This article was written on 15 Apr 2019, and is filled under Politics, Sexualities.

Voicing Oolboon: The Work of Feminist Rage in a Climate of Sexual Misconduct

CW: Sexual Assault


Do you remember the story of Philomel who is raped and then has her tongue ripped out by the rapist so that she can never tell? I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.

–Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)


My rage intensifies because I am not a victim. It burns in my psyche with an intensity that creates clarity. It is a constructive healing rage.

–bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995)


하루의 울분을 씻을 바 없어 가만히 눈을
감으면 마음속으로 흐르는 소리, 이제 사상이
능금처럼 저절로 익어 가옵니다.

–윤동주, “돌아와 보는 밤” (1941)


Without a way to wash away the oolboon of the day, my eyes
shut still, noise within my heart then flows, and now Thoughts
ripen by themselves like crab apples.

–Yoon Dong Joo, “The Night I Returned” (1941), translation[1]

A few months ago, I joined a fellow graduate student in my department to watch the streaming of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about a sexual assault committed by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, then-nominee to the Supreme Court. I watched Dr. Ford give the account of her rape story, calmly holding back her emotions amidst minor quivers in her voice, while fully comporting herself with the professional, collegial stance of women in academia.[2] But despite Dr. Ford having done everything perfectly, as many predicted, it would make no difference and Kavanaugh would be confirmed anyway. The abuser himself, claiming again and again that he had gone to Yale University and that he did not have a drinking problem, flatly denied all allegations. Kavanaugh’s vehement outbursts about his own victimhood made me conclude that I could not bring myself to finish watching the hearing. I felt the need to distance my sickened self from social media, rein in all my feminist rage, and then will myself into numbness.

Dr. Ford’s testimony, as journalist Rebecca Traister observes, was another instance of how the policing of emotion operates according to sexism and misogyny.[3] A woman’s display of her emotion— particularly her anger— is severely censured by the public gaze. Meanwhile, the masculine ego robbed of its “birthright,” as Traister puts it, has the privilege to lash out against any opponent that dare challenge that right, offended at the fact that someone would ever have the nerve to question his word. But Kavanaugh’s display of his egotistical right to anger was especially painful to watch, Traister claims, not because of the hyperbole of its performativity but because of its familiarity.

To quote Traister’s words,

This is the anger of white men, of course. Their anger is revered, respected as the stimulus for necessary political change. Because they’ve always been the rational norm, the intellectual ideal, their dissatisfactions are assumed to be grounded in reason — not the emotional muck of femininity.

As the hearing showed that day, nothing had changed since Dr. Anita Hill testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 about the sexual harassment she had faced from Clarence Thomas. Today, we are living in a climate that treats women’s trauma as negligible, while the petulant male ego is safely protected from social consequences, and instead is revered as the norm. And if a professional white woman like Dr. Ford who has done every single thing right still comes under attack, it seems to confirm the fear that many women of color hold. It’s the fear that our voices might never be heard as reasonable, and that our credibility will always be called into question. Meanwhile, abusers and their most ardent supporters continue to thrive in this fertile ground of violent racism and heterosexism. As Sara Ahmed observes, evidence of sexism and racism will always be dismissed as insufficient in our institutions precisely “because of racism and sexism.”[4] When racism and sexism shield everything else, what is the use of “evidence” in this suffocating climate that covers up abuse or simply doesn’t recognize women’s testimonies as evidence? What does it take for a woman to be believed? When institutions respond with silence to survivors’ reports of sexual assault, what can we do to combat the institutional practices that continue to give power to abusers? As I think through these problems, I find myself thinking more and more about the place of feminist rage.

The question of the place of rage is not a new subject for feminism. Black feminist theory has shaped my understanding of the everyday experience of living with rage within a culture of white supremacy and patriarchal violence. It’s also offered me insight into how anger can be used for transgressive purposes in political life. As Audre Lorde writes, for a Woman of Color, living with anger against racism is part of everyday life.[5] For Women of Color, as Lorde shows us, anger is not only familiar psychological territory but an informed, acquired stance. Learning to live with “a symphony of anger,” as Lorde puts it, is a rational response to a hostile climate:

Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger at being silenced at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say “symphony” rather than “cacophony” because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart. We have had to learn to move through them and use them for strength and force and insight within our daily lives. Those of us who did not learn this difficult lesson did not survive. And part of my anger is always libation for my fallen sisters.

