Seduction Theory and the Recovery of Feminine Aesthetics: Implications for Rhetorical Criticism

This essay addresses applications of rhetorical criticism to seduction theory. Recently recovered and articulated by post-modern and neo-sophistic theorists, critics judge seductive aesthetics both liberating and subversive insofar as they lessen woman’s dependency upon the patriarchal scripts of logocentric rhetorics. Seductive stratagems include affective appeals, teasing, withdrawing, and a demeanor mirroring charm, allure, and enchantment. This essay addresses issues relative to rhetorical criticism and the interpretative value of seduction theory as a critical lens. Specifically, we explicate seduction theory and its critical bearing. We analyze, by way of illustration, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of seductive appeals as an “undecided” candidate for the United States Senate. The First Lady’s forestalled candidacy, listening tour, and identity management, we posit, reveal rhetorical choices constituted in seduction theory.

KEY CONCEPTS feminine style, seduction, criticism, Hillary Rodham Clinton

“The world is driven…by seduction….Seduction is destiny.” Jean Baudrillard, (1990, pp. 174; 180)

Seduction is notorious as a site of flirtatious, frequently erotic, relational performances (Villadsen, 2000). Early French and British novelists, poets, and dramatists, for example, routinely fictionalized the exploits and subsequent undoing of seductresses (Armstrong, 1990). Chroniclers of the eighteenth-century typically identified seduction with coquetry, fin-de-siede culture, salon life, and sexual adventurism (Dijkstra, 1990). Social critics and conduct manuals likewise clucked over the seductress’s threat to masculine privilege, societal norms, and essentialist notions of female decorum (Poovey, 1984). Specifically, both men and women of status disavowed women who used seduction to acquire position. While powerful men viewed seduction as a threat to patriarchic order and domination, female liberationists considered it a subversive male fantasy intended to tarnish woman’s intellect or familial significance (Wollstonecraft, 1792). However, seduction more accurately represented an “expression of ‘managed desire,’ a display of female power as well as an arena of freedom built on a dialectic of consent and refusal” (Kaye, 1996, p. v). Seduction, therefore, was a site of empowerment primarily “exploited by women to create and re-create [themselves] in society’s eyes” (Owens, 1996).

Contemporary theories of seduction bear little resemblance to coquetry and its libertine emphasis on “male predation and/or female folly” (Richards, 1998, p. 239; Ballif, 2001; Baudrillard, 1990; Carotenuto, 2002; Crowley, 1989; Perniola, 1984; Wick, 1992). Today, theorists promote seduction’s liberationist potential to reduce woman’s dependency upon the patriarchal scripts of gender objectification and commodification. Accordingly, the oppressive operations of western rationalism resist, even discipline, its expression. Rationalism’s dismissal of seductive appeals is a poignant reminder of how the “repressed feminine haunts rhetorical theorizing and criticism” (Campbell, 2002, p. 49). Indeed, throughout history patriarchy has influenced rhetorical theory’s ideological frames. Although Gorgias viewed seduction as a form of rhetorical “logic” (Bell, 1997, p. 22), Plato scandalized it as artless flattery and apate (illusion, deception, and semblance) (Erickson, 1979). Dismissed as a feminine mirage of truth-a threat to logic and ontology – seduction was subsequently uprooted from its sophistic heritage and repudiated by rationalists (Sutton, 1992). In the absence of its sophistic relationship to sublimity, seduction’s latter-day association with body artifice, relational thralldom, and playful representations of woman’s true being regrettably tarnished its appeal for women.

Recovering the seductive arts as a means of addressing women’s issues is an ideologically bold proposition. Baudrillard (1990), though, urges women to appropriate seduction as a means of exercising political power. He offers the hypothesis that “seduction represents mastery over the symbolic universe” (p. 8). Baudrillard maintains that for feminists to ignore or reject seduction theory outright would constitute a misguided ideological move. Why? Because seduction theory flaunts modernity and its subscription to absolute values, “a social world that produces moral [women] by framing, wrapping, and protecting them” (Moallem, 1993, p. 328). Ballif (2001) agrees, contending that seduction is the only “tactic left to us that has any chance of subverting modernism’s logic and its will to produce and represent” (p. 193). Even if this claim is only fractionally the case, prudence dictates that critical tools be devised that are capable of assessing and interpreting seduction theory’s assertions, as well as its rhetorical practices. What follows then is an analysis of seduction theory and its implications for rhetorical criticism. Specifically, we propose a critical lens sensitive to seduction theory. Such perspective taking privileges feminine aesthetics and style, which represents a fundamental departure from “traditional rhetorical theory [that] is inherently hostile to the discourse of women…and is unsuited to its analysis” (Campbell, 2002, p. 51). Specifically, this project demonstrates the potential interpretive power of seduction theory by analyzing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s [HRC] seductive appeals and performatives prior to her campaign for the U.S. Senate. We judge this project significant insofar as seduction theory’s critical perspective claims to locate and recover discourse styles suppressed by patriarchy, rationalism, and cultural norms. We proceed by assessing issues of the seductive arts, including an analysis of both theory and praxis. Implications for the rhetorical critic are woven throughout the essay.


Seduction Theory: Foundational Issues

Seduction theory acts to destabilize and free woman’s dependency upon rationalism’s “falsely naturalized logic” (Jarratt, 1991, p. 76). It seeks to empower women by valorizing a feminine aesthetic and style, a project that constitutes fresh “‘cognitive mapping,’ a new political art” (Jameson, 1984, p. 92). Seduction theory does not romanticize neo-sophistic rhetoric nor does it advance a binary logic of male versus female. Rather, it heartily envisions a “universe where the feminine is not what opposes the masculine, but what seduces the masculine” (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 7). Seduction is not a strategy of conquest, though, nor is it revolutionary in its exposure and detachment from logos as the rhetor appropriates all the available means of persuasion. Seduction theory subsequently adopts an antistrophic [“sister art”] posture toward rationalism, thereby empowering it as “more subtle, more ingenious, more critical, and more ironic”(Ballif, 2001, p. 193). The circumspect seductive rhetor, for example, recognizes that certain exigencies may call for traditional applications of rhetoric but that “good arguments” may also excite aesthetic pleasure (terpsis) (Foss, Griffin, & Foss, 1997; Foss, Foss, & Griffin, 1999). Accordingly, seduction theory envisions little political utility in practicing a purely binary style (masculine or feminine), thus avoiding what Irigary labels the “labor of the negative” (Irigary, 1984, p. 120).

