls means that mental health experts are noting concerning correlations between celebrity suicides and increased suicide rates, particularly within the insular, high-pressure world of K-pop.

werther effect Werther illustration

"Suicide contagion is real, which is why I'm concerned about it," said Madelyn Gould, a professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University. The phenomenon accounts for people reacting to news of suicide with suicidal behaviors or persuading others to attempt suicide. The recent deaths of Korean celebrities Sulli, 25, and Goo Hara, 28, as well as actor Cha In-ha, 27, could count as a "suicide cluster." (To be clear, the exact cause of Cha's unexpected death has yet to be released, but "suicide is strongly suspected"). Before them were Kim Jong-hyun, 27, Lee Eun Joo, 24, and Lee Hye Ryeon, 25, and other actresses and pop stars. When multiple suicides occur within the same three-month period in the same location, it's considered a cluster. At this point, it's well-known that the intensive, competitive world of K-pop (and the entertainment industry, at large) has damaging effects on mental health, self-image, and personal relationships. Young children are recruited for their talent and subjected to arduous training, pushed to meet unrealistic (and unhealthy) expectations and rigid schedules, in addition to being subject to callous public scrutiny online.

Added to that is the conservative culture of Korea, where suicide rates continue to rank among the highest of all developed nations. Strong stigma and taboo against mental illness persist in Korea. "The blame lies with South Korean society in general," said Ryu Sang-ho, a neurologist at Haedong hospital in Busan. "Many people with mental health issues are reluctant to take medication for fear of being seen as weak-minded. Mental health problems should be treated in the same way as a common cold. South Korean society needs to catch up."

Additionally, strong patriarchal values still set back Korea's gender equality. In 2018, South Korea was found to have "one of the thickest glass ceilings in the world" in regards to gender discrimination. Korea ranked 30th out of 36 nations evaluated by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the World Economic Forum ranked Korea 115th out of 149, illuminating its gender gap in terms of wage equality and earned income. Ryu added, "South Korean society is holding on to the idea that men must be respected and women are not deserving of respect, or at least not much. The media feed off that, so it's no surprise that the public don't have any sense of empathy towards these women."

So K-pop idols are caught in a terrible nexus of patriarchy, capitalism, regressive stigmas, and the dehumanizing disconnection of media, as K-pop's global takeover is largely attributed to streaming culture and the international reach of YouTube. But with such immense online popularity comes publicity problems. Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, points out that news of an idol's suicide can particularly influence the public because "it's different from any other cause of death. When someone dies of cancer or heart disease or AIDS, you don't have to worry about messaging it wrong."

Indeed, The New York Times notes in "The Science Behind Suicide Contagion" that "publicity surrounding a suicide has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among young people. Analysis suggests that at least 5 percent of youth suicides are influenced by contagion." One study looked at the public's suicide rates following 98 celebrity suicides and noted a slight but consistent increase in the immediate months afterwards. In particular, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that suicide contagion may increase due to: media coverage involving graphic details or images of grieving loved ones, repetitive reporting of the suicide, explicit description of the method of suicide, and dramatized–or even romanticized–accounts of the death as a form of escape from societal pressures or personal struggles.

Unless we as a global society can fix the plagues of online trolls, tabloid exploitation, and the money-grubbing capitalist machines known as record labels, our only recourse is to change the narrative surrounding suicide. Researchers urge the public and the press to focus on prevention resources and mental health services, such as The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the free, 24-hour service providing support, information, and access to other resources to people experiencing suicidal ideation or anyone who thinks they know someone experiencing suicidal thoughts. While we're grappling with the Werther Effect worse than ever before, we should also remember that Goethe wrote, "Correction does much, but encouragement does more." We need to–and we can–shed the pitfalls of Korean culture, with its glittery, high-tech veneer of perfection, with self-destructive habits at its core.

CULTURE

Nazi-Chic: The Aesthetics of Fascism

Let's take a look at Nazi-inspired fashion.

Villains always have the best outfits.

From Darth Vader's polished black space armor to The Joker's snazzy purple suit, bad guys always seem to show up their protagonists in the fashion department.

Way more handsome than Batman. static.giantbomb.com

But could there possibly be a real world equivalent to the type of over-the-top villain fashion often found in fiction? It would have to be sleek and imposing, austere and dangerous. Probably black.

Maybe it's him. Maybe it's fascist ideology.

Oh, right.

