Hillary Rodham Clinton as "Madonna": The Role of Metaphor and Oxymoron in Image Restoration

By Anderson, Karrin Vasby | Women's Studies in Communication, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Hillary Rodham Clinton as "Madonna": The Role of Metaphor and Oxymoron in Image Restoration


Anderson, Karrin Vasby, Women's Studies in Communication


In contemporary American politics, metaphors serve as media frames and rhetorical resources from which candidates can draw as they shape a public persona. In this essay, I examine the way in which First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton encompassed both traditional and radical versions of the Madonna persona following the defeat of healthcare reform, arguing that it enabled her to promote her own political agenda, respond to the Clinton sex scandals, and position herself as a credible candidate for the U.S. Senate.

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On February 6, 2000, when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her candidacy for the United States Senate (and dropped the two most cumbersome of her three names), the "Hillary" of the New York Senate race looked markedly different from the "Mrs. Clinton" of the 1992 presidential campaign or the "Rodham Clinton" of the health-care reform campaign. The sinking of health-care reform appeared to drown the woman at its helm, and Rodham Clinton was publicly chastised for being pushy, meddlesome and for "telling Congress what to do." (1) The First Lady's reputation for "taking over" earned her the moniker "bitch"--uttered bluntly by the mother of House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a nationally televised interview with Connie Chung. (2) Elsewhere, I have argued that "bitch" was not just a harmless epithet hurled at the First Lady, nor was it a fleeting, sensational news story. Instead, "bitch" functioned as a rhetorical frame through which the public came to view Rodham Clinton. (3) When Rodham Clinton violated expectations as First Lady, she incurred a Burkean sense of "guilt." William Benoit explains that Burke "uses the term `guilt' to represent an undesirable state of affairs, an unpleasant feeling, which occurs when expectations concerning behavior are violated." There are a number of possible rhetorical responses to guilt, but Benoit suggests that a response is necessary, since "maintaining a favorable impression is an important goal in interaction." (4) Strategic response to guilt is particularly important for political figures since, as Mary E. Stuckey and Frederick J. Antczak note, politicians strive for identification with voters in order to "establish the dominance of their interpretation of the political world." Stuckey and Antczak's study points to the potential for metaphor to be used tactically in political discourse by placing candidates into a specific perspective. The authors state, "As perspective, metaphor functions to see one character in terms of another." (5)

Although Stuckey and Antczak focus on the ways in which metaphors within candidates' own discourse allow them to bolster themselves and cast their opponents in an unfavorable light, their insights point to a slightly different use of metaphor in political discourse. For Rodham Clinton, the explicit metaphors used in her speeches helped to shape her political identity, but perhaps more important was the implicit metaphorical subtext of the 1992 campaign and subsequent health-care reform campaign that labeled the First Lady a "bitch." Once that image began to resonate with the public and the news media, Rodham Clinton had to respond. The thesis of this essay is that Rodham Clinton tapped another archetype of female identity, "Madonna," in order to generate a rhetorical response to the decimation of her image in 1994. Rodham Clinton first enacted a traditionally feminine version of Madonna as she revamped her public image. In both domestic and international rhetoric, however, the First Lady employed oxymoron as a rhetorical strategy to make her Madonna persona complex and heterogeneous, and to blur the lines between femininity and feminism. This new political identity enabled Rodham Clinton to promote her own political agenda, respond to the Clinton sex scandals, and position herself as a credible candidate for the U.S. Senate.

This study is a case example of Benoit's theory of image restoration, assessing Hillary Rodham Clinton's public rhetoric from 1995 to 1999, when Rodham Clinton employed strategies such as bolstering, mortification, and denial.

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