Last Updated 10 Sep 2020

Muted Group Theory and Walt Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”

Category Theories, Walt Disney
Essay type Research
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When Walt Disney released its adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” it had become a box-office hit.  Yet, the movie captured the attention not just of young girls back in the late 1980s, but sociologists and anthropologists as well since the movie became a perfect example of what they had termed as the “muted group theory.”  In this paper, the concept of the muted group theory as proposed by Cheris Kramarae will be discussed as well as supporting evidence seen in society in general and in the movie of Walt Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Kramarae’s Muted Group Theory

According to Chris Kramarae, language is something that was constructed by man.  The words and thoughts of women are ignored in our society.  Because of this, it is difficult for women to express their experiences as opposed to men.  Kramarae further stated that language does not serve all its speakers in an equal manner regardless of the culture because women are not as free as men to say what they want when they want and where they want. Men have dominant control of society and how the members of society should express themselves.

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As such, different terms are used to describe tasks done by both males and females even when they are doing the exact same thing.  It is also because of this that most sexual suggestions that are considered degrading are usually referring to women than to men (Anderson & Haddad, 2005; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Epstein, 1986; Griffin, 2003; Prentice, 2005; West, 1983).  In order for women to express themselves to others, they must do so as to how males express themselves (Epstein, 1986; Griffin, 2003; Rogers. 1978; Stets & Burke, 1996).

The concept that women are a muted group was first proposed by Edwin Ardener.  Edwin Ardener was an anthropologist who discovered that a group becomes mute due to the lack of power that is experienced in a group with a low status.  Ardener called the theory the muted group theory because these muted groups are likened to black holes since they are muffled, overlooked and invisible (Griffin, 2003; Prentice, 2005; Rogers, 1978).

Muted Group Theory in Today’s Society

Although today’s society stresses equality between the male and female genders, various sociologists, linguistics and anthropologists have gathered substantial evidence to show that the muted group theory proposed by both Ardener and Kramarae is still evident.

In a classroom which is composed of both male and female, female students tend not to speak as confidently as their male classmates. They also speak in classless frequently than males.  In events that the females do participate in class, they do not talk as loud or as candidly as males do.

This is because it is the social norm that females should be polite and restrained while the males are assertive and vocal (Anderson & Haddad, 2005; Canada & Pringle, 1995; Epstein, 1986; Walker, Ilardi, McMahon & Fennel, 1996).  Because of this norm instilled in women at an early age, women more often avoid confrontations and direct disagreements even after completing their academic degrees (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992).

In the workplace, women tend to be subordinate to men.  For example, women in the military are not deployed in combat as often as men.  In the academic community, most of the academic departments and schools of knowledge recognize the contributions of men rather than women (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Walker, Ilardi, McMahon & Fennel, 1996).  Also, what many would be considered as a powerful speech when used by man will not to be as effective if the same speech is delivered by a woman (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Epstein, 1986; West, 1983).

In the study of cultures and societies, research would only focus on the information given by male informants and would ignore the information received from female informants since the researchers assume that women are less articulate than men, causing anthropologists not to be able to understand women.  As a result, interest in female roles and status had slowly diminished since many researchers view males were more important in society than females (Ardener, 1985; Prentice, 2005; Rogers, 1978).

Muted Group Theory in “The Little Mermaid”

When Kramarae began her research on the muted group theory, she used cartoons as the basis of her study (Griffin, 2003).  For this paper, the cartoon that was selected is Walt Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”

This paper will be focusing on one scene in the movie which is that between Ariel, the mermaid who wanted to become a human more than anything in the world, and Ursula, the sea witch.  After an argument with her father, Ariel visits Ursula in her lair under the impression that she could be able to give her the very thing her heart desired: to become human and to be with the human Prince Eric.

Ursula told her that she is will be able to make her into a human being for three days.  In order for her to be able to remain human permanently, she would have to be kissed by the prince as a symbol of his true love for her.  If she fails, she would go back to being a mermaid.  As payment for this, Ursula demanded Ariel her voice (Clements & Musker, 1989).

As previously mentioned, one of the premises of Kramarae on the muted group theory, in order for a woman to be able to express herself, she must do so the way how men express themselves (Epstein, 1986; Griffin, 2003; Rogers. 1978).  This is clearly explained by the character of Ursula:

The men up there don't like a lot of blabbers.  They think a girl who gossips is a bore.  Yes, on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word and after all, dear, what is idle prattle for?  Come on, they're not all that impressed with the conversation.  True gentlemen avoid it when they can. But they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn. It’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man (Menken & Ashman, 1989).

