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Fallen Idols: Sexism and Suicide in the K-pop Industry

CW: depression, suicide

Hair dyed light pink and dressed in a black romper, Sulli, an actress and former member of the hugely popular K-pop girl group f(x), stood on the center of the stage and began reading a string of malicious taunts directed at her. She was a host on the inaugural broadcast of the South Korean reality TV show Night of Hate Comments, where Korean celebrities gathered to tackle cyberbullying by reading and discussing harsh comments left by netizens online.

Dubbed by her talent agency as the “visual,” or the most attractive member of her group by Korean standards, Sulli stood before the cameras at five foot seven and an alleged 106 pounds. That year—2019—she had topped most lists ranking the most beautiful women in K-pop. As she paged through her booklet of hate comments, she responded to each one with lighthearted laughter.

Four months later, she took her own life. 

Commentators blame her suicide in part on persistent cyberbullying, especially targeted at her outspoken persona and feminist causes. After her death, Night of Hate Comments was discontinued.

Within the past three months, two female idols in the K-pop industry—Sulli, and Goo Hara of the girl group Kara—ended their own lives. Their causes of death were traced back to depression, misogynistic internet trolls, cyberbullying, and intimate partner violence. The loss of these women has spurred conversations around the world about the psychological distresses placed on idols, whose lives are scrutinized around the clock by netizens, as well as a larger culture of sexism and mental health stigma.

Pop culture is considered South Korea’s most successful export, but one that carries a heavy price tag. 

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“A lot of attention has been placed on the fact that they were celebrities and were active in K-pop,” Jenna Gibson, the Korea columnist for The Diplomat, shared with The Politic. “I understand that, but I think it’s really important that we’re talking about these greater issues that actually have very little to do with K-pop. It’s really indicative of serious societal issues that Korea is struggling to deal with.”

In particular, Gibson highlighted the social conservatism and misogyny woven deeply into the fabric of South Korea’s patriarchal society. Sulli’s progressive politics, of course, didn’t always fit in. In a country that continues to outlaw abortion, she was shamed for her support for the right to choose. She was lambasted for being too “provocative” in a bra-less Instagram post. On Night of Hate Comments, Sulli reflected: “When I uploaded my photos without a bra, people talked 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.” 

During her time in the limelight, Hara—also the “visual” of her group—spoke out against cyberbullying, too. In early 2019, her manager released a statement admitting that Hara was battling depression, citing the legal battle between Hara and her ex-boyfriend—who secretly filmed her and threatened to post her sex videos online—as a major source of distress. It was painfully reminiscient of the Burning Sun Scandal, a major sex scandal in which numerous male celebrities assaulted, pimped, and secretly filmed women that was uncovered the same year.

Hara’s ex-boyfriend was eventually convicted of multiple crimes, including physical assault and blackmail. Yet, following Hara’s decision in 2018 to file a lawsuit against her abuser, the internet blamed her for being too sexually promiscuous. In May 2019, she was hospitalized for an attempted suicide. 

She took her life in November. 

In the wake of mourning Hara and Sulli, South Korean organizers for women’s justice have mobilized to pass legislation to combat online abuse and sexual harassment. In one of the countries most impacted by #MeToo, their message is clear: these women were killed by a society that ostracized and victimized them. 

An online petition pressuring South Korean President Moon Jae In to enact longer and more severe punishments for sexual harassment perpetrators has collected over 260,000 signatures since Hara’s death. Currently, politicians are drafting Sulli’s Law, which would punish malicious online commenting. So far, the law, which would implement a “Real ID” policy requiring all netizens to put a face behind their comments, is in limbo, and similar ones have been struck down by South Korean courts due to concerns over free speech suppression. Yet, even discussing protections for these women is a concrete step towards ensuring that no more lives fall victim to vitriol and hate.

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For male K-pop idols, it’s a different world. Men easily retain their fan bases after drug and gambling charges—something unheard of for women—while female idols receive scrutiny for dating, gaining weight, or showing too much skin. Sulli’s and Hara’s deaths add to a haunting statistic: nine out of the eleven most recent high-profile suicides in Korean entertainment were committed by women. 

