When kpop singer Sulli killed herself, there were many articles that talked about it and they basically went like this: 1.) Sulli was outspoken 2.) Sulli created controversy because she didn’t wear bras 3.) Sulli was cyberbullied. Neglected in their explanations was the most terrifying aspect of her death: she was heavily punished for bringing up her mental health issues.
For those unfamiliar with the cultures of the Far East, it’s difficult to imagine how different mental health is stigmatized in that region. Mental health isn’t an unfortunate circumstance or even a weakness of character; it’s attributed to the worst thing a person can be perceived to do in many Asian societies: a lack of determination.
Functionalism is the unified dogma shared among Far East thinking. There’s a pride in it, an attribute that native-raised Asians believe carried them to the spotlight of the world stage. When everyone performs to their expected role in society, there’s a sentiment that each individual’s circumstances is regardless to the overall good of the society. According to functionalist logic, there isn’t a single soul without personal circumstance, so shut up, know your role, smile and show strength by not revealing weakness.
Sulli and many of her kpop stars who died from suicide were expected to handle their mental health issues alone in silence. To focus their deaths on cyberbullying and the pressures of entertainment skirted the root issue of their suffering. In Far East functionalist societies, regardless if one is a famous kpop star or a working bee, they’ll be called out for not pulling their shit together. Sulli was once a very beloved kpop singer. She smiled, she sung happy songs. A vast majority of kpop music is fluff and she suddenly decided, like other artists, to sing about mental vulnerability. As Korea deals with the ghastly high suicide rates of their talented singers, are they ready to face the real issue? Doing so would acknowledge mental health is an actual crisis, and making it so would rip the fabric of functionalism.
It’s chilling to know so much of these kpop stars’ deaths were explained under the cover of “radical opinions”. Truth is, no one cared that Sulli didn’t wear bras. Kpop is often full sexual innuendos. Sulli died because she had the audacity to open up about her mental health issues alongside her desire to encourage Korean women to stand up and accept individualism. The internet harassment was the tool of choice people used to stigmatize her for it. They said she was “strange”, lazy and a complainer. They branded her an attention whore, a selfish person who didn’t care about the greater whole of her society and it stuck.
If you’re Asian, you know that feeling. You were taught growing up to feel shame of disappointing people. You were taught that spotlights and outspokenness are bad things. Problems that aren’t financial-related are “silly problems”, including relationship ones. Sadly, Sulli won’t be the last kpop star to kill herself. The industry as a whole has been misunderstood as a kpop problem; it’s really a Far East problem. Average Joes and Janes are killing themselves for exactly the same reasons. If there’s one aspect of Western culture which I feel the East should really adapt, it’s the openness of vulnerability as a positive, honest and healthy trait. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shunned by my Asian peers, particularly my native-born Asian peers, that I should shut the fuck up and “be strong”. I hate that Asian cultures can sometimes be about one-upping each other about who can be the most flawless (while being phony humble at the same time). This isn’t toughness; it’s insecurity.
Sulli was a phenomenal talent. Artists are sensitive souls who naturally yearn for individualism and authenticity. If Asians don’t appreciate their creative people and demand that their role is about making their societies look good and save face, then maybe they don’t deserve experiencing those gifts. Most of Sulli’s cyberbullies weren’t old people; they were people her age, Millennials telling her to know her place. It’s sad functionalism won’t fade away from younger generations. Furthermore, I fear it will one day stunt Asian society as a whole with the massive amounts of kpop suicides being a mere microcosm of what Asians are going through.
As one of the stronger personalities of kpop, she even had her own talk show that encouraged openness and vulnerability. It says a lot about the seriousness of mental health when someone as fierce as her has succumbed to it (this isn’t to say the Western world is free from it. Anthony Bourdain took his own life, after all). Sulli hoped too much when she exclaimed that people could perhaps accept each other’s differences and “there are so many unique types of people in this country with so much talent and I feel like they’re wasting it by putting their energy into critiquing others like this online.” If Korean society was wise, it would take that as the straw that finally broke the functionalism camel’s back, but I’m not holding my breath. It may sadly take many suicides, both celebrity and the average Korean, to finally look at mental health in the mirror. RIP Sulli.