Here, Ursula had advised Ariel what a human woman should be like.  Since Ariel mentioned that she would want to remain human and the only way to get that is for the prince to fall in love with her, the only way for her to do so is to act like a proper human woman would.

Indeed, the accepted norms in human societies are based on the activities, values and expressions of males.  Hence, the means of how women interact with others are considered to be improper (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Stets & Burke, 1996).

In the movie, Ariel has been known for her beautiful singing voice.  This made Ariel more superior than anyone in the kingdom.  It was because of her voice that she is not only the favorite of King Triton among his daughters but also the reason why in spite of her age, she is looked up upon by her siblings (Clements & Musker, 1989).  Ariel’s ability to sing can be likened to the way how a woman would express herself in society.

The ability for a woman to express herself as a woman would give her a separate identity and thus give her a superiority that may rival that of a man, or even surpass it.  Furthermore, her ability to save Eric’s life during the storm shows how a woman could be able to surpass the capabilities of a man given the opportunity.

By stripping her of her ability to sing, Ariel is also stripped of the very thing that would set her apart from everyone else, her ability to sing.  This is the very thing reason why women are considered a muted group by many sociologists and anthropologists.  The act of a man listening to a woman would mean that the man would be denouncing their dominant position in society because men view discussions initiated by women as not to have any importance (Dras, 1986; Epstein, 1986; Griffin, 2003).

For this reason, the cultural establishment had prejudged and excluded art, poetry, plays and films created by women (Ardener, 1985; Epstein, 1986; Griffin, 2003) since it is a way for women to express themselves through various forms.  Also, since she had been used to swimming, being given legs made her vulnerable since she is not able to do things on her own.  As such, the roles of Eric and Ariel have become reverse with Ariel becoming dependent to Eric to teach her how to walk, showing his dominance over her.

Conclusion

Initially, the muted group theory would appear to be sexist in nature since it puts females at a disadvantage in society.  Given the premises proposed by both Ardener and Kramarae, however, the muted group theory sheds light on the reason why society even today still refers to women as the “inferior sex.”  The muted group theory had proposed that the gender difference experienced in society particularly in how women express themselves lies on the fact that society is a patriarchal society, meaning that society’s norms and values are based on the norms and values of the male gender.  Movies such as Walt Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” have shown that in spite of the ability of the female gender to express itself, society prohibits them to do so.

References

  1. Anderson, D. M. & Haddad, C. J. (March 2005). Gender, voice, and learning in online course environment. Journal of asynchronous learning networks, 9(1), 3-14. Ardener, S. (October 1985).
  2. The social anthropology of women and feminist anthropology. Anthropology Today, 1(5), 24-26. Canada, K & Pringle, R. (July 1995).
  3. The role of gender in college classroom interactions: a social context approach. Sociology of education, 68(3), 161-186. Clements, R. & Musker, J. (Directors). (1989).
  4. Walt Disney's the little mermaid [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures. Drass, K. A. (December 1986).
  5. The effect of gender identity on the conversation. Social psychology quarterly, 49(4), 294-301. Eckert, P. & McConnell-Ginet, S. (1992).
  6. Think practically and look locally: Language and gender as community-based practice. Annual review of anthropology, 21, 461-490. Epstein, C. F. (Winter 1986).
  7. Symbolic segregation: similarities and differences in the language and non-verbal communication of women and men. Sociological forum, 1(1), 27-49. Griffin, E. (2003).
  8. A first look at communication theory, 5th Ed.  New York: McGraw-Hill. Menken, A. & Ashman, H. (1989).
  9. Poor Unfortunate Souls [Recorded by Pat Carroll]. On Walt Disney's the little mermaid: an original Walt Disney records soundtrack. California: Walt Disney Records. Prentice, C. (2005).
  10. Third-party candidates in political debates: muted groups struggling to express themselves. Speaker and gavel, 42, 1-12. Rogers, S. C. (January 1978).
  11. Woman's place: a critical review of anthropological theory. Comparative studies in society and history, 20(1), 123-162. Stets, J. E. & Burke, P. J. (September 1996).
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Muted Group Theory and Walt Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”. (2017, May 02). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/muted-group-theory-and-walt-disneys-the-little-mermaid/

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