Sulli's death sparks soul-searching on misogynic culture, journalism ethics

South Korean singer and actress Sulli was vilified online for going against the country's social norms - from wearing a shirt without a bra in public and being candid about her romantic relationships to live-streaming a drinking session with friends.
South Korean singer and actress Sulli was vilified online for going against the country's social norms - from wearing a shirt without a bra in public and being candid about her romantic relationships to live-streaming a drinking session with friends.PHOTO: JELLY_JILLI/ INSTAGRAM

SEOUL • When 25-year-old South Korean singer and actress Sulli was found dead at her home last month, it was described as "murder by fingertips".

Sulli, whose real name was Choi Jin-ri, was at the centre of online vitriol for defying the country's social norms - from wearing a shirt without a bra in public and being candid about her romantic relationships to live-streaming a drinking session with friends.

The former member of top Korean girl group f(x) also came under attack from online trolls for speaking out on mental-health issues, cyber bullying and advocating women's right to abortion, all of which remain sensitive in Korean society.

Sulli had been suffering from severe depression, according to the police.

On top of the high pressure and intense competition that K-pop stars face from an early age, Sulli's death has exposed the dark side of a society that has long tolerated cyber insults and hatred against female entertainers, as well as reckless reporting on celebrities' private lives, experts say.

Following Sulli's death, a number of Bills aimed at curbing cyber bullying were submitted to the country's National Assembly, despite concerns over violations of free speech.

Calls are also growing for a reflection on journalism ethics and for the enactment of an anti-discrimination Bill that could outlaw hate expressions in public.

Two Bills aimed at stamping out online abuse were introduced in the National Assembly on Oct 25 amid growing calls for the adoption of a real-name online comment system.

The Bills came after the presidential office website was flooded with petitions demanding that users be required to register their real names before commenting. The petitions also called for heavier punishment for online trolls and media that spread falsehoods.

The public outcry led Daum, the country's No. 2 portal site, to temporarily close its comment sections under entertainment news through which cyber insults frequently occur.

"The online platforms became a rubbish bin for anger and raw emotions for many Koreans. They just don't see the suffering they inflict on victims with such a simple, short comment," said Ms Kwak Geum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University.

"They even feel a sense of unity and belonging because so many people leave such malicious comments," she said. "They don't feel guilty and even think they are just and right."

Sulli's death also laid bare additional factors that intensify online trolling - the country's misogynic culture and media competition for clicks, experts point out.

"Sulli's provocative remarks, which were not expected from a female K-pop star, drew more misogynic comments and criticisms," said Professor Yoon Kim Ji-yeong of the Institute of Body and Culture at Konkuk University.

Sulli was rare among K-pop stars in that she vocally expressed her views on women's rights in the public sphere, upending the entertainment industry's expectations that they stay silent about their private lives or divisive issues and remain "pure," obedient and sexually desirable.

To fundamentally tackle the hate comment culture, the source of misogyny, the entertainment industry commercialising female stars' sexuality and the media frenzy inducing hate comments need to be addressed together, Prof Yoon noted.

"There should be some standards on what constitutes misogyny and hatred, why it should be banned and Bills that can regulate it," she added.

The unfounded rumours that had haunted Sulli were often picked up by news outlets where they were further spread through media.

"The press played a role in creating a cycle of producing and amplifying gossip, prejudices and malicious comments," said Professor Choi Jin-bong, who teaches media communications at Sungkonghoe University. "Media outlets themselves should establish a system that can monitor and filter out gossip-mongering and provocative contents."

THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2019, with the headline 'Sulli's death sparks soul-searching on misogynic culture, journalism ethics'. Print Edition | Subscribe