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How Cynthia Nixon’s star image complicates her political image

As Sex and the City’s Miranda, Nixon embodied a hard power fantasy in a soft power world. Now she’s aiming for hard power in real life.

2017 Tony Awards - Red Carpet Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Cynthia Nixon is in the middle of a very familiar argument.

Nixon, who played high-powered lawyer Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City for six seasons and two movies, recently announced her candidacy for New York state governor. And almost immediately, a debate emerged. Was Nixon’s time on Sex and the City a liability or an asset?

More crudely: Thinking about a Gov. Cynthia Nixon inevitably means imagining a Gov. Miranda Hobbes, separation between actor and character be damned. And whether that’s a good thing or not depends on whom you ask.

“New Yorkers are hoping Cynthia Nixon is exactly like Miranda,” wrote Jennifer Wright at the New York Post. “The take-no-nonsense badass Miranda is the right symbol at the right time — especially for young women.”

But at the New York Times, Gov. Miranda sounded like a terrible idea. Sex and the City, wrote Ginia Bellafante, “helped solidify the image of the city as a luxury brand — an elite, fantastical consumer paradise where it was never too early or late in the day to buy an $800 pair of shoes.” And so despite Nixon’s ostensibly populist politics, the article concluded, her association with frothy, silly Sex and the City might mean that she is not “the best vessel for her own invaluable message.”

Nixon is not her character, as both Wright and Bellafante are well aware. Her political qualifications or lack thereof are entirely separate from her time as Miranda. But any time celebrities run for political office, they take with them the baggage of their most iconic roles, and for some voters, the slippage between celebrity and persona becomes unavoidable.

Donald Trump’s time hosting The Apprentice had little relevance to what he would be like as a president, but the image it created of Trump as a competent, take-charge businessman was invaluable in his quest for the White House. When Ronald Reagan ran for president, he relied heavily on the avuncular intimacy he’d created with the American people after years of appearing on their television screens, in their living rooms.

So the specter of Miranda will continue to haunt Nixon’s run for office — and so will the question of whether serious, ambitious Miranda would be a good governor, or whether anything associated with frivolous and frilly Sex and the City belongs nowhere near the governor’s seat.

What’s most striking about this debate is that it is the exact opposite of the cultural conversation we used to have about Miranda. As recently as five years ago, the question wasn’t whether Miranda was too flighty to be taken seriously, but whether she was too dour and unpleasant to be worth paying any attention to whatsoever.

Miranda is eternally caught between the poles of hard power and soft power fantasies — and that makes her an increasingly confusing ghost to have haunting a gubernatorial race.

For most of Sex and the City’s run, no one wanted to be considered the Miranda

Of the four women at the center of Sex and the City, Miranda used to be considered the least aspirational. She was the killjoy, the cynic who didn’t believe in soul mates and who bought a house in Brooklyn instead of collecting Manolo Blahniks. And — perhaps most importantly — she had short hair where her co-stars had long, flowing locks.

In 2010, when a contestant on America’s Next Top Model was given a short haircut, her fellow contestants snickered that it made her look like Miranda from Sex and the City. The newly Miranda’d girl burst into tears. “‘Miranda Hobbes’ is the new ‘you’re ugly,’” concluded Jezebel at the end of the episode.

Miranda’s short hair was a metonym for all that made Miranda an odd fit for the show in which she found herself. Like Miranda herself, the haircut was serious where the rest of the show was dreamy, practical where the rest of the show was romantic. It was Power Bitch lawyer hair in a show built around the impeccable bedhead of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw.

So when Sex and the City fans played the “which one are you” game, Miranda was widely considered to be the worst possible answer. “Let’s be real: no one ever says that they are the Miranda,” wrote Andrea Wurzburger in 2013. “But when a girl is told that she is, this is what she hears: ‘You’re annoying, you’re a pessimist, you care too much about work. You’re a party pooper. I hate you. I fast forward through your dialogue any time you come on screen.’”

Articles abounded arguing that Miranda was the worst character on the show, that she made you want to scream at her. She was too pessimistic, too serious, too cynical about men, for the frothy world in which she appeared.

