Muted Group Theory
University of Colorado at Boulder
Muted group theory is an explanation of why some groups seem to have a voice and why some do not in our society. This theory is based on the work of Chen's Kramarae whose 1974 study focused on character depiction in cartoons. Kramarae claims that the female characters in cartoons had characteristics such as being: emotional, apologetic, and wishy-washy. These characters are also not very prominent in the cartoons. The females are illustrated as being vague and flowery, and the artists used adjectives like "nice" and "pretty" to describe them (Griffin, 1997, p. 459). From this initial study, she went on to find other evidence to support her muted group theory.
She also found that women have trouble expressing themselves in our society. She claims that this is due to the fact that men created our language, the words we speak. When women have to use words from a dictionary that was created by men, this leaves women wondering whether they have said things "just right. " This led Kramarae to her idea of the "feminist dictionary." She feels that if women have a say in what defines certain words, they will be more comfortable expressing themselves orally, not only in public, but in private as well. Examples of words from her feminist dictionary would include terms like, "sexual harassment," "glass ceiling," "date rape," and "second shift." These are all terms that pertain specifically to women and should, therefore, be defined by women. Kramarae asserts that women feel most at ease expressing themselves in alternate ways, through such means as journals, diaries, letters, etc. This way, Kramarae posits, women are free to express themselves in ways comfortable to them, breaking away from the vocabulary of their male superiors.
Another example of this male-dominated language Kramarae brings up is that in public speaking, women most often use sports and war analogies (things most women do not usually associate themselves to) in order to relate to their male audiences. Women do this to accomplish their objectives of getting ahead in life. This, they feel, is difficult if they do not gear their speech toward men, using words and analogies to which they can relate. This stems from the market being dominated by males for so long. Almost all prominent authors, theorists, and scientists have historically been male. This allows for them to give women the "facts" they should believe about society and life in general.
Therefore, not only women, but many people are "muted" in our society. Anyone who did not have a part in creating the language they speak is muted because they are unable to truly express their feelings, opinions, and thoughts through these words. Typically, women have been the ones who are muted since men are usually the one who create the language, and thus, have the power. This idea ties in with George Herbert Mead's theory of symbolic interactionism. A brief recap of the portion of his theory which relates to Muted Group Theory would be that, "the extent of knowing is dependent on the extent of naming" (Griffin, 1997, p. 85). In relation to Kramarae's theory, this claim is what makes men powerful. Since they have historically (ever since Adam) held the power to name things, they have been the ones enjoying power in society. This confirms her theory as to why women and other subordinate groups are muted.
Kramarae's theory has some other supporters, such as Edwin and Shirley Ardner, Deborah Tannen, and Carol Gilligan. Carol Gilligan's study focused on the differences between the male and female voice in society. When women are asked how they would describe themselves, she finds that, "the answers she hears are sometimes muted, often halting, but together they reveal a common image which she believes guides women throughout their lives ... they define who they are by describing relationships" (Griffin, 1991). When describing the responses of men she says that, "contrary to the descriptive words of attachment chosen by women, men select a vocabulary of self-reference that is clearly individualistic" (Griffin, 1991). Her work supports Muted Group Theory because she talks about women's responses being different from men's. This could possibly be the reason why men hold the power, since our society is geared to facilitate those who are willing to look out for themselves first in order to succeed. If female communication is not individualistic, this leaves their voices muted and them a muted group. To illustrate this theory, I will apply it to the life of a young girl growing up in this U.S. society.
Imagine a young girl, we will call her Suzie. We will start out looking at Suzie's life at age 4 and go well into her adult years. This is Suzie's story,
Suzie, ever since she was a young girl, remembers hearing fairy tales. Suzie love these fairy tales, and she wanted to grow up to be just like Cinderella (without the wicked stepmother part). All of the women in these tales were beautiful and charming, and they all ended up living "happily ever after" with their prince. This was Suzie's dream.
When Suzie started school, she started learning to read and write, just like everyone else. Her teachers told her she could be very good at English if she studied hard and learned to write and speak the ways they taught her. She was told to try hard and she would some day have a life like that of Cinderella with her prince. The teachers also told her to try hard at Math, but not to worry if she was not very good at it because boys naturally do better in this subject. So, Suzie studied hard, learning both Math and English despite her teachers' inattention.