The western tradition of rhetoric is an operation of production, a guarantor of subjectivity. Seduction theory, though, offers “no possibility of ‘real-ising’ the subject,” that is, making it “subject to the demands of ‘truth'” (Ballif, 2001, p. 21). The rhetorical critic should subsequently read seductive appeals as a means of rebelling against gender commodification and objectification. Performed at the intersection of feminine and masculine sites of rhetorical practice, therefore, seduction theory stands in sharp relief to rationalism. Nonetheless, seduction does not operate as a dialectical opposition insofar as it is indeterminate and “unrepresentable” by rationalism’s standards of productivity and representation (Ballif, 2001, p. 21). Paul de Man (1979), for example, would likely have viewed seduction as holding in abeyance western culture’s ideological dependence on logos by “suspending] logic and openfing] up vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration” (p. 10). Vitanza’s (1991) aggressive reading of seduction theory interprets it as the “‘art’ of resisting and disrupting….” (p. 133). However, seductive rhetors subtly defy and/ or challenge oppressive institutions, power structures, and/or sites of authority. Subjects are likely to be enchanted by a seductive rhetor’s captivating charm, inductive subjectivity, and prudent appeals to the passions. As such, a seductive rhetor’s appropriation of affect inducing aesthetics counters or displaces patriarchal language codes that both “produce” women and suffocate their voice (Mattingly & Royster, 2000, p. 104).

Critically, a significant measure of a seductive rhetor’s impact is whether aesthetic appeals and overtures sway a subject. Assessing the influence of seductive performatives is difficult given that seduction operates in spaces of the sublime. Seduction, for example, does not \suppress, sublimate, or “mask, but tempts the ‘autonomy’ of desire” (Baudrillard, 1990, p. T). However, a critic should not assume that seduction tricks or fools subjects into following a wayward path. Such a perspective presumes a “realm of truth,” a reason-based trajectory that subjects would have chosen had they not been weak (Perniola, 1984). Subjects react freely to seductive rhetors; they actively participate in the rhetorical exchange as the seductive rhetor shuns the appearance of possessing an unchanging or “overbearing will” (Bell, 1997, p. 23). A rhetorical critic, therefore, may elect to evaluate a rhetor’s prudence and decorum as judged against “aesthetic propriety, the rhetorical practice of image management that stimulates the spectator’s aesthetic responses (emotions such as pleasure, joy, awe, wonderment)” (Hariman, 1995, p. 140). Appraising rhetorical performances that stimulate desire and longing, incite the imagination, and aesthetically enthrall others, therefore, requires a critical appreciation of sublimity. Non-felicitous performances (inconstant articulation of the substantive, blatant displays of self-importance, and honeyed sycophancy), by contrast, may readily signal a rhetor’s imprudent, manipulative intentions.

Seductive rhetors can stimulate desire and longing in subjects by teasing and withdrawal stratagems, and by finessing time and the kairotic moment (Villadsen, 2000, p. 39). Kaye (1996), in fact, contends that seduction finds its rhetorical “identity in the manipulation of time” (p. 12). A critic must subsequently take into account that kairos, as managed by seductive rhetors, is more than a propitious moment when one strikes for rhetorical advantage. Rather, seduction uses temporal playfulness to acknowledge subjects as agents. Seductive rhetors are, as a consequence, comparatively taciturn relative to prolix advocates and agitators whose opinions generously populate the public forum. Seductive rhetors recognize that to seduce is to “produce language that enjoys, language that takes pleasure in having ‘no more to say'” (Felman, 1983, p. 28). Indeed, seduction theory suggests that “power means not having to act, more accurately, the capacity to be more…casual about any single performance” (Scott, 1990, p. 29). The seductive rhetor’s patient style, therefore, stands in relief to urgent calls for action and compliance – an appearance of passivity easily misjudged by logocentric critical frames as ineffectual or non-persuasive. Nevertheless, non-aggressiveness is what provides seduction its strength. In like manner, seductive rhetors do not signal the conceit that they possess universal knowledge nor do they flaunt the apparatuses of power. They are nevertheless keenly attentive to subjects, and display themselves as constituting the full measure of a desired or hoped for gift (Joseph, 1987). What could be more seductive than HRC’s “gift” to the electorate that promised: “I’ll stay with you; I’ll fight for you; I’ll stick with you” (Harpaz, 2001, p. 13). Not surprisingly, many “courted” New Yorkers perceived themselves to be the principle focus of the First Lady’s regard. By contrast, many voters bristled at the patriarchal articulation of authority, privilege, and power vocalized by HRC’s male opponents (Nagourney, 1999a). Deconstructing seductive appeals, therefore, generates critical insight regarding its nontransparent power and rhetorical operations.

Conducting a motive-based critique of seductive appeals is problematic given the reluctance of rhetor’s to bestow an impression of having taken the initiative in the seduction process (as such acts would be equivalent to an awkward affront). An astute critic nevertheless will be sensitive to aesthetic performatives that serve to court subjects seductively. Specifically, a critic will likely recover evidence of a rhetor who teasingly approaches and prudently retreats from view (Burke, 1945/1969). Essentially, advancement and withdrawal seductively suspend or prolong the kairotic moment, thereby keeping the subject in a state of anticipation. Withholding behaviors, for example, create a condition of relational indetermination as the potential of unfulfilled desire remains. Flirtatious indecision, therefore, constitutes a “saboteur of the cherished vocabulary of commitment” (Phillips, 1994, p. xvii). A critic must be aware, therefore, that the arousal of desire “always occurs in response to a representation and promise and operates in the enlarged field of anticipation” (Wallace, 1998, p. 491). As such, evaluating a rhetor’s formal texts is unlikely to yield evidence of specific promises or offers of relief. This action would cause the seductive rhetor to relinquish a psychological hold on subjects. Instead, these rhetors tantalize subjects with the possibility of alliance, psychological release, and fulfilled desire.