Hyun Jo Kim ’20, a student from Korea, articulated this gender bias: “[Sulli and Hara] were treated more than unfairly by the public. It’s reflective of how K-pop idols are treated as public figures and are held to similar ethical standards as politicians. But in my opinion, they are not ethical standards. They are just unfair social norms.” 

“Idols are presented to the public in a way that is very akin to a service industry…. Because the viewer is constructed as being a heterosexual male…their entire job is to please men. Talking back, or even thinking, is not a requirement of their job,” explained CedarBough Saeji, Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. While the subordination of female entertainers and public figures is not an issue exclusive to Korea, Saeji argued that the cultural influence of mandatory military service for men in South Korea elevates this gender bifurcation in Korean society.

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Evangeline Pang recalls the moment she became interested in K-pop. She began posting dance videos on her YouTube account and months later, talent agency DSP media—the same as Hara’s—scouted her to join their client base. 

“It started when I was around 13. I was bullied in school, and there was this talent show when each class was supposed to come up with a dance. I got excluded, and I needed to find a way to learn how to dance, and obviously K-pop involves a lot of choreography. So the first dance I learned how to dance to was a K-pop song,” explained Pang. By the time DSP Media reached out to Pang inviting her to audition, however, she was hesitant. “I feel like K-pop gives off a very innocent facade, which is why I really wanted to investigate things that go on behind the scenes.”

“On a lot of shows, stars would always talk about their diet plans and would have ridiculous diets such as not eating for the entire day, and everyone on the show would be like, ‘You’re so dedicated!’” she recalled. Pang recited the long list of physical standards female stars are held to: “Long legs, white skin—there’s a lot of colorism. Big eyes, a V-shaped chin, a small waist. They have standards for every single thing,” she exclaimed. “People just focus on the looks.”

These rigid beauty standards can be seen everywhere in Korea, from the streets of Seoul’s Gangnam District—the city’s “beauty belt,” which houses hundreds of plastic surgery centers—to websites dedicated to interrogating which K-pop stars have undergone cosmetic surgeries with before-and-after photos. While female idols are pressured by the public and their companies to undergo plastic surgery, they also run the risk of being shamed for altering their appearances too much—a sign that they were too ugly to enter the industry in the first place. Last March, fans responded to a selfie Hara posted on Instagram by criticizing her most recent eyelid surgery, despite, ironically, eyelid surgery being so encouraged among South Korean women that many young women receive double eyelid surgery as a graduation gift. 

“Especially for female stars, it’s immediately about how they look,” Gibson explained. “Are they wearing something that’s too skimpy? Are they wearing something that’s not skimpy enough? Do they look a little tired? It’s insane, the level of scrutiny. A lot of female celebrities have talked about the amount of weight they lose.” 

In particular, Gibson remembered an August 2018 interview with Ailee, another popular K-pop idol-songwriter, on the show Hidden Singer. In the interview, Ailee shared stories of the extreme dieting she underwent to hit the below-50 kilogram (110 pound) idol standard, an expectation placed on female idols no matter their height. “When I was 49 kilograms, I looked great, but I think I was the most depressed. So I’ve decided to no longer worry about my weight and instead concentrate on my music and being happy.”

Gibson continued, “That was a really positive interview. But I can guarantee you that she’s probably gotten comments about it. It has to get to you. Even if you are trying to do your best and live your life, if you are seeing thousands upon thousands of comments, of course it gets to you.”

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“Right now in Korean society, people are under pretty intense pressure,” explained Saeji. “These parents believed all they had to do was get a good education to have a good life and have foisted this same idea onto their children, but it’s no longer true. If 87 percent of people who graduate from high school all get a university degree, then a university degree is no longer a guarantee of getting a white collar job.” For some, K-pop is an alternative way to achieve success.

Indeed, many of these stars do not come from money. “It’s like playing the lottery,” Saeji described. “You were not smart enough to get into a really good school in Korea, but if you play the lottery of becoming an idol star and you win, then it can become beyond your wildest dreams.” 