When Suzie made it up to the Junior High/High School level, her objectives changed. Her teachers were now pushing her to do her best in school to prepare her for college, something not previously mentioned to her. Suzie was told she could make it in the "real world," if she learned the proper steps. She had to be confident in her speech, learn to write well, focus on an end goal. She had to push her way to the top and wade through the barrage of men trying to prevent her from getting there. Suzie no longer wanted that fairy tale life she had always been made to believe was the greatest thing she could ever have, she now wanted to be the queen. She wanted to have it all, and that did not necessarily include having a family.
But soon, Suzie teamed that this task would not be easy. The speeches she made in class were OK., but they were not as powerful as the ones she had seen on television. Her teacher told her that part of her problem was that she was not expressing herself clearly. She needed to use analogies that people could understand. Suzie was confused, she thought she was using good analogies. She talked about how her topic related to the life cycle, from birth to death. She talked about how you have to nurture and water the plant if you want it to grow. Her teachers told her that they understood those analogies, but they did not feel that those would go over well in the "real world." She needed to talk about being a "team player" and "going in for the kill," sports and war metaphors, not cooking and gardening. So, Suzie did this, and she excelled in her studies.
Suzie soon made it to college. Here she was accepted and encouraged to pursue her career, being whatever she chose to be. Suzie knew her goal: "the top." She wanted to be the President and CEO of a major corporation. She excelled in her studies and graduated with a 4.0 GPA and a degree in Business Administration. Suzie's great public speaking skills landed her a job with a fast-paced firm, and she soon made her way to the top.
That was Suzie's past. This is Suzie's present. She is now Susan, sitting behind a big desk in an office on the top floor. She made it. She is now the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation. And, how does she feel? Well, lonely. She only knows how to talk business and politics. She has lost all sense of the fairy tale dream of her childhood. She feels that she is unable to express herself in a way that is satisfying to her. The words she says do not hold real meaning for her, but they always seem to get her applause and praise from her male counterparts in the company. She should be happy. She has succeeded in this male world, and is now their leader. But, her heart feels empty. She does not have what she truly wants: love, a family, all the stuff she had dreamed of for so long. A friend of hers finally convinced her that she needed an alternative way of expressing her feelings. She needed to get them down on paper; she would keep a journal. In this journal, we read this unhappy tale of Suzie's life.
The story of Suzie is a real one. It may be exaggerated, but it happens in our society every day. According to Carol Gilligan, it starts when we are very young and hear fairy tales. Girls are encouraged to seek love and relationships, while men are encouraged to go off into the woods alone to fight dragons and warriors. This is where Suzie started out; this was what she wanted. Going through school, she was taught the she would be good at English, if she tried hard. But, she would have to learn the proper form, a form created by men. By learning how to use this form, she was able to become a very successful business woman. Since men had the power to name, they therefore, have the power in society. If Suzie wanted to succeed in this society, she had to learn things the way men do. Because of this, Suzie had to learn to use sports and war metaphors in her speeches in order to engage her primarily male audiences. Only when she did this was she able to succeed in making powerful speeches, as Kramarae's theory would suggest.
Also, when Suzie decided she wanted to succeed, she had to throw away her desire to have a family and live "happily ever after." This is because she had to engage in the male, self-centered pursuit of a career. Males have typically been the ones to hold the position of CEO, which Suzie was striving for, so she had to play the game their way. Men are usually the ones who are willing to give up their relationships in order to achieve their goals. If women have those same goals, they are expected to give up those same things in order to prove themselves worthy. This goes back to Carol Gilligan's theory about women's voices being different from men's.