Let's call a spade a spade. From an aesthetic standpoint, the Nazi SS outfit is very well-designed. The long coat tied around the waist with a buckle portrays a slim, sturdy visage. The leather boots and matching cap look harsh and powerful. The emblem placements on the lapel naturally suggest rank and authority. And the red armband lends a splash of color to what would otherwise be a dark monotone. If the Nazi uniform wasn't so closely tied with the atrocities they committed during WWII, it wouldn't seem out of place at Fashion Week. Perhaps not too surprising, considering many of the uniforms were made by Hugo Boss.

Pictured: A real thing Hugo Boss did. i.imgur.com

Of course, today, Nazi uniform aesthetics are inseparable from the human suffering doled out by their wearers. In most circles of civilized society, that's more than enough reason to avoid the garb in any and all fashion choices. But for some, that taboo isn't a hindrance at all–if anything, it's an added benefit.

As a result, we have Nazi chic, a fashion trend centered around the SS uniform and related Nazi imagery.

History of Nazi Chic

For the most part, Nazi chic is not characterized by Nazi sympathy. Rather, Nazi chic tends to be associated with counterculture movements that view the use of its taboo imagery as a form of shock value, and ironically, anti-authoritarianism.

The movement came to prominence in the British punk scene during the mid-1970s, with bands like the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees displaying swastikas on their attire alongside other provocative imagery.

Very rotten, Johnny. i.redd.it

Around this time, a film genre known as Nazisploitation also came to prominence amongst underground movie buffs. A subgenre of exploitation and sexploitation films, Naziploitation movies skewed towards D-grade fare, characterized by graphic sex scenes, violence, and gore. Plots typically surrounded female prisoners in concentration camps, subject to the sexual whims of evil SS officers, who eventually escaped and got their revenge. However, the most famous Nazisploitation film, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, flipped the genders.

The dorm room poster that will ensure you never get laid. images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com

Ilsa was a female SS officer and the victims were men. She spent much of the movie wearing her Nazi uniform in various states, sexually abusing men all the while. As such, Ilsa played into dominatrix fantasies. The movie was a hit on the grindhouse circuit, inspiring multiple sequels and knock-offs and solidifying Nazi aesthetics as a part of the BDSM scene.

Since then, Nazi chic fashion has been employed by various artists, from Madonna to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, and has shown up in all sorts of places from leather clubs to character designs in video games and anime.

Lady Gaga looking SS-uper. nyppagesix.files.wordpress.com

Nazi Chic in Asia

Nazi chic has taken on a life of its own in Asia. And unlike Western Nazi chic, which recognizes Nazism as taboo, Asian Nazi chic seems entirely detached from any underlying ideology.

A large part of this likely has to do with the way that Holocaust education differs across cultures. In the West, we learn about the Holocaust in the context of the Nazis committing horrific crimes against humanity that affected many of our own families. The Holocaust is presented as personal and closer to our current era than we might like to think. It is something we should "never forget." Whereas in Asia, where effects of the Holocaust weren't as prominent, it's simply another aspect of WWII which, in and of itself, was just another large war. In other words, Nazi regalia in Asia might be viewed as simply another historical military outfit, albeit a particularly stylish one.

In Japan, which was much more involved with WWII than any other Asian country, Nazi chic is usually (but not always) reserved for villainous representations.

OF COURSE. i.imgur.com

That being said, J-Pop groups like Keyakizaka46 have publicly worn Nazi chic too, and the phenomena isn't limited to Japan.

In South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, Nazi imagery has shown up in various elements of youth culture, completely void of any moral context. For instance, in Indonesia, a Hitler-themed fried chicken restaurant opened in 2013. And in Korea, K-Pop groups like BTS and Pritz have been called out for propagating Nazi chic fashion. Usually such incidents are followed by public apologies, but the lack of historical understanding makes everything ring hollow.

Implications

So the question then: is Nazi chic a bad thing?

The answer is not so black and white.

On one hand, seeing Nazi chic on the fashion scene may dredge up painful memories for Holocaust survivors and those whose family histories were tainted. In this light, wearing Nazi-inspired garb, regardless of intent, seems disrespectful and antagonistic. Worse than that, it doesn't even seem like a slight against authority so much as a dig at actual victims of genocide.

But on the other hand, considering the fact that even the youngest people who were alive during WWII are edging 80, "forgetting the Holocaust" is a distinct possibility for younger generations. In that regard, perhaps anything that draws attention to what happened, even if it's simply through the lens of "this outfit should be seen as offensive," might not be entirely bad. This, compounded by the fact that Nazi chic is not commonly associated with actual Nazi or nationalistic sentiments, might be enough to sway some people–not necessarily to wear, like, or even appreciate its aesthetics, but rather to understand its place within counterculture.

