Muted Group Theory
University of Colorado at Boulder
"Women do two thirds of the world’s work...Yet they earn only one tenth of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property. They are among the poorest of the world’s poor." –Barber B. Conable Jr, President, World Bank
According to Kramarae groups within our society are muted, or go incompletely heard due to the lack of an effective means to express certain groups of ideas, experiences, or thoughts. Kramarae calls these groups muted and focuses specifically on the muted group of women. She argues that language is "man-made" and "aids in defining, depreciating and excluding women" (Griffin,1997,459). Muted Group Theory sees language as excluding women based on several factors. For example the words used to describe a sexually promiscuous individual are radically different. For men words like, stud, playboy, rake, gigolo, and womanizer among others, all with positive connotations, describe the sexually active male. In a harsh contrast words to describe a female with an active sexual appetite include: slut, hooker, mistress, hussy, easy lay, prostitute, whore, and nymphomaniac. The women-specific words are demoralizing and place a negative value on women’s sexuality. The words used to describe men make them seem powerful, controlling, and dominant. Kramarae’s theory poses questions about why these phenomena exist.
A second example of how women are muted according to Kramarae is the depiction of them in mass media. Women are rarely the heroes of television shows, and in cartoons they appear "emotional, apologetic, or just plain wishy-washy" (Griffin, 459). Breakthroughs for feminism on television have come with shows like Mary Tyler Moore and the current Murphy Brown. Both main characters being female, and in power of a television news program make them an unusual genre (Vande Berg, Wenner, Gronbeck, 1998). Kramarae’s Muted Group Theory would be quick to find male dominance in the shows. Kramarae would notice how masculine Murphy Brown’s voice is, how her costuming often includes ties and slacks, and how the character is reliant on males to make a good television program in order to please a white, male, superior/owner, whom her character must ‘answer to.’ of the fictitious station. Kramarae would also notice the traditional female roles of the other characters-- their whiny voices, short skirts, thin bodies and desire to marry and bear children (i.e., the character of Corky).
Another main argument of Muted Group Theory is the factor that women are muted in the workplace. Women must fight to shatter a "glass ceiling," a term probably coined since Kramarae’s death to recognize "an invisible barrier that limits advancement of women and minorities" (Wood, 1999, p.284) in the corporate world. Women must also use names that are based on competitive sports (i.e., an even playing field, see attached news article) or male oriented experience to be understood-- women do not have competitive terms of their own. For example discussions of golf, basketball, football, baseball, and other sports automatically assume males are the participants unless otherwise specified. These sports are not only socialized to be played by males, but historically have always been male oriented. Kramarae also notes that "anatomy is destiny;" in other words, if you are born into the dominant group, white males, you have the power to use the language in the most effective manner (since it was designed by and for them), and you have the power to name. This power to name can control whether an experience is negative or positive, male or female (Griffin, 1997).
Cheris Kramarae’s Muted Group Theory also believes that, not only has language favored men, but laws and "the conventions of proper etiquette"(Griffin, 1997, p.462) have also helped men maintain their dominance. Issues of marriage are particularly important. In most marriages women take the last name of their husbands and give up their own last name. Kramarae sees this as a key element of how women are muted. Even traditional wedding vows are male dominated and religions are almost always dependent on a white male leader, or guide. In most Christian weddings the father of the bride even gives his daughter away to the groom. Marriage in this country also mutes women since it does not allow for same-sex marriages. Same-sex marriages are not recognized by the laws of our nation, nor do women involved in same-sex relationships have a voice to describe their desires to become lawfully wed. Kramarae’s Muted Group Theory is complex and rooted in a solid belief that women are muted by a language that lacks equality for them and by a society that, also shaped by language that has been "man-made," now upholds and has ingrained a lesser, or less-than, value for women.
Even before I knew about Kramarae’s Muted Group Theory I had suffered the oppression of being a muted, hence lesser, group. The restaurant industry here in Boulder is one that is strong and always expanding. Employees make good tips and the cuisine is usually high quality. A consumer can choose from an array of different menus in Boulder: Indian, Mexican, Oriental, even Russian and Ethiopian. Most restaurants on a weekend night are crowded and the waits are long. Employees speed dangerously across the floors of the restaurant hurrying with trays stacked with food, and bussers wipe and re-set tables as fast as possible. From the consumer’s point of view the industry looks profitable, and the employees on top of their duties, and secure in their roles. However, when the restaurant industry is viewed from Cheris Kramarae’s Muted Group Theory, cracks appear in its sleek veneer.
