The Life and Death of Sulli-- Suicide and Feminism in Kpop

On October 14th, Choi Jin Ri, better known by the moniker Sulli, was found dead in her Seongnam home by her manager. Later that same day an employee at the emergency call center and two firemen leaked information to the press, and on October 16th it was confirmed that her cause of death was suicide. It was surreal looking at the headlines. It was shocking but at the same time almost felt inevitable. If anyone had been following Sulli in recent years they would know that her Instagram was always making headlines. Sulli suffered deeply from a relentless cyber- witchhunt. Making the online abuse worse, her name was tainted by a litany of click bait articles which gave birth to detrimental, groundless rumors. In South Korea, defamation is a criminal charge and taken very seriously. Having said this, Sulli was left defenseless against this onslaught of abuse due to lack of support from her company SM Entertainment. SM Entertainment often takes action against malicious commentators for their other artists like Baekhyun of EXO. They did no such thing for Sulli. (The same lack of support for female artists can be seen in YG’s disbandment of 2ne1. Big Bang has gone through a number of huge scandals but one “drug scandal” led to Park Bom’s exile from the kpop industry.)

 

One of the first kpop videos I ever watched was F(x)’s Electric Shock, but I wasn’t completely immersed in my kpop obsession until 2013 when F(x) was on hiatus. Sulli promoted their song Red Light briefly before leaving the group for mental health reasons.  By the time I was a kpop fan, her name was synonymous with controversy. She suffered panic attacks and was mentally and physically exhausted from malicious comments concerning her relationship with an older rapper Choiza. Sulli faced so much hate due to her persevering rebellion against the patriarchal constraints placed on female Kpop idols.

The stigmatization of mental illness is a crises in South Korea, the suicide capital of the world. Many kpop idols have become more open about the pressures they face, particularly in the wake of Kim Jonghyun’s suicide in 2017. The pressures that female Kpop idols face are exacerbated. They can garner malicious comments over things that wouldn’t inspire any sort of reaction in America. For example, when Red Velvet’s Irene was spotted reading the feminist book Kim Ji Young, Born 1982 or when Apink’s Naeun got a phone case that said “Girls can do anything.” Subsequent to the news of Sulli’s suicide, boy band Shinhwa member Kim Dong Wan took to instagram to explain the ridiculous standards placed on idols-- “Celebrities must smile even when they don't eat or sleep well… They must be sexy but never have sex. They must be tough but never get into fights.” Even the way in which idols grieved Kim Jonghyun in 2017 was heavily scrutinized with Red Velvet’s Yeri criticized for crying too much over the loss of one of her best friends.   

In America, people celebrate the Kim Kardashian empire which built off of an infamous sex tape. In South Korea, if a kpop idol is in a relationship it could be cause for termination in contract. Though women’s bodies in America are still acutely policed, this issue is exacerbated in South Korea, where going braless makes you the new Hester Prynne. South Korea is still remarkably conservative despite the society’s hyper- capitalist, somewhat westernized modernization. This difference in values is very apparent when we consider the reception of the #MeToo movement in America and South Korea. Though the movement of course had its American detractors, the movement received severe backlash when it hit South Korea. 

Sulli was criticized for live streaming videos of her drinking, for being open about her mental health, her pro-choice stance on abortion and her unapologetic habit of going braless. Sulli’s braless fashion sparked domestic debate about the conduct of national role models. Sulli responded to this saying “I don’t wear it because it’s not comfortable to wear it. I think [going braless is] natural and beautiful.” She also considered going braless as one’s freedom and she stated “When I upload my photos without a bra, people talk about it a lot. I could have been scared. But I wasn’t because I thought it would be nice if more people could discard their prejudices” This moment displays the activist intentions behind Sulli’s instagram posts. “She wasn’t just an issue-maker but I hope she will be remembered as a women’s rights activist who was free-spirited, who could truly speak her mind,” said fellow South Korean artist Kwon Ji-an.

Though online harassment and the mental health stigma in South Korea are huge issues that must be tackled, I think it is important to note that Sulli’s death is inextricably linked to widespread global and domestic misogyny. The hate comments Sulli received were slut-shaming and attacking her for displaying a level of sexual autonomy and agency that society does not allow to idols. I must stress that some of this hate was coming from outside of South Korea. The hate is not simply a symptom of a conservative culture, but rather entitled mindsets concerning an idol’s right to their own body. Kpop fans are accustomed to consuming sexuality that is hidden behind forbidden fruit imagery, infantilizing school girl outfits and suggestive dance moves. The feminism of kpop women is subtle and often works through allusion. There is a misunderstanding about kpop women lacking political or social awareness, which I think stems from racist stereotypes concerning Asian women. 

 

They must negotiate with the limited confines of their platform and agency, making their activism harder to detect at times but important nonetheless. For example-- Sunmi’s music video Lalalalay configures her as a butterfly and shows imagery of butterfly collections which represent the conditions of a kpop idol’s lifestyle--stripped of corporeal freedom, pinned motionless and commodified, trapped for their beauty. Sunmi is a good example since she is given more authorship over her work. IU’s music video Bbibbi is another great example of feminist kpop, with IU explicitly addressing her mistreatment at the hands of sasaeng fans and the press. K-indie singers Heize and Lim Kim are other great examples of women using their platform to give voice to feminist messages. (Unfortunately, girl groups like the extremely popular Blackpink are given very little artistic freedom, they aren’t allowed to write their own songs despite the fact that all YG Entertainment boy groups are expected to.) Sulli’s music video Goblin works to remove stigmatization around mental illness and employs imagery of sisterhood with a cast of diverse women. The video is extremely self-reflexive with nods to the public’s perception of her, and her own journey of reconciling with her demons. Her wardrobe is unconventional, privileging her artistry over her beauty. Disturbingly, the video serves as a sort of prophetic warning-- she talks about wanting to kill herself in the beginning narration. Similarly, Jonghyun’s final music video Shinin’ with the refrain “always be with you” serving as a final goodbye to fans. 

In response to social outrage over Sulli’s death, there's talk of a "Sulli's Law" that's being prepared to be introduced in the National Assembly in early December to coincide with the 49th day commemoration of Sulli's death. This law will work to attack the anonymity and ubiquity in online forums, which allows cyberbullying to be so prevalent. Despite the actions taken subsequent to Sulli’s death, I think people’s mindsets concerning idols needs to change. The process of mythologizing people and turning people into symbols for your own use is a dehumanizing process. The title “idol” itself configures these singers as objects of worship, both glorified and objectified. When we think of “cancel culture” I believe a lot of the malignity and sense of betrayal fans feel towards a famous individual stems from wrongfully placing people on an infallible pedestal. People saw Sulli as an “idol” and denied her humanity. Even in the wake of her death Sulli’s suicide has served as a parable of sorts, a lesson to be learned. Even her death has been turned into a symbol. Sulli was a gifted, complex, lionhearted, feminist activist, who should be remembered for all the qualities that made her deeply and beautifully human. 

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