I keep coming back to Lorde’s words as I think about the fabric of violence woven into institutions, policies, and the culture of silencing. When yet another woman’s courage to tell the truth about her experience as a sexual assault survivor is discounted as unreliable evidence, once again we are forced to face the glaring reality that institutions protect their power by violently erasing the experience of victims. Furthermore, I’m constantly reminded of the fact that the U.S. has always worked to invalidate the bodies of the vulnerable through deportation, military occupation, police brutality, borders, and incarceration. The work of galvanizing anger as well as learning to move through daily life in that position, especially when that rage is so long-lasting, seems difficult and even impossible at times. When the state’s endeavors to exclude and eradicate bodies continue to gain votes in nationwide elections, making use of feminist anger can feel like an uphill struggle, as though we are fighting a battle that will never end. But as Lorde teaches us, it’s a vital task to learn how to live through the anger in this political climate, following the lead of those who have survived and of those who have not.

Feminist scholars have explored understandings of rage in historical and contemporary representations of affect, gender, and embodied subjectivity. While angry women have historically been hystericized, stigmatized, and stifled, anger has also galvanized feminist theory and praxis through its many eloquences, strengths, and dynamic uses.[6] As we continue to think about the place of rage in the climate of sexual misconduct, it’s necessary to examine ways in which rage has been suppressed, as well as envisioning the forms of expression feminist rage might take. The first epigraph of this essay, an excerpt from a memoir by a lesbian author finding her own voice after surviving religious abuse from her adoptive, fundamentalist mother, references the Ovidian myth of Philomela, the story of a rape victim who is doubly assaulted when her tongue is literally severed from her body so that she can never tell anyone.[7] But the tongueless Philomela weaves her story of sexual assault in purple threads, despite the fact that she has been deprived of speech. Reclaiming power through the survivor’s own language, as the author tells us, breaks down the barrier of imposed silence. As a graduate student in literary studies, much of the feminist writing that I’ve encountered has revolved around the work of re-voicing the suppressed language of women. The story of Medusa, which similarly centers a rape victim whose body is deprived of its human form, has become the symbol of female rage, inviting feminist scholars to reimagine the body of Medusa as the site for challenging the hegemonic violence of male-centered discourse. When Medusa is raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, she is punished for her rapist’s crime by being transformed into a monstrous creature. Medusa is cursed with venomous snakes that grow as hair on her head, and forever terrorizes men who look her in the eye with her lethal gaze. But Medusa is ultimately beheaded by another man who kills her while looking through a mirrored shield. The story of Medusa inspired Hélène Cixous’s essay “The Laugh of Medusa” (1976), which makes the argument for the practice of écriture feminine, a style of writing that retrieves the territory of the woman’s body and that of language itself from dominant male discourses. Later, Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Medusa” (1999) gave the voice of fury back to its original protagonist in the form of a dramatic monologue through the speaker’s terse, biting complaints.

Then there’s Antigone, a figure that modern feminists have embraced to theorize the politics of refusal, suicide, and public lament. In Sophocles’ classical tragedy, Antigone defies the sovereign decree by giving her brother a proper burial and commits suicide to refuse the death sentence that Creon proclaims as her fate. For feminist thinkers, Antigone’s lament, in particular, has been a productive site for examining affective modes, alongside theories of female complaints, feminist killjoys, and grievance.[8] On November 26, 2018, Mary Favret, a professor in my department, pointed out in her talk for the WGS Graduate Colloquium and Lecture Series, that the English language classifies sadness and anger as “two distinct ecosystems” of emotion, as though one is a separate entity from the other.[9] In her talk, Professor Favret drew attention to the early British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) as an example of how the landscape of feeling resists this divide. Reading the suicidal narrator’s mode of expression in the Letters, she claimed, shows us how the lyric strains, scattered echoes of tragedy, and melodramatic modes of complaint inherit the complex affective landscape of sorrow-filled rage from Sophocles’ Antigone. When we place Wollstonecraft’s letters side-by-side with a text like Antigone that haunts feminist receptions of it, as Professor Favret proposed that day, we begin to gain a resourceful insight into a genealogy of the unvoiced lament of women. In other words, reading Wollstonecraft’s airing of grievance together with Antigone’s muted yet timeless lament allows us to see the two texts as a feminist continuum that re-voices the experience of gender.

