Sulli Instagram feature

Sulli and K-Pop’s Lolita Hypocrisy

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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.

One of Sulli’s infamous photos, taken by Rotta. (Source: Sulli’s Instagram account)

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.

(Source: Sulli’s Instagram account)

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.)

Is Sulli unwittingly becoming a South Korean icon for the Free the Nipple campaign? (Source: People Power Magazine, with Sulli’s photo taken from her Instagram account)

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:

Sulli’s take on the Lolita debate: “Lolita, Lolita, that’s enough. Go and swear where it’s more appropriate. Just look at my pretty face^____^” (Source: Sulli’s Instagram account)

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

Comments

comments

  • Shu

    I have to disagree with this analysis because Rotta has taken suggestive photos of Japanese schoolgirls who weren’t models, but just going about their daily business on a trip to Japan, which is just one of the sketchy things he’s done. He has a reputation that makes him similar to Terry Richardson. To work with such a person is inexcusable and to act as if she was oblivious to what kind of work she is supporting by continously posing for Rotta, Sulli is making a horrible, horrible choice. Sure, she can now choose what kind of photos she puts on her Social Media, but that automatically makes her 100% responsible for what kind of effed up picture of femininity and female sexuality she perpetuates, whereas as an idol she was practically forced to do so. These are two very different contexts. Was she permanently damaged by being forced into Kpop’s Lolita-esque aesthetic? Maybe. In any case working with someone like Rotta and not taking legitimate criticism is not something commendable or cool, but rather childish and obtuse. Despite the hypocrisy by some people who criticize her.

    • Mike

      Good thing we’ve got you here to tell Sulli what acceptable femininity and female sexuality are!

      • yawn yawnson

        lol stop kelly conwaying shu and regurgitating something you saw on some teenager’s tumblr just bc you don’t know about the dialog around rotta. anyway um this entire article is advocating sulli as feminist so it’s legitimate to disagree with that advocacy, which is what the commenter did. or to put it more negatively, the article takes the behavior of a teenager acting like a teenager, reads feminist motives and subtexts in the behavior, and uses it to support clearly subjective beliefs about what acceptable femininity and female sexuality are (clearly sulli is a powerful feminist symbol cuz i mean, she like shows her boobs and stuff and AGENCY PEOPLE AMIRITE)

  • Su

    Just want to clarify, the fried rice picture was not deleted from instagram despite the controversy. Here’s the direct link, in case you didn’t see it: https://www.instagram.com/p/BO484g5hy1C/

    Excellent article!

  • el

    It’s hard for me to blame Sulli too much for her behavior as of late…after all, she was raised during her formative years to be objectified. The person I’ve lost all respect for is Choiza. Any man in his late 30’s and beyond that would date a barely adult woman clearly has all kinds of issues and it makes him look like an immature cad.

    • David Kim

      Sulli is 22, not a child. What “issues” does a man in his late 30s have dating a young woman over, say, a pre-menopausal and bitter hag? If men universally did not prefer younger women over older women, there would be no civilization: the older a woman is, the higher the chance her child will have developmental issues.

      • Jason Lee

        David, differences in age are fine when there is no coercion involved.

        Making grandiose statements about civilisation to justify misogynist statements shows a lack of critical thinking.

      • David Kim

        Jason, I’m just responding to El’s inflammatory tone. I’m still trying to figure out what “issues” a man has following one of the most fundamental drives: to pursue and have sex with young fertile women. And I’m not being “grandiose.” If men did NOT desire or pursue young fertile women for procreational purposes, civilization would collapse in a generation or two. If men valued older women over younger women, civilization would eventually decline as more and more of the next generation is developmentally disabled in some way or another.

  • Shannie

    Most of this is faux outrage. People are just mad that Sulli sees herself as a woman and is expressing her right to be a sexual being. They are upset that someone they saw as “pure” dares to act “dirty.”

    Sulli is grown and has been living under restriction her whole life, so now that she’s free, she is just trying to find herself. I’m glad that she is behaving as a person instead of a programmed robot, like most of these Kpop stars.

    It doesn’t help that Choiza supposedly has a large penis, which they also use to shame her and insist on her being “loose.” I hope she always stays true to who she is. Women should be able to stand in their truth and express their sexuality how they see fit. Korea has one foot in the past and one in the future. It’s time to get both feet in the present.

  • Elle

    I think it’s worth noting that Sulli and Choiza have a 14-year age gap and part of the reason they got “caught” dating is because Choiza lost his wallet and in it was a picture of Sulli when she was 15 (which is when Choiza first met her.) Whether you agree with the criticism of Sulli or not, that’s definitely a factor.

    • Su

      No, the picture in his wallet was not from when she was 15. It was from when she had short hair in early 2013, when she was about to turn 19. It also looked like a photo-card one of them purchased, since it was her at a promo event and one of her group members is in the frame.

      They first met when she was 15 at a public event, but that doesn’t mean much because he was in the military and it’s doubtful they actually had a conversation or true meeting when her managers were there, also he had a girlfriend. He described their first meeting as being at the military discharge party for Kim Heechul, which happened in August 2013. Besides, Choiza would be the one deserving of criticism, not her, if that were actually the case (which it’s not).

  • Kevina Weritch

    ^ sorry i feel really stupid now that the deed is done.

  • fortheloveoflife

    I believe that with the kind of job that she has as a public figure, she has to be hold some sort of responsibility in not posting nipples and etc. Im not against someone who’s exploring their sexuality and whatnot, but they should understand that public figure does not have the freedom that a normal person does. If you want to be free to do whatever you want, then quit the job then do whatever you want. It’s very greedy of her to expect her “fans” to understand her all along while still selling her innocence image in commecials and etc.

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