K-pop stars break silence on hurtful online comments
The Korean entertainment industry once had a saying, "hate comments are better than no comments." Stars used to brush off hate comments as part of the attention. Then, as society became more aware that online hate takes a severe toll on celebrities' mental health, agencies started taking legal action against malicious commenters.
Now celebrities are taking the matter into their own hands, separately from their agency’s legal measures, to address hate comments and also open up about how hurtful those comments can be.
Last week, singer Sunmi’s agency Abyss Company announced that it would take legal action toward malicious online commenters. In most cases, the agency takes care of such matters without the celebrity being personally involved. But this time, Sunmi had already brought the issue to the surface herself two days before her agency’s announcement.
On Oct. 11, Sunmi posted on Twitter screenshots that she took herself of hate comment toward her. The comments were filled with violent language: “How do I kill this [expletive] Sunmi,” “Sunmi, don’t release any albums. I’m going to [expletive] cuss in the reviews right away,” “Crazy [expletive].”
The comments were from an online forum about Mnet’s girl group audition show “Girls Planet 999,” on which Sunmi is currently serving as a judge. Overzealous fans of the show disagreed with some comments Sunmi made when giving advice to the contestants, and were expressing their disapproval in extremely strong language.
Along with the images of explicit hate comments, Sunmi wrote, “What did I do so wrong? What should I do? In which part did you hate to see me and want to kill me?
“Is it because of the judging criteria I mentioned in episode one? Until now, while monitoring, I tried to tell a story that more people could relate to,” she added in her defense. “Every moment, I’m thinking about what I can do to help the contestants.”
Celebrities and other famous individuals taking screenshots of hate comments about themselves and uploading them is dubbed “to taxidermize” in Korean online culture, in order to record proof and shame the malicious commenter.
But not only did Sunmi “taxidermize,” but also candidly showed that the hate comments have been affecting her and causing her psychological pain. It was a dark moment to share, but many fans appreciated her opening up.
“I’m proud of Sunmi’s decision,” said a teenage fan of the singer. "It was brave of her to ‘taxidermize’ the hate comments. Normally, celebrities have tried to act like they’re not affected by online hate. Although I’d prefer her not to read those malicious comments and get hurt, I think Sunmi expressing her pain so openly can raise awareness among the public that words can inflict real harm.”
Sunmi has been open about her mental health in the past. Late last year on a reality show, she shared the fact that she has been struggling with borderline personality disorder, a mental disorder that affects emotional stability, for five years. She also added that therapy and medication has helped her cope. This was a bold statement to make on an entertainment show, especially as a public figure in Korean society which still has stigma surrounding mental illness and therapy.
“I want to applaud Sunmi’s active handling of the [hate comment] situation,” said Lim Myung-ho, a psychology and psychotherapy professor at Dankook University. “Opening up about her mental pain, especially mental disorder, is praiseworthy and can inspire others who fear that mental illness is a taboo.
“You may have heard about the ‘Werther effect,’ when people hear about a famous person committing suicide and copying it. In this case, it can also work the other way around. People can see Sunmi being honest about her psychological suffering and think, ‘It’s normal to struggle mentally, and it’s okay to share these feelings I have.’ It can have a positive influence on Korean society’s dialogue on mental health.”
Sunmi is the most recent addition to the wave of female K-pop stars who have been actively speaking out about online hate. In an industry that once glossed over hate comments and tried not to show the ugly side of fame, stars are now unafraid of shedding light on the issue and share their most honest thoughts.
In August, singer Lee Su-hyun of K-pop duo AKMU also “taxidermized” a hate message she received on Instagram. The direct message read, “Get lost, Su-hyun you ugly hag. Don’t act conceited when you’re nothing.”
Lee uploaded a screenshot of it on her Instagram story, but the paragraph she added under it was what touched many viewers.
“I normally try to ignore these hateful direct messages,” she wrote. “But this time, I’m upset because I feel like someone young wrote this. I don’t know if they think I won’t read their messages, or they want me to read them, but we actually do read all of them.
“Fortunately, I cope relatively well with them, but there’s also a lot of people who can’t. You may think you’re swinging a small stick, but it can end up being a knife to others. If you’re saying this because you really hate me so much, I understand and I’ll get over it. But if you’re saying it for no reason, stop doing that. You’re too valuable of a person to stoop to this level.”
Lee speaking out to highlight how a mindless hate comment can cause immense pain at the receiving end, as well as her persuasive tone to educate the sender, was well received.
Prior to that in July, singer Taeyeon of Girls’ Generation posted a feistier Instagram story about online hate.
Although not written by her, but an image circulating online, she uploaded a paragraph that read, “[Haters say] If I gain weight I’m fat; if I’m thin I look sick; if I wear roomy clothes I look like a man; if I wear tight-fitting clothes I’m racy; if I eat too much I’m a pig; if I eat too little I’m picky; if I like luxury items I’m vain; if I like unbranded clothes I’m unfashionable. People who want to criticize you will criticize you for anything anyway, so just live the way you want.”
The wording was unconventional coming from Taeyeon, a girl group member known for her pure and feminine public image. Nonetheless, commenters reacted positively to Taeyeon collectively dismissing her haters.
“I can’t imagine how much she must’ve suffered to reach this mastery level of coping,” wrote one fan.
“Celebrities’ responses toward hate comments have changed, but what also significantly changed is the general public’s awareness on the magnitude of online hate,” said pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun.
“A few years ago, candid posts like those [by Sunmi] would’ve been considered oversharing. But nowadays, the public perceives online hate as a serious social issue and welcomes stars to open up. Tragic incidents in recent years like the suicide of singer Sulli [in 2019] due to her suffering from hate comments was a crucial turning point. The heightened awareness helps celebrities receive stronger empathy and support when they share their mental struggles.”
A Sunmi fan surnamed Kim added his takeaway from the incident.
“Celebrities addressing hate commenters more directly won’t make them write less maliciously,” he said.
“But I still think Sunmi and other stars opening up is meaningful, because it reminds people that celebrities are also real people with feelings. Seeing them through the television screen or monitor, it’s so easy to forget that they are actual human beings. When stars speak up, it also raises more empathy and awareness than when agencies simply release dry legal statements. So I hope more celebrities can be able to honestly say ‘I’m hurting’ and get the support they need.”
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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