A K-Pop Star’s Death and the Public Policing of Women

Warning: This article addresses suicide. Please refrain from reading if this subject is triggering for you. If you need someone to talk to, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There is help; you are not alone.

Image Source: The Jakarta Post

Choi Jin-ri, known by most as Sulli, was a South Korean celebrity best known for being in the K-pop girl group f(x). During her time in f(x), she was a vocalist and rapper widely admired for her beauty. But Sulli wasn’t just a pretty face, she was outspoken and defied cultural norms. She went braless in public, live-streamed herself drinking with her friends, and openly discussed her romantic relationships and mental health — all things considered taboo by the Korean public, especially for a female idol. This quickly attracted a huge volume of hate comments on her social media pages. Sulli spoke out about this too, but the malicious comments only seemed to multiply, likely adding to her struggle with depression. On October 14, 2019, Sulli died by suicide. The news of her death was a huge shock for the Korean public, as well as the hundreds of thousands of fans that she had internationally.

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Sulli had been the target of internet hate since 2013, when rumors about her dating another Korean artist, Chozia, cropped up online. This broke the carefully crafted image of a sexually desirable yet innocent female idol that was originally established for her. In addition to this, Chozia was 14 years older than her, making the relationship difficult for many to accept. After these rumors broke out, Sulli took a hiatus from f(x), which eventually turned into a departure. In the following years, she broke the status quo time and time again and the public’s animosity towards her grew more. Sulli often appeared strong in response to the hostility she faced. She continued to post braless photos and was even a host on a variety show where celebrities read hate comments — similar to “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. But there were also poignant signs that the hate was affecting her negatively. Sulli allegedly asked her company, SM Entertainment, to take legal action against the people posting hate comments. During one of her more recent Instagram Live videos, she quietly told listeners, “I’m not a bad person. I’m sorry. Why are you saying bad things about me? What did I do to deserve this?” This on its own is upsetting and painful to hear, let alone knowing that shortly after, she decided to put an end to the malice permanently.

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People can argue whether Sulli’s actions truly uplifted feminism, but that doesn’t change the fact that public vitriol towards her lifestyle played a huge part in her depression. Back in July, when Sulli was asked about her braless photos on a Korean TV show, she said, “I wish people would look at me and think, ‘Well, someone like that exists!’ Accept the difference.” The way her choices were treated sends Korean women and women all over the world a scary message: conform to society’s standards or face the consequences. These consequences aren’t steadfast but are determined by whoever thinks their personal beliefs are important enough to impose on women. The consequences are determined by the people who ask what a woman was wearing when she was assaulted, the people who think they have the right to legislate a woman’s body, and the people who attack a woman’s personal choices over and over until it leads to tragedy. Women don’t need men or other women policing their clothing, relationships, bodies, or self-expression.

This year we lost a beautiful person who just wanted to do what we all want to do — live life in our own way, free of judgment. I hope that we can all learn to treat people’s personal choices with respect, because a tragedy like this is preventable, and it doesn’t have to happen again.

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