Seductive teasing signals the appearance of flirting insofar as the outcome of a longed-for decision or anticipated course of action remains in question (e.g., “Will she or won’t she declare her candidacy?”). In HRCs case, a critic would likely argue that teasing and withdrawal stratagems enhanced her desirability because she was “built up in [the subjects’] imagination” (Greene, 2001, p. 74). The seductive tease becomes in one’s imagined relationship, present – perceived as sharing one’s future insofar as teasing holds out potential outcomes, and acknowledges a positive future. The experience of being captivated is an ecstatic state of wonderment, exhilaration, and joy. The enabling tension between absence and presence, desire and fulfillment, as well as anticipation and closure helps negotiate a seductive rhetor’s attractiveness. Rather than logical compliance or agreement, the seductive rhetor “sweeps the listener off his or her feet and fosters abandon and celebration of the moment” (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 112). A major feature of seduction “is to be-there/not-there, and thereby produce a sort of flickering, a hypnotic mechanism that crystallizes attention outside all concern with meaning” (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 85). As a critical lens, therefore, seduction theory may render knowable the sublime dynamics of a liminal, seductive moment. By contrast, rationalist explanations of aesthetic phenomena pale as interpretative schemas.

The rhetorical critic should avoid a rationalist bias when assessing seductive performatives, in particular the supposition that somehow a sinister or deceptive veil was cast over subjects. Upon close inspection, seductive teasing clearly lends pleasure to a subject’s instability, stimulating “the contingency of lives by turning doubt-or ambiguity -into suspense” (Phillips, 1994, xxiii). Awaiting or anticipating the seductive rhetor’s attention is a joyous indulgence, not a futile fantasy. Why? Because the seductive rhetor’s attentiveness, claims Felman (1983), creates in subjects a sense of desirability. Numerous organizations and groups, for example, had publicly voiced their hope that HRC would declare her candidacy in their presence. The question that consumed many citizens, therefore, was not if but to whom HRC would announce her candidacy-a “Who does she like the most?” guessing game created by rhetorical teasing. At the conclusion of the campaign scores of petitioners believed they had contributed to HRC’s decision to declare, and they felt politically fulfilled for having done so (Bennett, 2000). As one bemused critic observes, “once our vanity is at stake, we succumb” (Greene, 2001, p. 74).

Seduction Theory: Rhetorical Applications

Performed at the social and cultural borders of the sublime, seductive performatives are challenging to critique given seduction’s aptitude for operating “instantaneously, in a single moment” (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 81). Its enigmatic nature and the cultural frame of subjects resist formulaic scripting or instrumental strategies. Seduction theory nevertheless implies prudential mastery of aesthetic materials, a foundational issue for the rhetorical critic. A competent rhetor, for example, will likely assess an audience’s aesthetic pulse regarding propriety and form in order to render strategic motives scarcely detectable. Seduction does not violently jar a subject’s cultural expectations or performative vocabulary. The rhetor appropriates appeals and stratagems that mute, temper, or elide detection, thus felicitously minimizing notice as invasive compliance-gaining stratagems. Obviously, a rhetor would be foolish to signal overtly “I intend to seduce you!” The rhetor’s subtlety ingeniously eludes the stigma that seduction’s value resides in appearances or deception. Rather, seductive rhetors charm and enchant by aesthetically framing contested issues to the “fragments of the public’s alienated aspirations” (Luke, 1989, p. 135). Interacting with subjects at the boundaries of normative rhetorical and aesthetic conventions enables the seductive rhetor to minimize detection as agent. Consequently, a critic must skillfully excavate sublime aesthetics insofar as seduction is unquestionably a “form of indirect power that brilliantly disguises its own power” (Greene, 2001, p. 75).

A palpable performance is key to appreciating the rhetor’s seductive efficacy. Seduction, for example, “constantly negotiates a balance between sincerity and clich” (Villadsen, 2000, p. 25). As such, a seductive style establishes a stasis that intercedes the “dialectical tension of a private identity functioning in marked tension with a public persona” (Kaye, 1996, p. 89). Ideally, the seductive rhetor achieves aesthetic balance by imaging a persona that signals sincerity and authenticity, thereby creating a wonder- inducing ethos that materializes in the contingent space of a subject’s fantasized desire. Such desire arises, according to Ferguson, from the “attempt to totalize one’s subjectivity, to fill the lacuna that inevitably threaten theposited comprehensiveness of the self” (Ferguson, 1999, p. 82). For many voters HRC’s persona clearly resonated as an authentic expression of self. This point echoes in the excitement of an enamored New York nun: “It’s not fake. She’s really not a politician” (DaIy, 1999, p. A4). A rhetor’s seductiveness, therefore, rests not in some mystical link to eras or rhetorical banter but in the ability to stimulate desire via aesthetic performances that enfold the subject. Seductive rhetors accordingly organize the social geometry of their relationships by conflating the bicameral role of agent and subject. Seduction theory extends, not unlike Foss and Griffin’s (1995) invitational rhetoric, “an invitation to pleasurable interaction, not a threat of dominance or a challenge to [one’s] worldview” (Villadsen, 2000, p. 267). Envisioned as such, seduction is a collaborative effort between the rhetor and subject, which for the rhetorical critic renders questions of culpability irrelevant.

In addition, the seductive rhetor may simultaneously signal approachability and aloofness, thereby trapping individuals emotionally. As alluded to earlier, the rhetorical jolt of seductive rhetors lies not only in the “tease and temptation but in the subsequent step-back, the emotional withdrawal” (Carotenuto, 2002, p. 195). HRC, for example, practiced withdrawal by avoiding position stands and, from time-to-time, absenting herself from the campaign (e.g., duties as First Lady). By doing so, she kept both the media and public off-balance, surprised, and captivated. HRC’s physical withdrawals had the impact of intensifying political drama, effecting mystery, heightening suspense, diverting attention, and magnifying her attraction. As Carotenuto (2002) observes, attraction “increases with distance, with the eternal oscillation between presence and absence” (p. 200). A seductive rhetor’s absence confirms the magnitude of our longing as its power lies in the “evocation and revocation of the other, with a slowness and suspense that are poetic” (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 84). In addition, withdrawal psychologically exploits a subject’s bewilderment by deferring closure. Withdrawal also suspends time by establishing necessary pauses that allow for introspection and surveillance. Prudent withdrawal is a way, therefore, of cultivating time. Pain nevertheless accompanies a rhetor’s withdrawal; absence prompts subjects to question their worthiness as “partaking of so sublime an experience produces the torment of doubt” (Carotenuto, 2002, p. 195). Doubt, as a construct of the seduced, affords the critic a lens through which to comprehend a subject’s psychological attachment to a seductive rhetor.