Even though Suzie found success in the marketplace, she was still miserable. This is because she was not able to truly express herself. She was forced to speak in a way that would make herself understood by the men around her. By doing this, she was unable to attend to her own thoughts and feelings. As Kramarae suggests, "men's dominant power position in society guarantees that the public mode of expression won't be directly available to women" (Griffin. 1997 p. 460). Since Suzie had to use certain words to express herself publicly, she was unable to say what she really meant. Those sports and war analogies meant nothing to her, except that is what she was supposed to say, She had not mode of expressing her real thoughts until her friend suggested she keep a journal. According to Kramarae, this is one of the ways that women can express their true feelings. When they spend all day trying to talk the "male talk" and walk the "male walk," it is refreshing for them to be able to come home and write about things they really feel are important.
Kramarae's Muted Group Theory is useful to explain why many groups do not have a voice in our society. Her theory can explain the plight of muted groups other than women, which adds strength to her theory. Also, the fact that other researchers have evidence to support her theory, gives her theory more validity. Kramarae's theory take a more humanistic approach in that it is designed to help develop new understandings about how our society is constructed and how the language we use is limiting to some groups' voices. Clarification of values is achieved by demonstrating the importance of all groups' voices to be heard in society. The limitations of our language exposed in this theory helps us to understand why some voices are not heard or are under-expressed in the public forum. Reformation of society is another of Kramarae's goals in that she wants to change the existing linguistic system to include a larger amount of people. Her introduction of the "feminist dictionary" would be a good example of this. This theory is an interesting and creative way of looking at our language system. By drawing upon her observations of the female character depiction in cartoons, she builds off of a subject to which a lot of people can relate. This keeps our interest in the subject because it is something we can see through our own experiences. Her theory can also be used to create a community of agreement. She has others in the research community in agreement with her already, but she can expand this to include many others. If people are willing to accept the flaws of our language and our communication process, they can try to fix them.
Portions of the scientific theory can also be applied to Muted Group Theory, which adds more support to her beliefs. She gives an explanation of data by pointing out reasons why our language is inefficient for everyone who uses it. This theory also has many practical applications in that it can be used to describe many groups besides women.
When critiquing her theory, many questions come to mind. First of all, one must wonder if her study of cartoons was really sufficient enough to constitute a theory to characterize real life. People have to question whether these cartoons are a good representation of actual differences in the communication patterns of men and women.
Another critique would be that her theory is not at all practical. The problems she brings up may indeed exist, but how does she expect them all to be fixed? This would have to include restructuring the entire language if all of these problems were to be solved. Forming a whole new language, consisting of the input of both men and women, would be virtually impossible and impractical. Kramarae's theory makes too many demands on society to be perfect, there is no way to undo what has already been done. However, I do not believe that this is Kramarae's solution at all. Her basic goal was to make more people aware of what is going on and try to work around it.
Deborah Tannen (Griffin, 1991) also brings up a criticism of Kramarae's theory in that she says that even though these differences do exist, it is not because men want to control women. The differences are due to their inherently different styles of communicating. She warns that Kramarae's way of thinking might encourage women to have bad feeling toward men even if there is no attempt to dominate being made. I think that this is the case in our society. Woman have negative outlooks on the motives of men, even if there is no reason to. I agree with Kramarae that women may have been historically muted, but I think that some women take this notion a little too far, as Tannen warns.
When a more qualified male is chosen for a promotion over a women, and that women sues, things have gone a little too far. The job requirements are still the same no matter who holds it, so the employers need to have the most qualified individual in that position, male or female. Now, when the woman wins the suit, it is just plain ridiculous. Other men got passed over for the promotion too, not just this one woman. Why are they not able to sue and win a multi-million dollar settlement? Because they are men, and women are the ones who have been wronged. I agree that history has not been played in the favor of women, but this should not allow for women to unfairly get special treatment when they have not earned it. If she is just as qualified for the job or more so, sure she should sue. But, when he is obviously the more qualified individual, let him have the job and work harder to gain the necessary qualifications; do not expect the company to give you money just because you are a woman. That is not doing women any good in the long run, and it is just forcing us to take two steps back for every one step we take forward.
Griffin, E.M. (1991). A different voice of Carol Gilligan. A first look at communication theorv. Retreived November 22, 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://www. afirstlook.com.
Griffin, E.M. (1997). Muted group theory of Cheris Kramarae. A first look at communication theory (pp. 459-473). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.