Muted group theory (MGT) says that the English language devalues the words, thoughts and experiences of marginalized groups. This is because language is made and controlled by dominant groups. Marginalized groups can find it harder to express themselves through language, so we say they are “muted” or “silenced”.
The theory mainly focuses on gender: how language marginalizes and silences women.
However, it can also be used to explain the experiences of people of color, disabled people, LGBTQI, etc.
Muted group theory states that marginalized groups (including women) are more constrained in conversation because they have to speak a ‘men’s language’.
The theory states that language was mainly made by men. It therefore seems to more effectively explain men’s experiences and worldviews.
Women often find it harder to express themselves because they have to communicate through a language that was made by the opposite gender.
Some examples are:
- Women are often referred to as the property of men (e.g. taking a man’s name in marriage).
- Men retain the title of ‘Mr.’ their whole lives, while women are divided into ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’.
- Women’s sexuality is spoken of negatively (‘tramp’, ‘promiscuous woman’, and worse!), while men’s sexuality is spoken of positively (‘stud’, ‘ladies man’, ‘player’).
- Women have spent their whole lives trying to translate their thoughts into masculine metaphors (war metaphors, sports metaphors, etc.) in order to express themselves to others.
So, women find it harder to express themselves through language and have their ideas heard and understood due to the inequality backed into our language.
3 Key Features
This is a hard theory to get your head around. Fortunately, Cheris Kramarae made up 3 key points to remember when thinking about muted group theory:
1. Language was made by dominant groups, particularly men.
Historical circumstance means that men have had the power to create and shape language practices.
Women have historically been seen as an inferior social group. They have been depicted in media as subservient, restricted from positions of power, and raised to take on roles as ‘housewives’ while men do the work of creating and shaping language practices.
The same can go for minority groups based on race, disability and other factors who have been pushed to the margins of society and unable to influence society as much.
2. Marginalized groups can find it harder to articulate themselves.
Because dominant groups have controlled language and communication, their experiences have been historically privileged. Their stories have been spread on TV and in movies more than the stories of marginalized groups. They have controlled the metaphors, figures of speech and labels for things.
As a result, the default way of talking is in the masculine (fireman, policeman, postman, etc.), which has made it harder for minorities and women to articulate themselves. We often say that they have ‘less linguistic agency’.
3. Marginalized groups have to translate their thoughts before speaking.
Even when minorities and women are able to speak in public, they have to translate their thoughts and ideas into the dominant form before speaking.
A gender example
Have you ever noticed that the protagonist in most books and films is a man? Similarly, most metaphors are masculine (sporting and war metaphors, for example).
It seems that from a very young age women have to see things from a man’s perspective. They have to think from a man’s perspective more often than men have to think from a woman’s perspective.
This has meant that women have become used to needing to translate their thoughts into a way that is acceptable to men before speaking publicly.
Unfortunately it seems like men find it hard to see women’s perspectives. They may also be more reluctant to try to see women’s perspectives because they’ve never really been forced to in the past.
A social class example
Remember, muted group theory can explain the struggles of other marginalized groups too, such as the working class.
Working-class people also have to translate their words into middle-class language a lot. For example, at university you’re taught to write ‘academically’. In business meetings you have to speak ‘professionally’.
Middle-class people may be used to professional and academic language from their upbringing, but if a working-class person wants a well paid middle-class job, they have to constantly translate their words into a language more acceptable to the dominant social class.
Examples of Muted Group Theory
1. Explaining Women’s Heart Attack Symptoms (Example in Medicine)
Historically medicine has considered heart attack symptoms only from men’s perspectives. To this day, we tend to think of heart attack symptoms as heaviness on the chest and numbness in the left arm.
However, since paying more attention to women’s experiences, medical researchers have realized that women typically have different heart attack symptoms such as tightness in the jaw.
To this day, society tends to pay more attention to heart attack symptoms that affect men than those that affect women. This makes it harder to quickly diagnose and identify women’s heart attacks.
2. Linguistic Subordination of Women in Marriage
Kramarae argues that women are often linguistically subordinated to men. Women are defined in relation to their husbands (Mrs. X), historically take their husbands’ surnames, and tend to be referred to as “Harold’s wife” rather than as having their own autonomous identity.
3. Derogatory Language about Women’s Sexuality
While men’s sexual exploits are often celebrated, women are seen negatively if they have too many sexual partners. Men can be seen as ladies’ men, players and studs if they are lucky with women. Women are usually seen as promiscuous and sexually deviant if they are known to have had too many sexual partners.
Similarly, homosexual sex is often seen as taboo or frowned upon more than heterosexual intercourse, thereby muting their experiences in public discourse.
4. Masculine Metaphors
Sporting, hunting and fighting metaphors have become commonplace in English language. Metaphors like ‘covering all bases’, ‘ball-park figure’, ‘beaten to the punch’, ‘right off the bat’, ‘in a league of their own’, etc. are all metaphors that tend to be associated male-dominant pursuits.
With these metaphors dominant in the English language, women often need to use them to be heard and understood clearly in workplaces and public discourse. So, they need to adapt their way of speaking to embrace masculine perspectives.
5. In the Workplace
In order to be heard in the workplace, women often feel as if they need to frame their points in a masculine way. Workplaces are used to masculine authority figures and the ways they talk. When women move into positions of power, they often need to emulate masculine way of ‘being the boss’ in order to be taken seriously by their employees and colleagues.
6. In Popular Culture
Recently, there has been a big push to include marginalized voices in television, books and movies. This has been a conscious effort to make language and communication more inclusive. It will give voice to marginalized people and help them reclaim language.
