By: Katie Evans
moonROK Guest Editorialist
We don’t live in a golden age of gender equality, but we might live in an unprecedented era of visibility for feminism. Despite the backlash running from the back alleys of the internet to the current U.S. president, women are only getting louder. Brands are co-opting the movement’s language and icons for profit. Even the most unabashed misogynist, when exposed, will argue they’re pro-women. Whether it’s genuine or not, feminism is, well, trendy.
This definitely has its advantages. A public figure declaring they’re a feminist, whether or not they really are one, destigmatizes the word faster than any college gender studies class can. The problem with ideology as a trend is that feminism, or at least good feminism, is multifaceted, and we prefer to see things in black and white. It’s this uneasy relationship that’s produced a major thinkpiece genre: Is this piece of pop culture empowering for women, or is it a steaming pile of medieval garbage? We may disagree on what feminism is, but no one wants to be on the moral low ground.
In case you haven’t heard, former f(x) member Sulli has been at the center of controversy and gossip since the summer due to her Instagram, particularly multiple boundary-pushing collaborations with Korean photographer Rotta, as well as her ongoing relationship with Dynamic Duo’s Choiza, 14 years her senior. Like any pop culture debate, there are two dominant takes: Sulli’s either an empowered young woman embracing her sexuality or a crazy, drug-addicted slut (no, really). You’re either for her or against her.
Spoiler alert: Both takes are wrong.
Looking at Sulli’s latest collaboration with Rotta, I kept thinking back to a message Ariana Grande wrote on Twitter right around Christmas. Grande, running errands with boyfriend Mac Miller, met a fan of his who only acknowledged her by congratulating Miller for “hitting that.” The incident made her feel “sick,” she wrote, and when asked why these kind of comments offend her when she regularly performs in leotards, Grande tweeted, “expressing sexuality in art is not an invitation for disrespect !!! just like wearing a short skirt is not asking for assault.” A woman in a crop top isn’t necessarily wearing it for male attention; a man might enjoy Ariana’s work, but that doesn’t mean she made it for their entertainment. Female sexuality exists whether or not men pay attention to it.
It’s tempting to apply this argument to Sulli. She and Grande have a lot in common – only a year apart in age, both started their careers as innocent teen idols before transitioning into a more adult image. To make this case, though, you’d have to completely divorce Sulli’s Instagram from its context.
In 2013, Sulli and Choiza’s respective agencies confirmed their relationship. Both parties were of age by both Korean and Western standards, but the age gap still raised eyebrows. Constant attacks from netizens led SM Entertainment to put Sulli on “indefinite hiatus” in 2014, derailing f(x)’s latest album promotions, and she quietly left the group for good a year later. The official reason for Sulli’s departure was “to focus on acting,” but she’s had one film role since. Whether she just wanted a break or is struggling to get hired is up in the air.
Here’s what we do know: Sulli chose to date a much older man, and it’s highly likely she chose to work with Rotta. It was his work with Sulli, after all, that made Rotta go viral in the first place; he’s had a string of gigs with other idols like Stellar since. Given Rotta’s low profile and controversial work, it’s unlikely SM forced Sulli to collaborate with him. That Sulli made these choices is important to understanding why her sexual expression, frankly, isn’t empowering anyone the way that Grande’s can.
Sulli’s shoots with Rotta are like the rest of his work: Young, skinny girls wearing infantilizing, barely-there outfits, all while staring coyly at the camera. Sometimes, he obscures or hides the girls’ limbs, further pushing the visual narrative that they’re helpless, ready and waiting for male consumption. Rotta cites anime as a big influence, it’s obvious that he’s also heavily influenced by controversial photographer Terry Richardson, who made it big with simple but offbeat NSFW photoshoots. It’s unsurprising that the criticism Rotta’s received is almost identical to the immense backlash to Richardson’s work.
Rotta’s work isn’t child porn (or porn at all, really), but of-age women posing coquettishly in school uniforms are intended to evoke the same feeling: desire for “forbidden fruit.” Like Girl’s Day’s infamous “diaper fashion” and Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” outfit, these pictorials capitalize on and normalize feeling sexual attraction for underage girls, even if the subjects themselves aren’t underage (Who’s bothering to look up the age of Rotta’s models, anyway?). Unlike the pedophilia of certain Catholic priests or the Gwangju teachers depicted in The Crucible, we accept adult men “helplessly” lusting after teenage girls–just look at the thriving careers of child rapists Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. As long as we sexualize things we associate with minors, this won’t change.
Sulli’s been in show business for over a decade. She knows firsthand how the industry caters to male fantasies at the expense of women, and her “Just look at my pretty face” comment shows she doesn’t care. By depicting girls as passive vehicles for male sexuality, the lolita concept completely erases female sexuality. Whether or not Sulli enjoys these photoshoots or feels personally empowered by working with Rotta is irrelevant–they are both complicit in promoting a misogynistic trend.
Ariana Grande finished her Twitter message that night with, “We are not objects or prizes. We are QUEENS.” Ariana’s sexuality and music center the female experience. Rotta’s work, and by extension, Sulli’s, ignores it.
For those on the other side of this debate, Sulli’s image has never recovered from going public with Choiza in 2013. Netizens outraged about the relationship disproportionately cast her as a cunning seductress, stripping Choiza of any responsibility, and criticized her for “jeopardizing” f(x)’s success. They celebrated any signs of trouble, poised to watch the couple crash and burn, and justified their glee by pointing to the relationship’s unnerving age and power dynamics (In addition to being 14 years older than Sulli, Choiza is the co-founder of Amoeba Culture, Dynamic Duo’s label).
Three years later, these are the same people spreading rumors that her recent wrist injury resulted from a suicide attempt. They’re the ones commenting every time Sulli posts something on Instagram to ask if she’s on drugs, call her crazy, or tell her to go back to the “old” Sulli. They simultaneously paint her as an off-the-rails Jezebel and a pitiful victim of an unhealthy, imbalanced relationship, all while asserting they harass Sulli because they care about her.
This is textbook concern trolling, as disingenuous as lawmakers who push hijab bans to “protect” women from Islam. These fans know that, even if Sulli genuinely needs help, online harassment won’t do the job (The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a handy guide to supporting peers in abusive situations that, unsurprisingly, does not include Instagram comments). If anything, publicly questioning her stability feeds rumors that something’s not right, leading to more scrutiny and gossip, the opposite of what someone struggling with mental illness or abuse needs. Their goal isn’t to help Sulli–it’s to prove they were “right” to hate her all along.
Sulli’s Instagram posts are a sign she either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the misogynistic overtones of lolita. They say nothing about her mental state, her sex life, or how her relationship’s going.
It makes sense to criticize or worry about Sulli’s actions if it’s done sincerely. There are legitimate reasons to dislike her work and be wary of her relationships with Rotta and Choiza. It’s important to remember, however, that none of us know Sulli personally—we only know the carefully-crafted image and voice she shares with us.
I don’t find Sulli’s work empowering or positive in any way, and her and Rotta’s swift dismissal of any criticism demonstrates their immaturity and inability to think meaningfully about the context and message of lolita-style photography. At the same time, the online harassment and defamation of her isn’t justified, and it’s not at all progressive to question a woman’s mental stability because you disagree with how she lives her life.
Sulli might not be your feminist hero, but she’s not your damsel in distress, either. Like any human being, like feminism itself, she’s a lot more complicated than that.