It all started when I pointed out the serious lack of women in the Warner Bros. cartoon cast. I was at lunch with a mixed group of men and women. The women clammed up. The men formed an offensive line and prepared to tackle me with every 400 pound argument they had. It was a simple comment really. All I said was that, as far as I could see, there are only two female Warner Brothers characters--the clearly addlepated Granny and the hotly pursued cat who, in the end, really does mean "yes" when she says "no."
That was enough. The men came at me with both guns, but I was armed with Kramerae's theory and the strength of my convictions. They started out by telling me that I was making a big deal out of nothing and called me "sweetie." I said that cartoons raise most American children--they help define and reflect our value system. They said there are plenty of good female role models for kids and called me "hon." I countered with a reference to grotesquely proportioned Barbie dolls . . . . It went on this way for approximately half an hour. I lost. And here's where muted group theory comes in. None of the other women at the table joined into the conversation, and that's understandable since by the end of it I was tagged as a "femi-Nazi" by everyone within hearing distance. The women seemed to understand that the things they could say in private would be discounted in the public forum of the lunchroom debate table—so they probably knew they'd get bulldozed. Also, a consequence of my getting heated in battle is that the pitch of my voice raises; since this made me sound less and less like a man, my arguments were completely plowed under by the men who thought I was getting myself upset and just being "silly." On top of that, the men devalued me as an arguer by calling me diminutive names. Basically, although my arguments were well thought out and valid, I lost the battle because the men couldn't hear them—with every intelligent defense of women's issues I was losing credibility with the men. In the bowling ball game of life, I was knocking down all the pins, but the men were keeping score. So I lost.
At first I eyed this theory skeptically, thinking about extreme feminism and male-bashing. However, I really liked this theory for several points.
First, I feel that the silencing of the woman's voice is real. As both an Asian minority and female I think that subconsciously I feel my voice isn't valued or appreciated as much as a male's. In the public world I allow men to dominate, but when I'm at the dorm it's yakkity yak. I'm an RA and a real leader, vocal and by action, on the floor. However, in the classroom environment I shrink back. At our staff meetings, the male RA's dominate conversation and prayers. But when the female RA's get together for our weekly dinner, you can't get us to stop talking.
Secondly, the name changing issue really resonates! For awhile I have been considering keeping my last name when I marry—for both convenience and pride in my heritage. Especially if I marry a non-Asian I worry that part of me will disappear. Aside from that, I don't look like the average "Lauren Johnson." Imagine the times I'll have to present my ID! However, when talking to others about this, most often they try to dissuade me. Law and convention serve men well and often all people buy into it. This frustrates me!
This theory really validated issues I have been thinking about lately. I appreciated it greatly as it affirmed a male-oriented society. As an Asian woman I often find myself at odds with this society.
I've experienced what Kramarae would call muted voice probably once or twice a week. But one of the most frustrating and demeaning situations occurred while I worked at a Mexican restaurant in San Diego County. I worked my way up from hostess to "server" in six months. This was a reluctant decision even though I was their best hostess on staff. I was considered "not serious." As a server, my relationship/camaraderie with the wait staff changed somewhat since I was working more closely with them. Most of the servers were and kitchen staff were Mexican males even though there were also a few Caucasian males and females on staff. I was the youngest female server. I was sexually harassed by the males in the kitchen and from the servers. I was called "caballita, little horsey horsey" along with other derogatory comments--more sexual and demeaning than that. They were just little comments and everyone would laugh--I would generally shoot that person a look, or ask them to stop and the effects of my request wouldn't last long. I was generally counted a goody goody innocent, and told to lighten up or have a sense of humor. But I was never flattered or amused by their comments. I considered going to the management, but I didn't want to be seen as a bitch, and I certainly didn't want to cause a big stink and get people fired. I felt helpless to do anything and was pretty much laughed into silence. Additionally, one of the supervisors had alluded to sexual things, so I would not have felt comfortable going to him. I felt completely objectified and inferior. I did not joke back with these men, and neither did half of the other women. Additionally, all of the hostess spots and cocktail server spots were taken up by women. Men occupied most of all the other job positions. According to Kramarae's theory, I was a muted black hole in someone else's universe—in this case, the universe of this particular Mexican restaurant. I also felt at a loss to name those particular work relationships. However, I do have the power now to name what I experienced—in this case, the universe of this particular Mexican restaurant. I do have the power now to name what I experienced: harassment and sexual harassment. Also, had I been able to form closer relationships with some of the women at the office, I might have been affirmed in my feelings of frustration and belittlement. With this kind of affirmation I might have been somewhat more proactive about the situation.
