To announce the launch of her campaign for governor of New York, Cynthia Nixon released a video on Monday that featured footage of herself doing typical New Yorker things: dropping off her daughter at school, walking through the streets with a cup of coffee, taking the subway. Even though Nixon spoke via voice-over about addressing economic inequality and other issues, all I could think upon first viewing was: “Cool, Miranda Hobbes is running for office.” I was hardly alone.
That is, of course, a pretty reductive response to Nixon’s candidacy. She has been active in politics for many years, as an advocate for public education, a spokeswoman for LGBTQ rights, and as a supporter of various candidates, including New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. She has also played a lot of roles on film and on Broadway, aside from the one she assumed for six seasons on Sex and the City. (Fun fact: She’s only an Oscar away from EGOT-ing.)
Still, it was undeniably her role as the practical, blunt attorney Miranda Hobbes that made her famous. Her campaign announcement video, intentionally or not, capitalized on that. There was Nixon, strolling through Manhattan in high heels, the same way Miranda used to do during her walk-and-talks with Carrie Bradshaw. There was Nixon on an Amtrak train headed to Albany, staring directly into camera with a confident, knowing smile not so different from the expression Miranda made when she knew she was winning an argument. Of course, Miranda probably wouldn’t have taken the train to Albany — it was enough of a stretch for her to move to Brooklyn in season six. But that was the point, too: Candidate Nixon is reminiscent of Miranda, but also her own, more politically engaged person.
Actors who venture into politics often trade on their most well-known roles to broker goodwill with the public. Ronald Reagan — who, like Nixon, was an activist before he ran for California governor — was associated with the revered Notre Dame football player George Gip, whom he played in Knute Rockne: All American. (He later repeated his most famous line from that movie — “Win one for the Gipper” — in a 1988 speech in support of George H.W. Bush’s run for president.) In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced on The Tonight Show that he planned to run for governor of California, promising to “go to Sacramento” and “clean house,” in a way that aligned perfectly with his action-hero image. Fred Thompson portrayed so many no-nonsense authority figures onscreen that when he ran for Senate in the 1990s, it wasn’t hard to imagine him serving in that capacity. (The fact that he also had previously worked as an attorney and lobbyist didn’t hurt, either.) And, of course, Donald Trump played up his powerful businessman rep and dropped his “you’re fired” catchphrase from The Apprentice into his presidential campaign speeches.
But there are fewer examples of female actors, especially ones so strongly associated with a successful movie or TV show, running for office on a national stage. Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert briefly attempted to run for a Michigan congressional seat in 2016, but dropped out of the race because of health issues. A couple of months ago, following her galvanizing speech at the Golden Globes, there was a ton of buzz about Oprah Winfrey running for president, but she has since said she has no plans to do so. Nixon is attempting something rare for a woman, and she’s also attempting it at a time when some Americans may be particularly skittish about celebrity politicians.
Perhaps that’s why I saw quite a few reactions in social media and mainstream media yesterday that were immediately dismissive of Nixon’s candidacy. A friend of mine — a friend whom I consider progressive — posted the news that Nixon is running for office on his Facebook page, alongside a single comment: “Go away.” (Twitter being Twitter, plenty of others expressed similar sentiments.) Meanwhile, the lede in an otherwise straightforward story from Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle read like it had been sprinkled with some salt: “Cynthia Nixon may have been one of the stars on HBO’s hit Sex and the City, but she has a long way to go to get New Yorkers to know her and like her.” The New York Daily News was even more blunt: “At a time when a certain famous person, having promised to bring fresh air to Washington, has polluted the capital with equal parts ignorance, confusion and corruption, New Yorkers ought to be wary of a broad-brush celebrity candidacy.”
Not everyone responded this way. I saw plenty of New Yorkers immediately voicing their support for Nixon on Twitter, or at least suggesting they were curious to hear more about her platform. But the immediate sense of doubt, which also surfaced in all the hubbub about Oprah, struck me because it doesn’t really bubble up in the same way when male celebrities pursue public office.
When Schwarzenegger decided to take on Gray Davis in California’s recall election in 2003, there were plenty of Governator jokes, for sure. But while his lack of political experience was acknowledged, he was also quickly perceived as a formidable candidate. The same rule applied to Clint Eastwood when he ran for mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a job that, admittedly, is not as daunting as serving as governor to one of the most populous states in the country. (In both cases, social media didn’t exist, so it was harder to put one’s finger on broad opinion outside of what major outlets reported.) In the wake of Al Franken’s 2007 declaration that he planned to run for Senate, the AP reported, “His decision instantly makes him a serious contender and brings national attention to the race.” Members of the media were certainly dismissive of Trump’s bid for the presidency, but a lot of Americans clearly were not, despite the fact that he had never served in office and often made next to no sense during the presidential debates. The fact that Trump had hosted The Apprentice and projected authority while doing it had an impact on certain voters.
So, are some potential voters skeptical of Nixon because she’s a woman? Or has Trump fatigue led to a growing sense that the famous should stay out of the political arena? Or, are New Yorkers just skeptical in general and expressing themselves accordingly? Honestly, it’s probably a little of all three, but I certainly think bias against women plays a part, whether it’s conscious or unconscious.
That type of bias may feel especially familiar to those who admire Nixon for her work on Sex and the City. To bring this back to Miranda Hobbes, I’ll admit that I may be extra-sensitive to the premature disregard for Nixon’s candidacy because it reflects the way Sex and the City often has been treated: as a breezy, meaningless show about ladies. When we talk about the series that changed everything for HBO and television in general, The Sopranos is the one we point to, which isn’t wrong at all. But it also doesn’t capture the full picture of what was happening on TV in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Sex and the City became a phenomenon not simply because the women on the show drank cosmos and spoke frankly about their sexuality, but because it dealt with distinctly female experiences that women rarely saw depicted on television. So when I saw Cynthia Nixon not being taken seriously after her announcement — being described as that woman from Sex and the City — it triggered the same defensive posture I assume with regard to the series.
I have no idea whether Nixon would be a better governor than Andrew Cuomo or any other potential candidate. But I do think it’s wrong to dismiss her outright. Celebrities shouldn’t run for office if they do not take the office seriously, or if they don’t really want it in the first place. Nixon clearly doesn’t fall into those categories. Being a well-known actor shouldn’t pave an immediate path to a governorship or a seat in Congress. But it also shouldn’t always be a disqualifier either. Sex and the City was smarter than it often gets credit for, and Cynthia Nixon is smarter than some people were giving her credit for yesterday, too.