A very popular example from recent years is the movie Black Panther which is one of the few action hero movies in Hollywood that had a predominantly all-black cast.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Muted Group Theory
- It clearly explains how marginalization occurs: The theory sheds light on the marginalization of entire groups within society. It helps us identify the historical causes of systemic oppression that still impact society today.
- It can help us be more aware: The theory helps researchers like anthropologists and sociologists reflect on their language use and interpretation to be more inclusive and reflexive in their research. The same can be said about people in the workplace: awareness of this issue is the first step to addressing our gender-based blindspots.
- It is an argument for affirmative action: The theory shows why it is important to have female and minority group researchers, business people, etc. In positions of power. They can help reframe our interpretations of gendered language use in order to be more inclusive and responsive to female and minority group voices.
- It explains the relationship between language and power: The theory shows how power is exercised through language. You don’t have to use brute force, coercion or strength to be powerful. Language makes some people (i.e. men) more powerful than others (i.e. women).
- The theory is not quantifiable. There are no solid scientific facts linking language to oppression, so this theory largely relies on ‘cultural logic’ rather than scientific measurement.
- People don’t fit in boxes based on their gender group: The theory relies on group membership as a primary marker of an individual’s identity. Many have called this form of “identity politics” restrictive because it fails to explain the complexity of human experience and places people in buckets based on group.identity rather than individuality.
- It reaffirms the ‘two culture hypothesis’: The two culture hypothesis states that men and women are fundamentally different. MGT seems to embrace this hypothesis. It assumes that men and women universally express themselves and use language differently. It separates us into distinct genders with distinct ways of thinking, ignoring the fact that language use may not be so cleanly divided along the lines of gender.
- It’s hard to define a marginalized group: Many people who belong to marginalized groups also have membership in dominant groups. For example, a white woman may be simultaneously grouped into a dominant racial grouping and marginalized gender grouping. She may therefore be either dominant or marginalized depending on the situation.
- It could be used to promote victimization: There is a worry that theories like this might be used only to think about how people are helpless victims. When using this theory, it’s important to also look at how marginalized groups can exercise their own power and agency. For example, by knowing and understanding this theory, marginalized groups could use language subversively to undermine its masculine structure.
- It ignores the fact that most men have trouble fitting into a masculine mold as well. Dominant masculinity only explains a small subset of alpha males. The rest of the male gender may also be at a disadvantage in relation to alpha males and also need to do the same work of linguistic translation before speaking.
Who Invented MGT?
1. Edwin and Shirley Ardener (Anthropology)
The theory was first invented by Edwin and Shirley Ardener in 1975.
Edwin Ardener wrote a short essay outlining the theory titled “Belief and the Problem of Women” in which he outlines what he sees as the ‘problem’.
The Ardeners were cultural anthropologists (people who study societies and cultures). They argued that anthropologists and sociologists under-examined women’s experiences when studying societies and cultures.
The Ardeners say that ethnographers have historically privileged men’s views. This has led to a silencing of women’s histories and viewpoints of history.
The reason behind this silencing of women’s views is that the male point of view has consistently been seen as the ‘norm’ and we have consistently used it as the authoritative account of history.
2. Cheris Kramarae (Communication Studies)
In the 1980s, Kramarae brought MGT to feminist communication studies.
Kramarae argued that language is ‘culture bound’. In other words, language isn’t neutral: it has been made by a culture that has been historically masculine and privileged masculine views.
Because language was made by privileged groups, its structure tends to best suit their needs. They find it easier to use the language.
Here’s a simple explanation in Kramarae’s own words:
“The language of a particular culture does not serve all its speakers equally, for not all speakers contribute in an equal fashion to its formulation. Women (and members of other subordinate groups) are not as free or as able as men are to say what they wish, when and where they wish, because the words and the norms for their use have been formulated by the dominant group, men.”
3. West and Turner
A good accessible outline of MGT is provided in West and Turner’s textbook.
West and Turner explain that there are some strategies marginalized groups can use to avoid being muted.
- Explicitly point out when language mutes people.
- Celebrate and promote marginalized language practices.
- Change language by coming up with more inclusive words.
- Create new movies, TV shows, books, etc. that promote marginalized experiences.
Is it a Feminist Theory?
The theory follows feminist and critical theory approaches within the fields of anthropology, sociology and communication studies. So, yes, you can say it’s a ‘critical feminist theory’ used in a variety of social science fields.
Quotes to Use in your Essay
- “Language serves its creators better than those in other groups who have to learn to use the language as best they can.” (West, 2010)
- “that MGT was not only, or even primarily, about women—although women comprised a conspicuous case in point.” (Ardener, 1975)
- “Women are often defined by their relation to men (“Miss/Mrs.” or “Harold’s Widow”) while men have more autonomous varied linguistic status.” (Kramarae, 1981)
References for your Essay
Ardener, E. (1975). Belief and the problem of Women. In: Ardener, S. (Ed.), Perceiving women (pp. 1 – 27). London: Malaby Press.
Ardener, S. (1978) Defining females: the nature of women in society. London: Croom Helm.
Cameron, D. (1985) Feminism and linguistic theory. London: Macmillan.
Kramarae, C. (1981). Women and men speaking: frameworks for analysis. Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishing.
Meares, M. (2017). Muted group theory. In: Yun, K. (Ed.) The international encyclopedia of intercultural communication. London: Wiley and Sons. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118783665.ieicc0228
West, R. L., & Turner, L. H. (2010). Introducing communication theory: analysis and application. 5th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill. Web