Sulli is an interesting figure in the K-pop world. She entered the world of South Korean celebrity at the ripe age of 11, debuted as a member of girl group f(x) four years later in 2009, and rose to stardom under the strict guidance of SM Entertainment, a mega-agency in South Korea’s entertainment world, whose status is akin to that of Seoul National University in education or Samsung Group in business.
Her stardom, though, seemed to collapse in 2014, when rumors of Sulli’s romantic relationship with a rapper were confirmed first by the paparazzi, then grudgingly by SM Entertainment itself. She was condemned by her loyal fans, permanently discharged from f(x) duties in 2015, and now appears infrequently in acting and advertising roles, officially still under the SM umbrella.
If her career was in danger of facing oblivion, Sulli’s Instagram is helping her cling onto public visibility and relevance.
Since becoming a relatively freer agent — no longer bound by the strict codes of conduct that govern K-pop idols — Sulli has been been posting more revealing photographs of her life, which includes Choiza, the rapper whom she is still dating. For that, she has been called the Kim Kardashian of South Korea, mentally unstable, bold and free, “My Way” Sulli, and more recently, Lolita.
Why Lolita? Less than two weeks ago, she posted pictures of herself in just a T-shirt and underwear, staring suggestively into the camera. The photographer was none other than Rotta, famous (or notorious depending on who is talking) for taking ‘Lolita-esque’ or ‘virgin-whoresque’ pictures of female celebrities.
The Lolita Complex in K-pop is an old topic for many fans. Young female stars, often in their teens, must dance in skimpy miniskirts or school uniform-lookalikes, feeding the sexual fantasies of older “uncle” fans who insist that their affection arises out of paternal, protective instincts, or else admit the dirty reality — the Lolita Complex — that they secretly want to bang the girls.
That K-pop’s girls cater to older men is no big secret. For example, SM Entertainment CEO Lee Soo-man told Chosun Ilbo in 2008, “People in their 30s and 40s are emerging as main cultural consumers, and Girls’ Generation [a mega girl group SM Entertainment manages] specifically targets the men in that age group.”
Sulli herself has been part of the Lolita machine since her f(x) days; the Rotta photographs she posted on Instagram are really nothing new to her or followers of K-pop.
Sulli and other f(x) members in their 2013 MV of Rum Pum Pum Pum. (Source: SM Entertainment’s official Youtube account)
Yet many in the media and her Instagram followers have criticized her photographs as sexual and therefore “inappropriate.” “As a celebrity, shouldn’t she think about how the photos she posts influence the public?” commented Instagram follower ‘syh_362.’
“Now when she smiles, she doesn’t look pretty. She looks dirty,” wrote ‘meilssa5566,’ another follower.
Her explicit sexuality didn’t draw such huge criticism about her morality or character when she was working as an f(x) member. The difference has to do with agency (i.e. freedom and choice, not SM). Now it’s Sulli who’s posting the pictures, not SM. Her sexuality or image is her own to craft, not the agency’s. And unlike her company, she’s not catering to the public’s fantasies of her.
Her managers knew how to walk the line between lewd sexuality and youthful innocence, by revealing/covering body parts as deemed appropriate by K-pop conventions of the time. Careful not to push the boundaries of propriety too much, the industry keeps their stars polite and bland, coaching them never to say the wrong things or be too honest.
Sulli, on the other hand, is showing her nipples. Sort of.
For social media followers used to the real Kim Kardashian, Sulli’s Instagram is probably as controversial as K-pop stars’ usual bland public praises of their bosses and fans. But many South Koreans seem to find Sulli’s barely visible nipples — even when completely covered by clothing — to be a slap in the face. Nipples lie beyond the bounds of acceptable sexuality.
The nipples have caused a firestorm because they’re Sulli’s nipples. Not only is she supposed to be a gongin, a public figure whose behavior is expected to set a ‘healthy’ standard for the rest, she was until recently a beloved female K-pop star. Her primary function was to preserve the fantasy surrounding her image. She did this largely by embodying the industry’s hypocritical stance on South Korea’s idol sexuality: An idol performs as a sexual object but must pretend sex doesn’t exist. She had to be a Lolita, but one without a voice.
“A girl’s sexuality seems safe only when it has been commercialized,” wrote Sohn Hee-jung, a culture critic. When Sulli’s sexuality was packaged and sold on television, most consumers had no qualms. It was entertainment. But when she advertised it herself, sometimes diverging from K-pop’s packaged norm, consumers responded with concerned eyebrows, and even outrage. Now, her sexuality became real and — by some inconsistent moral standards — dirty. (Even her relationship with a much older rapper has attracted charges that she is driven by wanton sexual desire, partly because her boyfriend’s stage name has been understood to imply he has a large penis.)
Even some women’s rights advocates have come out against her. “In the picture of Sulli lying in bed in her underwear, staring listlessly at the camera, one cannot see a woman’s sense of self,” argued a reporter at Women News, a weekly magazine covering feminist and gender equality issues.
What Sulli’s many detractors ignore is that this so-called ‘woman’s sense of self’ can come down to choice, and that Sulli is affirming herself by choosing to upload these photographs. This is hardly the case for the majority of female K-pop stars, most of whom are younger than Sulli. In a 2010 government survey, 60% of female celebrities in their teens said they had exposed their bodies under coercion. At least Sulli, now an adult, chooses to pose as a Lolita; many others don’t have the freedom.
She has her defenders. Culture critic Sohn said, “Some ask, ‘Who is sexually objectifying Sulli: The people, or herself?’ But the questions must change. We should ask, ‘Is this sexual objectification, or sexual agency?'”
Whether people like it or not, Sulli is growing up. The 22-year-old, who now calls herself an actress instead of an idol star, continues to upload photos that contrast with the K-pop industry’s hypocritical silence on sex (despite all the racy lyrics and performances), and consumers’ hypocritical expectations of what a female star’s sexuality should be like. Her photos are actually neither revolutionary nor insightful: sexy photos of her in underwear; food arranged cheekily into an object resembling male genitalia (deleted because of public outcry); and just last week, a photo of herself grabbing onto her knees as if they were breasts.
Amid the backlash, her social media persona is gathering its share of supporters. Renowned actor and friend Kim Ui-seong recently tweeted, “Sulli is the coolest in the world, for continuing to upload photographs, without adding any feeble explanation.” Instagram follower ‘yu_jung_the’ agreed, “It’s so damn cool how she lives without caring how others regard her.” Follower ’00davidhahn00′ commented, rather dramatically, “Freedom of expression will make culture and the arts grow.”
Meanwhile, Sulli is responding in an irreverent manner that’s rare, or nearly impossible, among other South Korean female celebrities, not just K-pop stars:
Neither Sulli nor SM Entertainment responded to Korea Exposé’s request for comment.
Cover Image: A sample of images from Sulli’s Instagram account @jelly_jilli