Upon reading this theory, the question that immediately assaults me, as a man, asks, "How can I give voice to muted groups in my daily interaction?" According to Kramarae's theory, this change is far more than simply using gender inclusive personal prounouns or allowing women into positions of authority in the workplace. She advocates a complete paradigm change in terms of the dominant communication mode of our society (that of men). As a man, adopting this change can be a scary thing as it involves the giving over of power and risks the accusation of weakness or femininity, when female communication modes are exchanged for male ones. Perhaps these accusations and fears should not exist, but they do and they help to form the barrier that currently supports the status quo.
I have observed the systematic categorization of gender roles and the resulting mutedness of women, in my work at a dude ranch several years ago. At this ranch all jobs were divided into crews which performed specific functions and all crews were of the same gender (Men's: Wranglers, Maintenance, and Kitchen Women's: Waitressing, Office, Story, and Housekeeping). The ranch argued that this division was important for business and biological reasons. Biological distinctions were made between jobs that were more and less physically demanding (esp. Maintenance, Wrangling from men vs. inside work for women). This distinction was important for the workplace because the ranch had experienced past difficulty with romantic relationships which reduced the working efficiency of those involved and even some which had led to compromise of its moral standards. For this reason any cross-gender relationships that were more than superficial were discouraged.
Many who were working there struggled in the restrictive atmosphere and I know that at least some of the girls would have preferred to be on guy's crews—especially Maintenance and Wrangling, but I don't know many guys who wanted to go the other way. Were these women oppressed by those social and institutional categories? Probably.
Further, related to muted group theory, it could be argued that the vocabulary typifying a ranch atmosphere is characterized by male terms hearkening back to the "good-ol-days." In this sense it is possible that women's freedom to critique the system was hampered by the distinctly prevalent male vocabulary.
So, what are the implications? How can I work to solve problems of institutional group muting? The first step is recognition and the second is relinquishing power. The implications are huge as I continue to weigh the sacrifice of position and the social roles assigned to women in the workplace, church, and home.
"Man up, cowboy up, be a man, man points, don't be a girl, you woman." Each of these is a phrase I constantly hear men and women bandying around in relation to a person's "toughness." Some are words coined by friends of mine that mean the same as being tough, "being a man." The term "man points" refers to the figurative points a person can earn for an action that is considered tough or daring. They can only be awarded by men. I have earned man points for running yellow lights that don't turn red, for being one of two girls who stayed outside throughout an entire snowball fight with these guys, and for taking someone out in a fantastic tackle. These actions were somehow defined as manly and therefore deserving of recognition by men. Now, if I were to be "womanly", or worse yet--"girly"--I would not consider that label a compliment. I say an action is girly if it involves squeamishness, weakness, and emotion. I accept the meanings given to words that give them value, and that is unfair to me as a woman. These value-laden words have been given special meaning by our society, which is perpetuated in our every day assessment that what is manly is good and to be encouraged, and what is womanly is weak and to be discouraged.
Learning about Muted Group Theory was a fascinating and, to be honest, somewhat uncomfortable lesson. Thinking about how often I regularly greet my group of friends (males and females) by saying “hey guys” or text something along the lines of “when do you guys want to meet” for whatever event we have planned for that night, is much more frequent than I would care to admit. Reading Kramarae’s theory of how this kind of language is completely self-serving for males was undoubtedly convicting.
A couple days after reading Kramarae’s ideas about women as a muted group, I witnessed a situation that would have made Kramarae shudder. On a plane to Phoenix, I sat in a row with a male who was in his thirties and a female who was a sophomore in college. I overheard their conversation as I tried to focus on my homework. About halfway through the conversation, though, my ears perked up. The male was talking about his college experience and explained how he had multiple “girls” who were his friends. He then began talking about his male friends as “guys.” The male realized the problem with using that word to describe someone over the age of 12 and told the female, “They were college-aged girls, you know.” He understood “girls” usually applies to younger-aged females, but instead of correcting himself, he simply waved his hand at the issue. The female, clearly not wanting to be ostracized from the conversation or to argue with him, said, “Oh it’s okay, I know what you mean.” It also didn’t help that the male then explained his brother’s age by saying he was “you (in reference to the female and me) guys’ age.” So, not only did he refer to a college female as a “girl,” but he also referred to the college female next to him as a “guy,” which is obviously used to describe males. These two strikes within the matter of a five minute conversation made me realize how much of an issue muted group really is, especially in American society today.