SEOUL: As a South Korean celebrity, Sulli stood out for her individuality. She was unique in the boldness with which she presented her life online. She refused to grovel or apologise when criticised.
In a country with strict social norms, she was a breath of fresh air, who demonstrated that not everyone must follow the crowd.
It was therefore all the more shocking last week when Sulli, a former member of popular girl group (f)x and an actor, was found dead at the age of 25 in her home south of Seoul.
The cause of death has not been officially announced but online forum have discussed the huge possibility of suicide as the cause and what this means.
TARGET OF ONLINE VITRIOL
It is no secret Sulli had suffered depression. For years, she had been a target of hateful vitriol online from netizens who disapprove of her public persona.
Perhaps most infamously, Sulli posted photos to her Instagram of herself wearing a shirt without a bra, with the faint outlines of her nipples visible, which generated a huge reaction.
Given the infinite number of graphic sexual images that anyone with an Internet connection can access nowadays, this must sound pretty tame.
But in South Korea, a country where assertive displays of female sexuality are uncommon, Sulli was attacked as reckless and undignified, damaging the moral fabric of the country and setting a poor example for the fans who looked up to her.
Sulli herself was young, and came of age in the public spotlight. She had been active as an entertainer since age 11, and like many child stars, found the transition into adulthood stressful with press outlets scrutinising her every move, notably her romantic relationship with a man 14 years her senior.
Amid the mourning online, and the fraught attempts to understand why someone so young, famous and talented would end her own life, the phrase “societal killing” has been employed to imply that South Korea, as a society, may be responsible for her death.
There is a growing realisation that toxic societal dynamics might have led her to take her own life, and that South Korean society is unfairly harsh on public figures and lacks support networks and legal recourse to help that acknowledges and tackles these concerns decisively.
The public awaits findings on whether it was indeed a case of suicide, but the shock of her sudden departure has prompted some soul-searching in South Korea.
It is of course not only in South Korea that some successful entertainers fall into depression and end their own lives, but Sulli’s case sheds light on aspects of celebrity in this country that are somewhat unique.
Young, female entertainers occupy a peculiar space in South Korean society. In a country where appearance is highly prized, they are praised for their beauty, but harshly criticised for physical imperfections.
Young fans address them with an honorific that means “older sister”, and entertainers are expected to act as role models for the nation’s youth.
Yet fandom in South Korea has long been an antagonistic game, with fans identifying not just as supporters of artists they like, but as nasty detractors of public figures they find fault with.
And South Korea’s media are today facing criticism for possibly having contributed to Sulli’s distress.
This week, the Korea Press Foundation released the results of an analysis of press coverage related to Sulli, which concluded that media outlets sought cheap clicks by circulating speculative articles about Sulli’s personal life without verifying their accuracy, thereby providing a space for hateful comments.
Sulli’s life would have been less stressful if every one of her posts on Instagram or comments on television hadn’t led to a froth of dozens of news articles.
Maladroit press coverage has continued after Sulli’s death. One Korean media outlet took down an article that described Sulli as having been a “no bra advocate” after the word choice garnered criticism.
One report on her death that veered close to victim-blaming posited that Sulli had “courted controversy with statements that put her outside of some societal norms here”.
Nearly all public figures face some kind of pushback online, and the hate Sulli faced consistently for years has been pointed to as a likely reason for Sulli’s death.
Surely having her social media filled with vulgar insults – not just for a particular incident but with everything she posted – must have taken a psychological toll on her.
Her death has created momentum for efforts to stamp out online abuse. Petitions have gone up on the South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s website calling for legislation to punish individuals who post hateful comments or media outlets that spread falsehoods online.
There are also calls for a system where all online comments would be left in the user’s legal name, instead of allowing netizens to hide behind an online pseudonym.
It is likely that many commenters would be more polite, or choose to keep silent, if their personal or professional reputation was tied to what they were posting.
The day after Sulli’s death, 70 per cent of respondents to a RealMeter opinion poll said that websites ought to require commenters to post under their real names.
Despite these well-intentioned efforts, it isn’t possible to legislate compassion. Increased regulation could make the Internet a more pleasant place, but can’t change the kind of prejudice an independent woman like Sulli faced.
At the root of Sulli’s anguish is a society where so many refuse to tolerate people who behave in unique ways, particularly when such people are young and female.
It would be overly simplistic to say that Sulli died because of cyberbullying. By refusing to adhere to social norms, Sulli seemed to be telling her critics that they couldn’t control her, that despite their disapproval she would keep doing her own thing.
If there is one lesson to take from her death, it is that South Korean society should be willing to tolerate difference and behave compassionately towards people who make unconventional choices.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.