For a year I worked as a busser at the "Sea" (a fictitious name) in Boulder. With its downtown location, great food, and relatively low cost, the "Sea" was a raging hot spot to be seen and to work. The tips were great-- on the average I made about $80.00 a night, not bad for six hours of work. Added to $3.25 an hour and free food, the job itself was ideal for my lifestyle as a busy student.
The people I worked with were all nice and civil, the restaurant often had parties for its employees or other incentives. As I gained seniority I worked busier nights and made more and more money. Certain members of the waitstaff came to know me well and would request me in their section of the restaurant. The managers started having me train the new employees and also had me creating weekly schedules. As my confidence grew I would suggest new ideas I felt would help the business. The suggestions were often implemented when I told "Nan," the female manager, but when I told one of the three male managers the ideas would be laughed off or disregarded. Looking back on my experiences at the "Sea" I realize that these men were not only sexist, but they were using the dominance they held in the language to ‘brush-off’ or ignore my communication. Whether my voice was unheard, or I was ineffective in my "translation" is impossible to determine. But it is obvious to me now that I was being muted.
The work as a busser at the "Sea" is hard. It requires heavy lifting, trash removal, customer relations, and the memorization of more than eighty tables. The tight space limitations in the "Sea" also create a difficult work environment. The busser must always be quick to move out of the way for customers or trays of hot food coming out of the kitchen. The noise volume is headache producing, and with the restaurant packed, the room temperature skyrockets.
Aside from hectic work conditions the hardest part of the job was trying to win my way in as an equal. I was the "head busser" and the only female busser. The men would often ask me if I needed help lifting a tray or ask me if I could lift the trash or bar mats by myself. I knew they were only trying to help, but the obvious mindset of them seeing me as "less" was a struggle each day I went to work. I knew that I was stronger than many of the other bussers, I would use larger trays and was physically more muscular and this created difficulty gaining a friendship without competition from the slender male bussers.
Even some of the female wait staff would be rude or judgmental of me. They seemed to think that a busser should be male, not female. The male managers would urge me to become a waitress and end my bussing career, but with my school schedule I did not have the time to train and become a waitress. The male managers seemed almost ashamed to have the dominant busser a female, and several male waiters told me not to "worry about" their tables-- as if they did not feel comfortable with a woman doing a traditionally male role.
When the school semester ended and it came time for me to go home for the summer, another interesting phenomena occurred. As applicants for bussers flooded the manager’s desk, I noticed that several of them were from women. I started reading them after one of my final shifts and marked the candidates I felt would best serve the "Sea". The next day I noticed that the applications I had marked were gone and the remaining applications all had men’s names at the top. I read over the applications from the men-- Josh, no experience, Mark, worked in a grocery store, Ed, no experience, and Tyler, worked for one month at "Healthy Habits." The women’s applications I had marked were much better candidates-- all had experience and most were familiar with the "Sea" and its cuisine. The next week I started training Josh.
When I reflect on my experience at the "Sea" I realize what a sexist environment I was working in. I also realize how sexist the entire restaurant industry is. Most wait staff are female, and most restaurants are owned by males in Boulder. Few bartenders are female and to this day I have not seen another female busser. Perhaps the work is too dirty for most females, or maybe too routine, but the fact remains that restaurant, child care, secondary health care, and teaching jobs are held primarily by women, operated or owned by men, and all have limited income potential.
My experience at the "Sea" helped me become a stronger person. I learned how to hold my ground in a male dominated field of work. I also learned how to communicate better with men, and I met women who upheld sexist values against women-- a phenomenon that I had not confronted prior to my job at the "Sea". My experience with the "Sea" also showed me that, just because a manager holds a higher position, does not mean that person is smarter, better, or more worthy of the position than myself. Dealing with competitive men, insecure women, sexist managers, and racist cooks helped me understand the reality of the theories I learn in classes and how real the problems facing women are. The process of learning a job, role, or relationship for a woman seems to be far different than the learning a male undergoes. Women must continually decipher male dominated meaning, suffer the oppression of men, including fetishistic and voyeuristic gazing (both common in the restaurant industry), and also feel the frustration that is inherent to being a muted group with only muted language for a means of expression.