Seduction theory ruptures traditional patriarchal covenants by reversing or placing on hold politics-as-usual. Hopkins (1997), applauding such institutional table turning, suggests that seduction “retains a potential for challenge and shock [because it] opposes the production of repression” (p. 17). Seduction theory’s opponents, however, view it as representing a disregard for cultural norms, a stance that disrupts traditional order, calibrated commitments, and ritual expectations. As such seduction theory borders on an act of defiance that repudiates the ontological “fixities” of our political culture (Butler, 1997b). The rhetorical critic, therefore, seeks to verify or disconfirm these claims, and to articulate the implications of aesthetic stratagems operating in contradistinction to rationalism. Champions of seduction theory likewise argue that it negates patriarchy’s well-established practices of political exclusion, control, and dominance. Hence, the critic must be sensitive to discourses that echo the suppressed transcripts of marginalized publics “hidden and ripened in the nooks and crannies of the social order” (Scott, 1990, p. 223). How, in fact, does the rhetor seductively empower such voices to speak out? HRC, for one, encouraged the articulation of suppressed voices by conducting a “listening tour” that performatively signaled her commitment to all New Yorkers. Flattered subjects frequently discharged their political privation with sublime responses, including pride, delight, and exhilaration, fueled it seemed by a sense of legitimization and political inclusion (Foer, 1999; Nagourney, 1999a).

Rhetorical critics should likewise assess patriarchal and dominant elite responses to the seductive rhetor’s overtures. They may, for example, blindly dismiss seductive performatives as rhetorical play, dismissing them as “disorderly, innovative, egalitarian, improvised, and/or disrespectful of authority” (Boissevain, 1992, p. 3). Kennedy (1999), however, notes that sophistic “playfulness” more accurately reflects dissatisfaction with an impervious political establishment that “refuses to question traditional values and practices” (p. 37). Not surprisingly, then, the power elite may perceive seduction as an affront to cultural or political stability insofar as it “nourishes itself on the back and forth movement from the real and ludic [trans.]” (Joseph, 1987, p. 224). Indeed, seduction’s mercurial nature will likely be bothersome to well-established patriarchic schemas and devices of control. Many journalists, accordingly, felt an authorial obligation to discipline HRC’s disruptive practices as she declined to walk lockstep to her masculine counterpart’s political tunes with respect to declaring her candidacy (Ingraham, 2003).

Finally, the rhetorical critic must assess those cultural barriers that limit seductive appeals and render stratagems gender specific. Gendered terms such as “tease” and “flirt,” for example, hint at beguiling, not-to-be-taken-seriously “feminine wiles,” strategies infrequently suited to masculine rhetors. Mario Cuomo, George H. Bush, Ross Perot, and Colin Powell, for example, experienced the ridicule and snipes of patriarchal journalists for their displays of “femininity.” Bill Clinton was accused of being “squishy,” (Klein, 1992, p. 39), and an “old maid in britches,” (King, 1993, p. 72). Regrettably, male candidates too frequently resort to gratuitous applications of a feminine style to patronize women, or worse, objectify them as accommodated “others.” Bill Clinton’s consolation, “J feel your pain,” still resonates with political comics. By contrast, HRC’s feminine style was perceived by women as an authentic voice, a point that emerges in the following analysis of HRC’s pre-candidacy “campaign” for the United States Senate.


Hillary Rodham Clinton’s pre-candidacy “campaign” for the United States Senate (November, 1998 through February, 2000) captivated New Yorkers as well as the nation. Critics hotly debated the question, “Will she or will she not run?” Media mavens and talk show hosts expressed both enthusiasm and shock at the prospect of HRC’s candidacy, including an indignant Peggy Noonan: “Clinton’s candidacy is an act of mad narcissism” (Kennedy, 1999, p. A2). Similarly, Democratic Party leaders, pollsters, and assorted Washington insiders busied themselves assessing the viability of the First Lady’s potential candidacy. HRC, however, initially distanced herself from talk of a formal campaign. Political analysts parsed her intentions largely from the remarks of close acquaintances. Press secretary Marsha Berry, for example, brushed aside inquiries regarding the First Lady’s political aspirations, indicating only that it was HRC’s intention not to foreclose any option. President Clinton, though, chirped that she “would [make] a terrific senator” (Bennett, 1999, p. Bl), and Senator Robert Torricelli startled NBCs Meet the Press by declaring that HRC would run (Dao, 1999, p. B5). Harlem’s Al Sharpton joined the chorus of supporters by declaring that the Democratic nomination was hers for the asking because “You can always promise no primary to an 800 pound gorilla” (Hitchens, 2002, p. 302). By September 1999, however, an impatient Charles Rangel likened her seeming indecision to “being half-pregnant – either you’re in or out” (Hardt & Birmbaum, 1992, p. A2). The First Lady remained circumspect throughout (“I will give careful thought to a potential candidacy” [Ratnessar, Brannegan, & Carney, 1999, p. 3O]), coy (“If I decide to do this crazy thing” [Conason, 1999, p. A2]) and, later, flirtatious (“If I were leaning any further, I’d fall over” [Perez-Pena, 1999, p. A12]).

The following critique of HRC’s senate race relies primarily upon media accounts and the First Lady’s seductive performatives. HRC’s public statements were framed by the media as teasing, as opposed to “testing the waters.” Interestingly, four years after the race she candidly disclosed that “I had no plans to drop out of the [primary] race [emphasis added]” (Clinton, 2003, p. 510). Thus, the press correctly assessed as strategic her reluctance to declare. Clearly, then, her teasing performatives were not about floating “trial balloons.” Moreover, HRC’s role as First Lady appears to have had meager influence on her decision to declare. Neither HRC’s personal account of the campaign nor those of her advisors suggest that she perceived the senate race as being in conflict with her role as First Lady.

