How a K-pop star’s death reveals the truth about our society
Haeryun Kang is a freelance journalist in Seoul and a videographer at media start-up videocusIN.
To a culture used to the likes of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” K-pop star Sulli’s public persona might have seemed bland and boring. After all, her “controversies” included wearing shirts without a bra, getting drunk on social media, calling older male actors by their first names and openly supporting South Korea’s recently revised abortion law.
But as an actress and former member of K-pop idol group f(x), Sulli — whose real name was Choi Jin-ri — belonged to a culture where celebrities are generally expected to be respectful and reserved. Among many things, that means showing deference to elders, not talking about politics and being extra discreet about sex and sexuality — especially if you’re a woman.AD
On Monday, 25-year-old Sulli was found dead in her home in Seongnam, a city close to Seoul. The exact causes aren’t known, but police say suicide is likely. According to media reports, Sulli’s manager told police she had been suffering from depression. Her tragic death sends a sobering signal to millions of young women hoping to break away from conservative norms — and reveals a great deal about Korean society in the process.
Sulli was known for not holding herself back. Even after her “no-bra scandal” incited public anger, inviting unimaginably crude insults and online trolling about her and her family, she seemed invincible. The then-22-year-old seemed cool and proud, laughing at the haters in a now-deleted Instagram post. She continued to post braless pictures.
A major Korean outlet once called her the “Kim Kardashian of South Korea,” somewhat misleadingly. Kardashian enjoys considerably more freedom to show her body off in a variety of ways. Her world isn’t governed as strictly by the expectations of purity and chastity restraining a Korean female celebrity — and the public vitriol that comes with shattering these norms.AD
Sulli, who debuted at age 11 in 2005, has spoken of how the rumors and public expectations constrained her life. “When I met people in the past, even before saying hello, I felt like I should explain myself: This isn’t who I am! The rumors aren’t true!” she said recently on a TV show, “The Night of Hate Comments,” on which she was one of the hosts. Hair dyed pink, Sulli read hate comments about herself on the show, in a format reminiscent of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets.” She often giggled and acted nonchalant as she read the obnoxious posts.
After news of her death emerged, many have focused on the potential role of online harassment. But whatever the complex reasons that led to Sulli’s death, it’s superficial to focus just on cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is only a symptom of a society that is intolerant of people who dare to be different from the mold.
Sulli’s death matters because it’s a brutal wake-up call. Her death reminds Koreans of the still-pervasive misogyny directed at “unconventional” women, who are brave enough to be irreverent, show the outline of their nipples through their shirts and value their own minds above being liked. “There’s no woman who wouldn’t be saddened by this,” a commenter tweeted a few hours after news broke of Sulli’s death. “Even if you weren’t speaking publicly, you were thankful for Sulli. You were supporting her.”AD
The conservative expectations in South Korean celebrity culture are slowly changing — as evidenced by “bad girls” like Lee Hyori, Ha:tfelt and, until recently, Sulli — but the consequences of acting “abnormal” are still brutal for most female stars.
This is exacerbated by the lack of support they often receive from management companies and agents. “We cannot believe the situation now and we are just filled with grief,” wrote SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s largest entertainment companies and the agency that managed Sulli. It’s not yet clear how aware the agency was of Sulli’s depression and what support it offered, if any. But in the cutthroat world of K-pop, less than two years after megastar and fellow SM entertainer Jonghyun committed suicide, these are questions that must be asked.
What made Sulli’s death so shocking was the great gap between her colorful Instagram and reality. On social media, she seemed quirky and fun. She had just released her first single album as a solo artist. Two days before dying, she Instagrammed a box of purses she’d received from a sponsor.AD
But behind the laughter and cool facade, there were plenty of warning signals. “My life is actually empty, so I feel like I’m lying to everyone by pretending to be happy on the outside,” she said in “The Night of Hate Comments,” where she was labeled as “the nuclear bomb of hate comments.”
Recently on the show, a fellow host asked how she wanted to be viewed by others. She answered, “When I first posted pictures of me braless, there were so many different reactions. I could have been frightened and hide, but I didn’t. I wanted people’s prejudices to disappear.”
“I wish people would look at me and think, ‘Well, someone like that exists!’ Accept the difference,” she said. If only more people had done so while she was alive.