Kramarae’s Muted Group Theory has helped shed light on my experiences at the "Sea". Her theory also helps me with my current job and everyday life. I am conscience of trying not to succumb to the oppression of our language. For example, before I understood Kramarae’s theory I would always check the box marked "Ms." on medical or insurance forms to identify my marital status. Now I leave them blank. Her theory along with others have helped me to create an identity that struggles to be independent of men and their control. I also find that when I use Kramarae’s theory to evaluate a situation (especially between my boyfriend and me), men or my boyfriend are often unintentional in their dominance and are acting only as the society and culture have taught them.
Kramarae’s theory has been particularly useful in its ability to allow me to more fully understand the English language. I find more and more instances where women are muted and lack a word to express their experiences. This seems to be particularly true in regards to menstruation. Women have few words to describe their monthly reproductive cycle. When cramping of the uterus occurs the only term to describe it is: "cramps." Not a "low-cramp" or "deep-cramp." Women often describe their periods as a negative experience. They say they feel bloated, moody, irritable, dirty, smelly, and generally unattractive. No importance is placed on the miracle of the female anatomy. Since menstruation is specific only to females it is described in a generally negative context. This is but one example of how male perceptions dominate all aspects of a woman’s life. The naming of terms associated with a female specific experience, like menstruation, PMS, pregnancy, menopause, are all negative-- Kramarae would argue that this is no coincidence.
"The Feminist Dictionary" partially created by Kramarae has also been useful to me. It is enjoyable to read terms so commonly derogatory to women as actually being positive for them or to read them with the mind of the feminist creating the meaning, not a white male. I particularly like Kramarae’s definition of a cuckold: "The husband of an unfaithful wife. The wife of an unfaithful husband is just called wife" (Griffin, 1997,p.467). Rebecca West also caught my attention with her definition of Feminist, "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat" (Griffin, 1997,p.467). I find reading the terms out of the feminist dictionary a good way to catch myself using terms that are detrimental to women. I also find that it helps me become more conscious of my word use when describing roles that are traditionally male (like doctor) and even the roles that are usually female (like nurse). I find that if I communicate my own doctor’s first name I easily identify her as a female doctor-- she is now Dr. Sheila Ling, instead of my pre-Kramarae days, Dr. Ling. I prefer the Kramarae centered approach to naming because it helps me incorporate a female influence into my dialogue, as well as helping to communicate and influence others to adopt a female oriented way of naming and labeling.
With Kramarae’s theory committed to my memory I find that I can contest man-made language with an increased effectiveness. As I create new terms to describe myself or my own experiences I feel not only more confident in myself as a person, but more importantly, as a female. I find too that with Kramarae’s theory on my side I can better understand my female friends and their experiences.
Kramarae’s theory for me should remain unchanged. I find her theory to be strong and useful on a daily basis. It is tangible and practical, not a theory to be used "once in a while," but rather on a daily basis. I have found myself alert to examples of gender muting, thinking about the world from a feminist point of view, and will continually change my use of language to avoid muting women whenever possible. Kramarae has proved very useful to me in only one short semester, so I know that her theory is one that will be with me through life, and one that will always remind me that I have just as much power as a man. In no way are my experiences less significant to a man’s. Kramarae’s theory helps me remember that my power as a woman may not be woven into the fabric of our society, but it is the power of women that wove the fabric, for without women, men would not exist.
Kramarae also gives me courage as graduation nears. My fears about working for a company that judges me on my gender seem eased when I apply Kramarae to my future plans. I know that with the power her theory places in me I will be more able to resist sexist comments, and more successful in rejecting dominance from men. With Kramarae in mind I will be able to better communicate my ideas to women and men. Her theory will help me more easily make the transition from a scholastic environment into the corporate environment.
Childers, O.A.(1999, April 13). Connerly: Level the playing field. The Colorado Daily, pp.1,4.
Griffin, E. (1997). A First Look at Communication, Third Edition. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Vande Berg, L.R., Wenner, L.A., & Gronbeck, B. E. (1998). Critical Approaches to Television. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Wood, J.T. (1999). Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture, Third Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.