It’s crucial that we continue telling and re-telling stories from the perspective of feminist rage. I’ve also found it helpful to think about how rage has different cultural and historical expressions, which can inform us of what the work of feminist rage might look like today. In my country, there is a specific type of rage that is rooted in deep-seated sorrow, grief, and long-lasting suffering. In Korean, this emotion is called “울분” (transliteration: ool-boon; translation: sorrow-rage) which indicates a rage-filled sadness that has been bottled up so long that it has become explosive, the feeling that poet Yoon Dong Joo writes about in the last stanza of his poem, “The Night I Returned,” which I cite in the epigraph. Oolboon encompasses a spectrum of anger that sometimes looks like sobbing one’s guts out due to severe mistreatment, and at other times, actively rallying against injustice. When I try to describe how Korean people have felt and expressed oolboon, the image that comes to my mind is the kind of sorrow that consumes so much energy that it is almost choking us, which then finally erupts into rage.

The most common verb associated with the manifestation of this emotion is toh-ha-da, which literally means “to vomit,” or “to throw up.” To vomit oolboon can be both an individual expression of lament and a public explosion of anger against unjust power. In English, the closest expression I can think of is to vent one’s pent-up anger against the source of the grievance. But even “vent” doesn’t quite capture the way that oolboon ecstatically transforms into public anger. Nor does the English expression that makes me sick to my stomach quite convey the explosiveness of oolboon. To let out oolboon is to throw up the distress that has been stored in one of the core organs of the body. It is to release the sorrow-stricken rage that has become so intolerable to the point that it has become physically impossible to stomach. In the Korean language, oolboon signifies the emotion that has reached its utmost limit. It can be suppressed, hidden, and quelled for long periods of time, over lifetimes, generations, and epochs. But it can never disappear nor evaporate.

And thus, oolboon becomes a loud, active outburst of emotion that is always directed against something. Because oolboon is by its definition an uncontainable emotion, it recognizes the tipping point. When oolboon is vomited, it’s anything but silent. To vomit oolboon is not only to ignite the spark but to inflame it into a blazing fire. It moves toward the point that makes your insides erupt like a volcano. It understands that there is an invisible dam that finally breaks when living with anger becomes unbearable, when you can only move through it and potentially never beyond it until change happens. It’s a recognition that systemic violence can neither be treated as merely temporary nor as sugar-coatable until the system itself has been dismantled. It sees that the refusal to be emotionally appeased is a radical political stance. If Freud’s notion of trauma, a psychic wound of the past, indicates an unassimilable feeling that freezes conscious memory and haunts the subconscious, oolboon is a conscious, dialectic movement toward the mobilization and resolution of pain. At its heart, oolboon becomes a disruptive vehicle that works to explode hegemonic forces, moving toward the endpoint of creating change.

In Korean history, oolboon has always been an urgent form of both personal and collective resistance, bringing together an aggregate of mistreated bodies that are wailing for justice at a crucial historical moment. A historical example of this is the March First Movement of 1919, an early display of Koreans crying out against colonial Japan’s occupation of the peninsula and demanding our independence. For my ancestors under Japan’s rule in the early 20th century, to vomit oolboon signified raging crowds of people gathered in the public square, crying Man-se! Man-se! Man-se! waving independence flags as they were being massacred by the Japanese police force and army. To release oolboon in the context of revolutionary politics is not only to feel enraged but to publicly express the intolerable, uncontainable sorrow through organized action.

When anti-Kavanaugh protesters gathered in Washington D.C to rally against the confirmation, women stood in the rain obstructing traffic as they were waiting to be arrested by the Capitol police. And when Kavanaugh was confirmed according to a 50-48 vote, the explosive feeling of oolboon among women felt unbearable. While I had remained relatively numb on the day of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing, several days later, I found myself shaking in anger and sadness, sobbing my guts out, wanting to release everything that I had been trying to quietly process the past week. The weight of anger I carried in my body was not trauma. While I recognize that it’s not the story of a lot of survivors, I’ve personally come to a place of genuine resolution with my own past wounds of abuse. But I was angry. I was angry on behalf of other survivors that had been deprived of their voices, forced into decades of silence, and then re-traumatized by a climate that refuses to believe their stories or investigate them with integrity. I was furious that survivors were being vilified as liars and opportunists.

