In what appears to be another move adding to the ambiguity of the Wonder Girls’ current hiatus, leader Sunye recently announced her decision to depart for Haiti for a five-year long missionary trip. In a post on the group’s fancafe, Sunye explained that the “direction of her life has become clearer” and that she has decided to live her life spreading the Gospel through her NGO to people who do not know of it — and that she will continue her activities as a celebrity as “an extension to this plan.”
This announcement is only the latest in a series regarding Sunye and the Wonder Girls ever since she got married in January 2013. Coming on the heels of the announcement that Sunye had renewed her contract with JYP Entertainment just three months ago, the netizen backlash has understandably been compounded given the apparent irreconcilability of her two decisions. One might say this is a conflict that has been in the making ever since Sunye announced her plans for marriage and missionary work two years ago. Thus, it is not that much of a surprise that her decision to depart for Haiti for five years has become the straw to break the camel’s back, prompting angry responses from those who feel that she is not fulfilling her obligations to her group and members.
Frankly, JYP Entertainment’s reassurances that her departure will not signal disbandment for the Wonder Girls is not helped by the opacity of the circumstances in which Sunye apparently plans to juggle being an idol, mother, wife, and missionary all at the same time. Certainly the fact that she was — and still is — the leader of the Wonder Girls contributes to the weight of public opinion falling even more heavily against her, with most being of the opinion that if she plans to take a break from full-time idoldom, she should at least have the grace to make a clean break of it, as opposed to her current neither-here-nor-there status within the group.
Is Sunye entitled to live her life in whatever way she wishes to? Of course. However, the current problem that arises is that of accountability: to her fellow members, first and foremost, followed by accountability to the fans who have been patiently waiting for concrete news on the group’s future ever since her marriage. No one is going to begrudge her for getting married and having a child, even if she broke the norm by doing so as an active idol, rather than afterwards. Yet given the constant non-sequiturs released by JYP Entertainment regarding the status of the Wonder Girls, especially after Sohee left, it is understandable why the group’s fans are so frustrated with Sunye and her apparent selfishness in wanting to have the best of both worlds when realistically, the tolls of being a mother and of being an idol are nearly mutually exclusive.
Thus begs the age-old question: is it ever truly possible for (a female) someone to balance an idol career and start a family? Possible fan backlash, the desire to establish a solid career first, as well as the inevitable baggage attached to being a married entertainer when your target demographic consists primarily of teenagers aside, Sunye has undoubtedly set a precedent by being the first active idol to marry and have a child at the tender age of 24. In comparison, first-generation girl group members have married at an average of 5-6 years later, long after disbandment. But is Sunye doing any favours for fellow female idols who might wish to similarly get married at a younger age rather than later on past their idol prime, or is she merely fulfilling expectations that doing so would effectively halt the group’s career and, so to speak, hold the other members back?
In this case, it becomes too easy to paint the member who dared to get hitched as the wrecker of the peace, leaving her bandmates in the lurch while she flounces off to marital bliss. However, the management of the group is not solely influenced by the actions of one member; a lot of it probably comes down to whatever terms are hammered out between the member, the rest of the group, and their company as to how to proceed onwards. To be fair to JYP, the other Wonder Girls have not exactly been sitting around twiddling their thumbs for the past year, with all of them covering a fair share of appearances in the music, acting and emceeing spheres. Then again, without a group comeback to illustrate their continued relevance in today’s K-pop scene, it is all too likely that the other members will be stuck in their current positions with little hope of mobility.
The difficulty of juggling family and career for women is not limited to the K-pop industry. In fact, it’s almost surprising how Sunye marks one of the first high-profile idol cases given the ubiquity of this issue. Given the ease in which JYP has allowed member line-up changes for the group in the past — the departure of Sunmi, Hyuna, and now Sohee, as well as the addition of Hyelim — one can see why people are baffled that Sunye simply doesn’t follow the precedent set by the others and bow out gracefully from the group to concentrate on her family and missionary work. That is a question that has yet to be adequately answered by any of the involved parties.
In the end, unless JYP stops playing coy with its official statements and at least explains how the Wonder Girls are going to carry on for the next five years, the current hiatus only looks to be indefinite and drawn-out. It would be such a pity if one of K-pop’s most iconic girl groups faded out of relevance this way, ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.