Last month, two top volleyball players, Lee Jae-yeong and Lee Da-yeong, were dropped from the South Korean national team after had been accused online of bullying former schoolmates, including stealing money and physical violence. In the weeks that followed, bullying allegations swept the internet, bringing stars from across several industries, including other athletes, actors and artists, into a growing movement.
Ever since the Lee sisters were accused of being bullies, several K-pop idols have also been confronted with their own pasts. People claiming to be old classmates have shared accusations of abuse and intimidation while, in the case of girl group APRIL, a former bandmate has also shared the effects alleged bullying had on her life and career. Stray Kids’ Hyunjin has been put on hiatus by his company JYP Entertainment to “self-reflect” after he was accused of being verbally abusive to an ex-schoolmate in his teens (he issued a public apology after the claims surfaced). Members of MONSTA X, (G)-IDLE, ITZY, LOONA, SEVENTEEN and more, meanwhile, have denied the allegations that have been made against them.
This wave of bullying claims has sparked a debate among fans, with the stories largely stemming from idols’ school days (although there are some exceptions). Should they face losing their careers for something that happened years ago if they apologise and take accountability? If the allegations aren’t true, could their reputations still suffer lasting damage by these accusations? It’s a difficult topic – most adults probably wouldn’t like to be judged by the things they did as kids and when they weren’t properly equipped to deal with fallouts with friends and the pressures of school life and growing up, even if that behaviour didn’t stray into bullying. But there’s also the hurt that the alleged victims could still feel, especially seeing their school tormentors become, in some cases, global stars.
Regardless of your opinion on the matter, there is an important lesson that we should all keep in mind here – K-pop idols are fallible human beings, just like the rest of us. They screw up and make mistakes. Their employment in an industry historically built on this façade of perfection doesn’t suddenly negate them from having done stupid things, especially when they were younger. It’s easy to get swept up in the fantasy of what we see in front of us – glamorous outfits, beautiful stars, all the trappings of celebrity – but, behind the scenes, idols (and famous people in any genre, industry or country) are just as flawed as the next person.
However, this isn’t to excuse their alleged behaviours – if the accusations are true, those responsible need to own up to their pasts and try to make amends with those they’ve hurt. Perhaps, though, it is a necessary reminder that putting stars on pedestals and expecting them to behave like saints is foolish. It’s an act that could also contribute to the perpetuation of vicious cycles of bad behaviour. The pressures of idol life are many and, if we continue to play into the belief that those in the occupation really are untouchable, god-like beings, we are only adding fuel to the fire of perfectionism.
Of course, the responsibility shouldn’t just be on fans to change things, but the industry itself. There’s plenty that could be done to, if not solve the problem of bullying entirely, at least help to turn the tide against it. Raising awareness of the issue and the long-lasting effects it can have on its victims with young trainees could go some way to preventing some cases, for example.
Changing our attitudes to and the expectations we place on idols obviously isn’t going to magically solve all cases of bullying in the industry. For idols that bullied their classmates before they enter the K-pop world, the damage will already have been done. Bullying is also not just a K-pop issue – according to a UNESCO report, one in three children around the world face bullying from peers at least once a month. That signifies this is a problem on a deep societal level, and it’s one there won’t be a quick and easy solution for.
As K-pop continues to explore more vulnerable topics such as mental health (shout-out to Eric Nam and Day6’s Jae), it only seems logical that the way we view idols should adapt and change too. Many of us turn to these stars to comfort and support us through our own issues in their art. We can repay the kindness we infer from their work not only by streaming their music videos or purchasing their albums, but by not buying into the impossible standards put on them and how they live their lives.