HRC’s disarmingly seductive performatives sparked the public’s imagination, generated substantial media interest, and positioned her center-stage politically. Her strategy of slow reveal, in time, proved highly effective although it was initially sneered at as a “highly-coordinated informational strip tease” (Cannon, 1999, p. 20). Uncharitable critics voiced the opinion that HRC’s playful courtship with New Yorkers clashed with her feminist resolve and “blond ambition” (Bazinet & Kennedy, 1999, p. A4). HRC likewise startled critics by revealing a feminine persona that portrayed her as a traditional, hard-working, family-oriented woman. Tomasky expressed it succintly: “It was infuriat\ing. It took a lot of gall. And in the end, it was kind of brilliant” (Tomasky, 2001, p. 289). As such, her political intentions remained elusive despite the fact she had staff in-place, campaign headquarters rented, and a “listening tour” underway. HRC did not formally announce her candidacy until February 6, 2000 – nearly fourteen months after columnists first broached the prospect of her candidacy. Two engaging questions emerge, therefore: “How did the First Lady seductively tease the electorate?” and “How did she appropriate a feminine style?”

A critique of HRC’s seductive campaign style “requires that one uncover what is in full view” (Hariman, 1992, p. 132). Few things are so visible yet hidden from direct gaze as the seductiveness of someone in whom we believe in or follow. HRC’s rhetorical stratagems, for example, seductively heightened public awareness, stimulated media coverage, baffled opponents, and distanced her from the rhetorical pitfalls of the public forum. Seductive performances likewise enabled her to hold in suspense unresolved political tensions and to rupture conventional venues of power. HRC’s critics nevertheless carped that her teasing transgressed political customs – actions postmodernists claim blur “the distinction between the symbolic and the real”(Villa, 1993, p. 227). Although HRC’s perceived indecisiveness and egalitarian monitoring of the electorate’s views raised eyebrows, faithful supporters stood by her. They pronounced her charming, approachable, and family centered, applauded her willingness to listen, weathered her periodic withdrawals, and professed tolerance regarding her reluctance to declare (DaIy, 1999). In what follows, we analyze HRC’s arousal, issue, and identity management strategies.

Arousal management. HRC barnstormed tirelessly before formally declaring her candidacy. “I want everybody in the state to know that I have made an effort to get to the different regions of the state before I, you know, 1 announce any final decision” (Herszenhorn, 1999, p. Al). She toured sixty-two counties and made approximately 115 public appearances (Grunwald, 2001). Although the press soon tired of asking the question, at nearly every stop someone asked or begged her to declare. She repeatedly said, to the groans of the press, “Some might think I have an announcement to make, but I don’t” (Marks, 1999, p. 3). An example of seductive teasing occurred during a nationally aired interview with CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour. HRC “turned coy. She giggled, she ducked, she dodged,” and when pressed on the subject of her candidacy, hinted, “Well, summer is not that far away” (Cottle, 1999, p. 24). Summer, however, came and went without a formal announcement. What, then, had begun as a hinted at candidacy turned into a daily tease. Media attention soon “rose to a clamorous din and then to a round-the- clock media roar” (Ratnesar, Branegan, & Carney, 1999, p. 30). Time and Newsweek, for example, featured her on their covers. The more HRC demurred, the more the media sought her out. HRC’s seductive teasing pandered to the media’s investigative instincts, and they responded by posing such questions as: “Will she run?””When will she declare?””Will she make it official?” HRC’s seductive tease soon became a story in countless media outlets. The national attention that her seductive actions generated framed her pre- campaign “candidacy.” The media obliged HRC’s rhetorical “priming” because the story was politically intriguing, had a national following, and contained the dramatistic elements of character, suspense, and mystery (Burke, 1945/1969).

Seductive teasing and withdrawal stratagems enabled HRC to gather essential endorsements and spike the public’s interest. Time was her rhetorical ally. As weeks and months passed, suspense built. HRC’s supporters eagerly awaited her decision. Numerous organizations, service agencies, unions, and loosely affiliated groups scrambled to extend a speaking invitation to the First Lady. She was the “hottest ticket” in town insofar as people believed she would formally announce her candidacy shortly. Moreover, the press was obliged to follow her every step for fear that she would declare in their absence. Time also helped her to flush out opponents and their issue stands. Significantly, time enabled her to get to know New Yorkers, and vice versa. HRC addressed dairy farmers and Hasidic Jews, marched in gay and Irish parades, attended athletic events, ribbon cuttings, and cultural activities, and symbolically addressed the needs of children in schools, hospitals, and homeless centers. However, by November the press no longer found the “Big Tease” amusing or particularly newsworthy (Harpaz, 2001). Criticism and pressure to announce mounted. Republican fed rumors speculated that HRC no longer had the stomach for politics. Teasing became wearisome and “old news,” labeled by some as a selfish indulgence unbecoming a serious candidate. Pressed to respond, HRC unexpectedly announced her intent to declare in late November. Members of the teacher’s union to whom she had been speaking exploded with joy, and the press rushed to cover the story (Tomasky, 2001, p. 84). On February 6,2000, in Purchase, New York, HRC formally declared herself a candidate for the U.S. Senate (Nagourney, 2000, p. Al). One of the most intriguing political teases and seductive performances in American political history concluded. Evidence, therefore, is compelling that HRC seductively teased and withheld her decision to seek public office.

Issue management. HRC initiated a “listening tour” of New York that empowered citizens to express their needs and concerns. Listening to the political needs of others proved to be an extraordinarily seductive gesture. Spanning several weeks, her tour converged on sites throughout the state. The campaign strategy was elegantly simple. New Yorkers would publicly air their issues while HRC listened. Her listening performatives constituted an unspoken pledge to resolve in future-time the issues discussed. Listening also reinforced HRC’s credibility. Courtly performances as auditor and lightning rod seductively commanded attention as they signaled her interest in others. HRC clearly recognized that strategic listening and silence deflect conflict, criticism, and unwelcome interrogatives. At nearly every stop, she positioned herself center- stage, notebook and pencil in hand, and recorded observations. HRC’s speech-making efforts consisted largely of ritualized greetings and perfunctory remarks (Nagourney, 1999b). As such, HRC’s listening performatives served as a site of personal discovery as well as a means of signaling consubstantiality with Town Hall attendees.