Instead of asking whether feminist rage is valid enough, it’s perhaps a more restorative stance to embrace the powerful work of rage by consciously attending to the noise of oolboon. Feminist rage allows for a legitimate and powerful mode of existence, a way of outpouring new energies into the silence and void. Instead of trying to shut down rage altogether or turning it into a temporary position that we must move beyond, we might start asking how we can make room for rage, both for ourselves and for others. How do we accept our own rage and hold space for the rage of others? How do we ensure that rage can be recognized as a rational sphere of living, survival, and healing?

When voices narrating the experience of sexual assault are stripped of the right to express anger, it is necessary that the stance of believing survivors should involve acknowledging the painful labor of stifling one’s rage. The political energies of the global #MeToo movement that started with Tarana Burke show that deep-seated oolboon has finally been erupting in the voices of survivors in many different parts of the world. To counter the silencing of victims’ narratives, the work ahead of us might start by learning to navigate our collective oolboon together that’s already making us sick to our stomachs. But feminist oolboon is not just about sound and fury. Its central work, as I’ve said above, goes hand in hand with the movement toward re-voicing the unvoiced. It prioritizes the work of accrediting the disarticulated voices of sorrow, and amplifying others’ voices as we live with our own oolboon. The outpouring of feminist oolboon as a political stance entails the active protection of the most vulnerable bodies: Black and Indigenous people of color, trans and nonbinary people, the undocumented, and survivors of sexual violence doubled down with racial violence. Feminist oolboon understands that the voices that were initially silenced by institutions must be heard in their highest volume, recognized in terms of their original force, and manifest according to their most radical impact.

As institutions continue to maintain their racist and sexist systems by invalidating the stories of vulnerable and violated bodies, it is our task to orchestrate the sound and fury of our own bodies and to hold onto the oolboon of others in a gesture of recognition. To validate the rage of another is to recognize the embodied subjectivity of the person who has been silenced. Listening to the airing of suffering needs to entail the validation of rage as a reasonable, social, and much needed position. Then perhaps, as bell hooks tells us in the words of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, we can at last begin to learn how to use our anger as “compost” to water the gardens around us, to feed and nourish the places that need it the most.[10]



[1] The Korean poet Yoon Dong Joo (1917-45), who is most known for his lyric poetry in the posthumous collection Sky, Wind, Star, and Poem, was arrested in 1943 by the Japanese police for his support of Korean independence, and died in prison in Fukuoka, Japan, in February 1945, six months before Korea became independent. Since Japan annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910, the cultural assimilation policy reached its height in the late 1930s and 1940s, a period when the teaching and speaking of Korean was prohibited. The 1940s, the period when Yoon wrote his later poems before his imprisonment, was also a time when Korean men were deported to Japan as forced laborers and drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. Meanwhile, 500,000 Korean women were forced into sexual enslavement to provide sex for Japanese soldiers in “comfort stations” across occupied areas during WWII.

[2] Dr. Charlotte Lydia Riley has written on Dr. Ford’s performance of academic professionalism in her article, “Christine Blasey Ford is a superhero on the stand—but she shouldn’t have to be.” Prospect, Sep. 27, 2018.

[3] Rebecca Traister, “And You Thought Trump Voters Were Mad,” The Cut, Sep.17, 2018.

[4] Sara Ahmed, “Evidence.” feministkilljoys (blog), Jul. 12, 2016.

[5] Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” Keynote Presentation, National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Storrs, CT, Jun. 1981.

[6] See Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018).

[7] Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (New York: Grove Press, 2011).

[8] Sara Ahmed, “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness.” Signs 35, no. 3 (Spring 2010), 571-594. Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

[9] Mary Favret, “Wollstonecraft’s Antigone.” Lecture, WGS Graduate Colloquium and Lecture Series, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, Nov. 26, 2018.

[10] George Yancy and bell hooks, “bell hooks: Buddhism, the Beats and Loving Blackness.” Interview, Opinionator, Dec. 10, 2015.


Sungmey Lee (pronouns: she/her/hers) is an English PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University. She received her B.A. in Political Science and English from Yonsei University in South Korea. Her research interests include Victorian literature, nineteenth-century discourses of the mind, and the politics of literary affect.

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