Ultimately, one's views on Nazi chic likely come down to their own personal taste and sensibilities. For some, Nazi chic is just a style, an aesthetic preference for something that happens to be mired in historical horror. For others, the shadow of atrocity simply hangs too strong.

South Korea has long held one of the highest suicide rates in the world (10th, according to the World Health Organization), a fact that's painfully resonated this year with the suicides of two popular K-Pop stars: first 25-year-old Sulli and now 28-year-old Goo Hara.

After Sulli was found dead in her home last month, public outpouring of grief included fellow K-Pop idols and the singer's famous friends, such as Goo, a former member of the girl group Kara. She described their friendship as being "like sisters"; in a livestream, she vowed, "I will live twice more diligently now that you are gone," adding, "Dear fans, I will be fine. Don't worry about me." But six weeks later, Goo was found dead in her own Seoul home, with police calling it a suicide and reporting that they'd found a handwritten note expressing her overwhelming depression.

While the world of K-Pop has been rife with scandal, from its factory-like production of girl groups and boy bands to its disregard for young idols' mental health, Goo's tortured last years also highlighted the pervasive effects of rape culture within K-Pop. As writer and activist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein pointed out on Twitter, "Rape culture kills," pointing out the negligence and egregious mishandling of Goo's highly publicized dispute with her abusive ex-boyfriend, Choi Jong-bum. Choi not only attempted to blackmail the singer but physically and (allegedly) sexually assaulted her. "It is known that she attempted to commit suicide in March this year after an ex-boyfriend attempted to blackmail her with threats of assault and the release a sex video," NBC News reports. "Amid the dispute, Goo's agency terminated her contract."

Details of the assault include Choi drunkenly attacking Goo while she was sleeping, prompting the singer to physically fight back against Choi's screaming assault. He was reportedly displeased with the resulting marks to his face and threatened to release footage of the two of them having sex in order to "make it impossible for her to pursue an entertainment career." Over the course of multiple trials, Choi was found guilty of "filming body parts without consent, assault causing bodily harm, intimidation (blackmail), coercion, and destruction and damage of property." He was not found guilty of sexual assault. Disturbing excerpts from the court documents include: "During the breakup process with his lover, Mr. Choi caused injuries to the victim as well as receiving injuries on his own face. He was angry about this and threatened to contact a media outlet to end the victim's career. By making her kneel and other such behavior, he caused serious suffering to the female celebrity victim."

Instead of the prosecutors' requested 3-year prison sentence, the Seoul Central District Court granted Choi a suspended sentence of three years of probation. If he violates said probation, then he'll receive his full sentence of one year and six months in prison. The prosecution was quick to condemn the court's leniency. On September 5, they appealed to demand a harsher sentence, stating, "Society needs tougher punishments in order to eradicate the kind of criminal behavior that Choi Jong Bum committed. We hope that during the appeals trial, the defendant will be appropriately sentenced according to the weight of his crime."

But it's worse than just leniency for a blackmailer; it's a testament to the misogyny that Korean women, even K-Pop idols, face in the public eye. Throughout the trial, Goo faced significant backlash in the press and online hate. In June, she took to Instagram (in a since deleted post) to say, "I won't be lenient on these vicious commentaries any more." She wrote about her struggles with "mental health" and "depression" and plainly asked people to stop leaving hateful comments. "Is there no one out there with a beautiful mind who can embrace people who suffer?" she posted. "Public entertainers like myself don't have it easy — we have our private lives more scrutinized than anyone else and we suffer the kind of pain we cannot even discuss with our family and friends. Can you please ask yourself what kind of person you are before you post a vicious comment online?" In her final Instagram post, she captioned a selfie of herself lying in bed with "sleep tight."

As Bloomberg reporter Jihye Lee critiqued, "Korean women find it more and more difficult to report crimes as victims because they see female artists facing even greater backlashes & trauma because how the public, police and the justice system respond to sexual assault, and that sends a clear message to all women in Korea."


Now, Goo's death has fans petitioning for greater awareness and more responsible action in response to sexual assault, as well as mental health concerns. On Twitter, fans are channeling their grief into calls to bring Choi to justice and face a stricter sentence. Trending topics in South Korea are filled with remembrances of Goo Hara and even Sulli, while an online petition addressed to President Moon Jae-in has gained over 220,000 signatures, all demanding that sexual harassment receives a harsher punishment in Korean law.


While Goo's death has inspired a long-overdue conversation about the oppressive misogyny that keeps too many Korean women from reporting assault, a small memorial sits at St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul where Goo's body rests.