HRC’s listening performatives signaled dependence on and concern for others, as well as a seductively symbolic withdrawal from the role of knowledgeable elite – a label attached to her as First Lady. HRC’s listening tour maximized use of seductive appearances by isolating publics, emphasizing the personal, and displaying interest in the well-being of subjects. By listening rather than speaking, HRC claimed “authority based on…an intersubjectivity that [sought] to experience another’s life as though it were one’s own” (Goodrich, 1991, p. 21). As HRC reflected, “Now take a deep breath and think, there but for the grace of God go I” (Bennett, 1999b, p. 23). HRC’s listening forums accordingly facilitated for New Yorkers conversational intimacy, contextual relevance, and an opportunity to articulate private concerns. The performative act of listening may well have established an emotional bond between herself and those who spoke. It likely secured interpersonal attachments in an emotional and equitable manner more likely to endure than that obtained by “imposition or privilege” (Ttreault, 2000, p. 282). In any event, the First Lady’s listening performatives overshadowed her lack of issue stands. However, it exasperated some journalists who found themselves with little to weigh-in on or report. Consider one chagrined journalist’s high dudgeon polemic: “It was not so long ago that politicians talked at us incessantly. Now it’s worse, much worse. Now they listen” (Ferguson, 1999, p. 8). Such journalists failed to recognize, however, that HRC effected a relational transaction in which she seductively enhanced the public’s “ability to feel competent and powerful” (Goodrich, 1991, p. 20). HRC’s listening tour gave ear to citizen voices, a role reversal of the rhetor/auditor relationship, Foucault’s “orders of discourse” (Therborn 1980), and Farrell and Frentz’s (1979) “encounter rules.”

HRC’s framing of the political arena as an egalitarian reciprocity provided an opportunity for private transcripts to emerge that had the potential to negotiate terms of governance. Issues emerging from the public forum reflected community concerns as well as subaltern ideologies. A seemingly appreciative public openly welcomed HRC to their districts. Citizens applauded the First Lady’s appearances as an attempt to capture, appreciate, and attend to their interests -a soothing reinforcement of the cultural totem that democracy serves the public. HRC’s listening tour clearly gave voice to and encouraged the articulation of many varied political opinions. She did not confront, correct, reject, or object to the concerns expressed. Even HRC’s harshest critics agreed “that there was about her not the slightest hint of threat or superiority” (Tomasky, 2001, p. 53). Moreover, she clearly appreciated the rhetorical significance of nomos (narratives), having noted that “for women, the personal is political” (Mundy, 1999, p. W07). She observed, for example, that “my prospective constituents seemed genuinely comfortable sharing their stories and worries with me” (Clinton, 2003, pp. 510-511). HRC correspondingly signaled empathetic concern for the lives of others, an extraordinarily seduc\tive and captivating message. “I’ve been stunned to see how much passion I have unleashed,” she said. “It is quite validating [as otherwise] I’d be irrelevant” (Leonard, 2000, p. A11).

HRC’s critics scoffed that audiences who convened to watch the First Lady listen were often there “by invitation only” as “none of the listening tours were completely open to the public” (Harpaz, 2002, p. 40). They remonstrated that event coordinators controlled the theme of each listening session as the “issues turned out to be the ones that mattered most to Mrs. Clinton” (A. Ferguson, 1999, p. 8). HRC no doubt learned, however, “to name things anew, to become alert to exclusion and to forgotten aspects in a people’s history, to overhear what is usually drowned out by the predominant values, to rethink what is ordinarily taken for granted” (Nealon, 1998, p. xiii). This turn to political inclusiveness positioned citizens as subjects with social texts. HRC’s seductive listening performances likely educated her as well to the public’s political concerns even though she withheld her position regarding major issues. HRC’s reversal of the public sphere, consequently, helped to position her as an altruistic and sympathetic people’s candidate. This seductive posture projected a persona that bolstered her political attractiveness as someone “enormously positive [and] indisputable,” giving credence to the political value of just “showing up” because “that which appears is good” (Debord, 1991, para. 4).

Identity management. As an undeclared candidate, the First Lady surprised longtime supporters by practicing a pronounced feminine style. Heretofore, observes Campbell, she had demonstrated only a limited ability to perform femininity. As a public advocate HRC had spoken “forcefully and effectively” but she did so “with few of the discursive markers that signal femininity” (Campbell, 1998, p. 6). Harsh critics found her earlier style abrasive and unbecoming a First Lady. For loathing conservatives HRC represented a “convenient symbol,” a “stick to beat feminism” (Templin, 1999, p. 32). HRC no doubt smarted at the public’s reluctance to embrace her assertive style. She subsequently re-invented her image by adopting (unsuccessfully) a Madonna trope. Anderson (2002), though, speculates “there are undoubtedly other suggestive metaphors for tapping the mythic resources of change” (p. 22). The term “seduction” arguably captures the aesthetic style HRC used prior to declaring herself a candidate. As practiced by HRC, seduction came to symbolize rhetorical emancipation insofar as it created “space for a new perspective in which femininity and feminism [were] no longer cast as antithetical” (Anderson, 2002, p. 20). At play was the bonding of female autonomy and social normativity such that the category “woman” became the public site of the electorate’s “affective identification” (Burgett, 1998, p. 110).

HRC emphasized her interest as a caring, concerned citizen in the issues of health care, education, gun control, and full employment. HRC clearly signaled that she was self-reliant, hardworking, morally compassed, and a “family feminist” (Ingraham, 2003, p. 164) -a soothing term that conveys a felicitous balance of old-fashion and progressive values. In keeping with decorum and prudence, HRC avoided a roughshod assault on normative codes governing gender, political, and rhetorical roles. HRC underplayed her role as First Lady (Tomasky, 2001). Her charming demeanor avoided the appearance of elitism, privilege, or power. Even though HRC turned New York’s political order upside-down, she dodged charges of “being phony” or acting high-handed. Without question HRC’s enchanting demeanor struck an assuasive chord among voters, especially females who would later overwhelmingly support the First Lady in the New York Senate race. “That vote,” HRC said, “was a very powerful statement about what women voters care about, which is what I care about” (Bumiller, 2000, p. A5).