In this decade, Miranda has undergone a feminist reclamation of sorts. The Instagram account Every Outfit on SATC began what it described to Vogue as an attempt to “reclaim and rebrand” Miranda as a Hillary Clinton-esque role model. “She’s always been the underdog, the awkward one,” they said, “but she’s a partner at a law firm, she has a brownstone in Brooklyn, she has a full-time housekeeper; that’s as aspirational as you can get.”

But celebrations of Miranda still generally find themselves beginning with a defensive undertone.

“The fact that everyone wants to be a Carrie and nobody wants to be a Miranda should be a federal crime,” wrote Elle in 2015.

“Contrary to popular opinion, Miranda is actually the best character on Sex and the City,” wrote Man Repeller in 2017.

For more than a decade, Miranda’s seriousness was an enormous liability. And now, just as it becomes aspirational, she’s been hit with a new problem: She is now, in fact, too silly, too frivolous, too frothy; not worth taking seriously at all.

Pundits make cracks about Cynthia Nixon’s “designer purse.” Every article about her candidacy has to pause for the inevitable “I couldn’t help but wonder” jokes, and even articles ostensibly arguing in favor of her political chops will admit that “the tweeting of embarrassing GIFs and salacious moments from her time on the show isn’t exactly a particularly dignified or elegant start to a major political push.”

In all of the requisite “Sex and the City star announces run for governor” headlines, there’s a little breath of scandalized incredulity: Not just an actor but an actor from Sex and the City is running for office. Can you believe it?

The Miranda paradox speaks to a fundamental conflict between hard power and soft power fantasies

In some ways, this shift is a natural consequence of what happens when we take a fantasy out of its original context. When Miranda was treated as a romantic fantasy for women about love and work, her cynicism was a liability; when she’s treated as a fantasy of a politician, her romanticism becomes a problem.

But the narrowness of the window of time in which Miranda was able to be unproblematically aspirational speaks to how narrow we keep the parameters of acceptable fantasy roles for women, and how strictly we police their boundaries. It is extremely difficult to make a serious, intellectual woman into a romantic fantasy, and it is extremely difficult to make a romantic fantasy into a political fantasy.

By contrast, the fantasy roles we offer men transition easily from one sphere of power to another. An action hero like Arnold Schwarzenegger goes from Terminator to Governator. A “businessman” like Trump goes from the boardroom to the Oval Office. Fatherly Reagan becomes the patriarch of the nation.

Regardless of the baggage and policies these men brought to their campaigns, it was easy for voters to imagine them as powerful, competent politicians because they were used to thinking of them as powerful, competent figures onscreen. And that’s a transition that’s much easier for men than it is for women. When men act out power fantasies, they get to use hard power: They shoot guns and beat people up, or they use their lavish wealth to hire and fire people at will. The presidency is an office of hard power — it’s the chief executive office — so the transition can occur seamlessly. It makes emotional sense.

But when women act out power fantasies, they tend to be given soft power. They are beautiful women with beautiful clothes, and they often use these assets to attract or compel men, thus gaining a mediated access to the men’s power without having to accumulate any of their own and become threatening. So on Sex and the City, Carrie doesn’t have much money, but that’s okay because, in times of crisis, Mr. Big can offer her his. (“He’s the next Donald Trump, except he’s younger and much better looking,” we learn of Big in the pilot.)

But when a power fantasy based in soft power tries to take up the mantle of hard power, we get confused. We don’t like it. It’s off-putting.

So Miranda was a weird fit for Sex and the City in the first place because she was an avatar of hard power, not soft power. She bought her own apartment, even when the other women in the core cast explained that doing so would make her unattractive to men and that’s why they all rented. Miranda wanted property of her own. She wanted money and professional clout. And that made some fans resent her.

And now, Cynthia Nixon is haunted by the ghost of Sex and the City because Sex and the City is a soft power fantasy, and we can’t imagine a figure of soft power — even one who never perfectly embodied that fantasy — acting as a political executive. It does not compute.