The chances of winning this lottery and landing a successful career are more than slim. “You might train for ten years, debut, and you’re famous for three years, and that’s it. New ones replace old ones, and people just lose interest,” reflected Pang. And even then, becoming an idol does not guarantee wealth.

“Basically when you’re a trainee, you incur debt from the training expenses—dance classes, vocal classes—that all costs money,” she explained. “The companies are making an investment. They technically will pay you for your classes but will actually charge you later when you’re earning an income. And these debts can go up to one million dollars. That’s a lot of money, and considering the fact that the companies usually take quite a lot of the profit already, the rest of it goes to paying that debt, and you’re left with nothing.”

In a country that idolizes youth, idols are debuting younger and younger each year; thus, even successful idols, especially the women, retire at an average age of 25. Comparatively, Victoria’s Secret models retire at an average age of 28. With little to no career longevity, trainees and idols leaving the industry have difficulty finding employment after sacrificing years of schoolwork, Pang shared. 

For auditionees, like Amy Cao, who auditioned for Sulli’s agency, SM Entertainment, when she was 13, it is easy to forget those risks. “I was so determined to pursue that career that I didn’t care about the consequences.” 

After the audition, however, Cao expressed apprehension towards joining SM even if she did get in, due to the dearth of fallback career paths.

The stresses in K-pop, exacerbated by an industry-wide stigma against asking for help, induce high rates of mental health problems. South Korea, which boasts one of the world’s highest life expectancies, is equally notorious for its lack of mental health resources: In 2017, it had the highest suicide rate among developed nations. 

While the nation’s high suicide rate is largely attributed to suicide among Korea’s elderly, who suffer from a high poverty rate and lack access to adequate social welfare, suicide rates for young people are also well above the global average. Many point to South Korea’s hyper-competitive academic culture and normalization of student stress as primary triggers of mental health disorders for young people. The stigmatization of mental health problems is commonly cited in cases like Sulli’s and Hara’s. 

The last high-profile suicide in K-pop before Sulli’s and Hara’s was of the popular boy band SHINee’s lead singer Jonghyun, who was managed by SM Entertainment and died in 2017. In his suicide note, he wrote, “I am broken from the inside. The depression that gnawed on me slowly has finally engulfed me entirely…. I was so alone…. Please tell me I did a good job.” Approximately 40 percent of Korean actors and actresses have reported suicidal thoughts at some point in their careers.

Karen Lu ’22, a member of Yale’s K-pop and urban dance group Movement, shared in an interview with The Politic: “As consumers of K-pop, we have to be respectful, both online and in real life. Idols are human beings as well.”

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In early January, Amber Liu, Sulli’s former bandmate, sat down with CBS This Morning for an interview. When asked about Sulli, she spoke slowly, yet purposefully, as if each word was painful to speak. 

“Sulli was like a ball of joy,” Liu recollected. “She was always so cute, so rebellious, but you know, she was always like, ‘Alright, let’s do it.’ She was quirky.” After a pause, she added, “Sulli was great, and I miss her a lot right now. To be really honest, [I’m] still processing a lot of it.”

The progress made by activists pushing for legislative reform—from Sulli’s Law to petitions pressuring President Moon to consider harsher punishments for sex offenses—represents hope for the country’s deeply-rooted gender inequality. Citizens have also pressured news outlets to completely remove their comment sections, which boast a smattering of hate comments. The internet company Daum Kakao has removed all comments from its entertainment stories, with cyber safety advocates pushing Naver, South Korea’s largest search engine, to do the same. 

Gibson characterized this new trend in the media market as a “good step,” but one that fails to get to the crux of the problem itself. “Why are people holding these women who are celebrities to such a high standard that if they do something slightly different than what people expect, they’re receiving all this hatred? I think there has to be a tougher discussion about the roots of that.”

It is unclear as to how we can truly follow that guidance. The reality of deeply embedded prejudice, which extends far beyond the industry, makes change on the everyday scale oftentimes feel fruitless. 

“It’s about K-pop, but it’s not really about K-pop,” Gibson reiterated. “It’s really frustrating to see Hara and Sulli boiled down to K-pop stars rather than the complex and amazing women that they were. If you talk about this as a K-pop scandal, then nothing changes.”

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