HRC’s charming demeanor and refusal to engage opponents confounded her adversaries. Although excoriated as an out-of-state “carpetbagger,” neither Rick Lazio’s jibe that “I’ve never needed an exploratory committee to decide where I want to live” nor Al D’Amato’s ad hominem crack: “Bring her on! If the bitch wants to establish residency in New York, she can stay at my place,” piqued HRC’s public ire (Monty, 1999). She demurely dismissed residency issues by donning a Yankee’s baseball cap, claiming “New York, my kind of town,” and declaring “What you’re for is more important than where you’re from” (Morrow, Grose, & Lord, 1999, p. 12). HRC’s newly discovered feminine voice, it appeared, precluded “not very lady- like” insult exchanges or vituperative mudslinging. HRC put it thusly: “They can launch anti-Hillary Web sites. They can use their limitless war chest to run negative television ads. But they can never stop me from standing up for what I believe” (Simendinger, 2000, p. 177). HRC’s seductive demeanor signaled authoritative calm as opposed to her counterpart’s chest thumping. “I am not going to comment on someone else’s campaign tactics. I will only speak for myself,” replied the First Lady (Nagourney, 1999c, p. A41).

HRC’s political style and advocacy of feminist causes as a first term First Lady created distance between herself and conservative women. By adopting a feminine demeanor during her pre-candidacy “campaign,” however, HRC found that some no longer perceived her as the “scheming harridan of their imaginations” (Grunwald, 2001, p. 50). “I come from the school of smaller steps now,” she said (Bennet, 1999b, p. 23). HRC’s feminine aesthetic shattered her previous image as an asexual, cold-hearted, political machine: “People tell me how down to earth I am….” (Bennet, 1999b, p. 23). She clearly recognized that people respond positively to a seductive feminine style. “I am not as bad as they thought,” she ventured (qtd. by Leonard, 2000, p. 11). Her newly exhibited feminine style was reflected in her family life, including a spirited defense of the President, house hunting excursions, and trips abroad with her daughter. These actions signaled spousal loyalty, domesticity, and nurturance, which had the effect of focusing the electorate’s attention on HRC’s femininity. Moreover, many female voters perceived HRC as having been betrayed by adultery. “Women felt she now had come down to their level… [as] one of the girls” (Emery, 1999, p. 18). HRC’s feminine style so convincingly re-framed her image that little negative notice was taken of her as she posed, “smiling serenely [in red satin] on the cover of Vogue” (“Run, Hillary, Run”, 1999, p. 9). It was as though performing femininity induced in “Hillary haters” a state of political amnesia. Emery marvels that even men re-evaluated “Hillary the woman,” especially when they paused to consider her marital loyalty and tolerance, suggesting that “their own wives should be this forgiving” (Emery, 1999, p. 18).

HRC’s articulation of a feminine grammar did not constitute an erasure of feminism, a turn to corporeal politics, or a rejection of either traditional or contemporary values. HRC’s displays of femininity held in balance her feminist idealism. HRC’s gender performance teased a feminine persona as it temporarily withheld/ suspended her feminist identity. As she put it, “It’s important when you’re in a campaign to always remember that this is not about you” (Tomasky, 2003, p. 39). Significantly, HRC’s appropriation of a feminine style had an immediate impact on her popularity. Her approval ratings skyrocketed. Many women saw her as a “fellow survivor; her victory [was] their redemption” (Noonan, 2000, p. xviii). Feminists saw her as challenging all odds. All this prompted the hypothesis that “If Mother Teresa rose from the dead and ran for the Democrats, she would still have ‘second-choice’ written all over her” (Anderson, 1999, p. 4).

Once HRC formally declared her candidacy for the United States Senate, she abandoned the seductive strategies of teasing and withdrawing. Political support assured, HRC emerged full-throated, decisive, and agenda-driven. To assure there would be no mistaking her identification with the feminist movement, she also dropped the subordinating name “Clinton” and replaced it with “Hillary.” She retained her seductive demeanor as a charming and enchanting campaigner, however. HRC’s prudent mastery of seductive appeals and strategies clearly helped shape her feminine image and election to the U.S. Senate. Put simply, HRC discovered her feminine voice and image in a rhetorical style that aesthetically enchanted, charmed, and seduced voters. She overcame her image as an out-of-state interloper and “radical feminist” to win the affection and respect of New Yorkers. Her strong election day showing, therefore, “was a sweet rebuke indeed -not just to the Hillary-haters…but to anyone who said [her political style] wouldn’t succeed” (Harpaz, 2002, p. 249). It emerged as a stinging rejection of the dislocation and suppression of women’s political voices, and aided HRC’s escape from the social tyranny of political forms that typically discipline the feminine.


Seduction theory claims to establish agency for females by valorizing the liberating process of rejecting the feminine “ideal” of woman as a politically powerless “other.” Rhetorical critics, therefore, should not pre-judge seduction theory as dclass, notorious, or indefensible. Simply put, seduction theory boldly re- frames the means by which women can exert rhetorical influence -a style less encumbered by logocentrism’s censure of aesthetics, charm, allure, and enchantment. Contemporary theorists, as such, envision it lessening woman’s dependency on rationalism and its relentless “production” of woman. Rhetorical critics are encouraged, therefore, to think of seduction theory as an empowerment vehi\cle for women. Moreover, the critic must remain mindful that seduction theory is not intended to “contradict the broader agenda of feminism but rather reinforce it” (Goshorn, 1994, p. 287). Accordingly, critics should weigh with due caution patriarchal admonitions denouncing seductive rhetors as merely “narcissistic tease[s] who persuade by means of attraction and resistance, not by orderly discourse”(Gallop, 1982, p. 37; Bernstein, 1989; Hartman, 1992). HRCs campaign, for example, was neither narcissistic nor was it devoid of orderly discourse. Obviously, HRC used rationalist appeals to reify her authoritative ethos. Nevertheless, a critical assessment of only those appeals would merely satisfy “the hegemonic logic of reason” (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 46).

The rhetorical critic should not reduce seduction theory to essentialist or idealistic frames. Circumspect critics will no doubt detect significant variability in the creation and impact of seductive acts and appeals. A rhetor’s infelicitous performance, for example, may fail to stimulate interest or desire in subjects. The public may likewise grow weary of a seductive rhetor, their patience tested by strategies such as teasing and withdrawing. In addition, a subject’s attraction to seductive appeals will likely be context, issue, and personality sensitive. Seductive appeals and performatives may, for example, simply ill-suit certain agents or their desired image. An imprudent use of seductive appeals may likewise ignite unanticipated emotional responses from those who perceive non-rationalist appeals or performatives as violating normative social or cultural customs. An interpretive assessment of such “violations,” therefore, may yield insight regarding the rhetor’s sensitivity, prudence, or sense of decorum. Critics must be mindful as well that seductive performatives are subject to misinterpretation as play, whimsy, or irresponsible defiance. Similarly, seduction lives in the moment, which suggests that the rhetor “must continually perform to maintain the glance of partners [trans.]” (Handke, 1982, p. 224). Thus, a critic should analyze a rhetor’s spontaneous performatives as well as the multiple “fragments” that reflect a sustained use of seduction. Locating the “text” of HRC’s seductiveness, for example, is found primarily in her performatives, passing remarks, and charm (as opposed to formally articulated position stands or speeches). With the aforementioned in mind, therefore, we encourage rhetorical critics to be mindful of five foundational observations.

First, a seductive rhetor’s clat may aesthetically stimulate in subjects a state of adoration or sublimity, a “sudden shock of awe, wonder, euphoria [which] transport [s] an audience beyond a traditional standpoint” (White, 1987, p. 32). Lyotard (1992) describes the sublime sensation as the soul being “seized with admiration, veneration, respect immobilized” (pp. 99-100). A rhetorical critic, therefore, may elect to evaluate the rhetorical and political implications of an enamored electorate. The potential for abuse, claim seduction theory’s adversaries, may be ripe if it is true that we feel more alive when swept up by a seductive rhetor. Lyotard contends that it is in this euphoric state that seducers are capable of striking citizens “dumb,” their stunned silence unable or unwilling to bring the seductive rhetor back into perspective (Boyne, 1998). Thus, critics may wish to address psychological as well as aesthetic issues relative to a seduced state.

Second, seduction has the potential to render indistinguishable affective and rational appeals. Plato, for example, disdained seduction’s seeming indifference to ontology and rationalism, and its subsequent valorization of appearances and the passions (Ballif, 2001, p. 46). Those who charge seductive rhetors with practicing false appearances or artifice, however, must not assume that behind all rationalist rhetoric resides the real, the non-illusional – a stance we take to be untenable (Kaufmann, 1986). The critic may nevertheless assess the impact of affect-driven seductions that rupture the public’s epistemological foundations. Prompted by patriarchal concerns, the following issues arise: Will seductive rhetoric and its seeming indifference to western rationalism create a cultural rift? Will seductive rhetoric force rational decision- making to take a back seat to the passions and appetites, those emotional states that minimize the “need for the inconvenient particularities of argument and inference” (Farrell, 1989, p. 161)? These questions are significant because they address how a seductive rhetor may discursively engage or performatively elide rationalist arguments and disputes.

Third, seductive performatives may mystify position stands, rupture political conventions, or obfuscate political realities. Seduction theory’s opponents contend, for example, that seduction may “blind” those unaccustomed to aesthetic performances that promote “gesture over accomplishment and appearance over fact” (Miroff, 1988, p. 289). The impact of stylized performatives on the electorate’s perceptions of political reality, they argue, may cloud the relations that mark democracy by lulling citizens into a state of awe and suspended engagement. Logocentrists might contend that seduction theory deprives citizens of a true public sphere, which subsequently relegates them to “gigantic spaces of circulation, ventilation, and ephemeral connections” (Goodnight, 1987, p. 429). A critic should assess, therefore, the impact a rhetor has on the public sphere. How, for example does the strategic use of ambiguity and indecisive position stands potentially jeopardize the public’s perceptions of relevant issues? Do seductive gestures emerge as substitutes for informed discourse?

Fourth, seduction theory requires that a critic be sensitive to feminine aesthetics and human relationships. Seductive performatives typically signal regard, warmth, and wellbeing for others, rather than strategic intentions designed to dominate. A seductive rhetor is likely as well to incorporate inductive reasoning, affect appeals, and nonthreatening, non-dominating, non-invasive aesthetic performatives. A rhetorical critic, therefore, assesses whether such seductive strategies evoke endearment, respect, or awe, as opposed to compliance by imposition, possession, or rational quiescence. Furthermore, a critic may judge the extent to which a rhetor’s seductive practices reflect a lessened dependency on objectifying language, rationalism, and suppressive discourse conventions. The seductive arts, for example, should not be inspected or critiqued as a “strategy of conquest -pre-formed, prepared, and implemented by stages” insofar as rhetor and subject frequently interact in the kairotic “instant, in one fell swoop….” (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 112).

Fifth, seduction theory has power and ideological implications. Rhetorical critics, therefore, are encouraged to look to seduction theory when issues of objectification, suppression dominance, and control are at play. Critical objectivity demands, though, that critics set aside bias-laden interpretative standards, models influenced by patriarchy, rationalism, and/or ideological positioning. Thus, the ideological implications of seduction theory extend well beyond message construction, artfulness, and aesthetics. Moreover, seduction theory as a critical lens does not privilege issues such as the presence or absence of rationalist “good reasons.” Likewise, issues regarding power and the ethical implications of seduction theory to the goals of feminism are unresolved tensions. For example, Bernstein’s (1989) antagonist position sees seductive aesthetics as the “operation of dominance and submission” rather than cooperative goals or pleasurable intentions (p. 204). A cynical or ideologically biased critic, therefore, may judge a seducer as repressing or exerting dominance over the seduced, or worse, breeding disillusionment among misled or deceived “victims.” By contrast, an empowerment reading envisions seduction theory liberating, rhetorically, both the seducer and seduced.

To conclude, seduction is an imaginable aesthetic style even though it escapes formalization and the taxonomies of artistic expression. Regrettably, rhetorical theory’s patriarchal forefathers saw fit to reject seduction, subsequently labeling it flattery and feminine illusionism. Its rhetorical implications, interpretive value, and heuristic merit are, therefore, largely unexplored. Thus, we urge the feminist community’s forbearance regarding seduction theory. Critical analysis may greatly illumine seduction theory’s interpretive ingenuity as well as the civic applications of aesthete politics to oppressed classes. Indeed, its principles and practices may facilitate fresh sites of interpretation, access to institutions of political knowledge, and afford critics “an unanticipated political future for deconstructive thinking” (Butler, 1997a, p. 118). Moreover, a critical lens respectful of the seductive arts will likely recover the persuasive force of feminine aesthetics.


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