Miranda Hobbes is running for governor of the state of New York.
Except, of course, she isn’t. She can’t be, since she’s a fictional character from HBO’s “Sex and the City.” The actress who played her, Cynthia Nixon, is the one who’s running. And maybe once the smoke clears from the announcement that she’s challenging incumbent Andrew M. Cuomo for the Democratic nomination, and maybe once she starts talking policy, we’ll be able to see Nixon, the real person, as the candidate.
For now, however, it’s impossible to deny the symbolism of one of the four main “Sex and the City” characters running for one of the nation’s most powerful offices outside the White House. As I argue in my upcoming book “Sex and the City and Us,” few shows have changed the cultural landscape for women more than “Sex and the City” has.
The series was mostly apolitical, choosing to wage its rebellion in a fun, sparkly package. The revolution came from the core of the premise: depicting single, professional women over 30 as having enviable lives, instead of showing them as “Cathy” cartoons or sad spinsters. These women posed such a threat to patriarchy that they sent early reviewers into embarrassing fits; critics insulted the main actresses’ looks and objectified them, often in the same review. They struggled to embrace the characters’ flaws. “The women it features make ‘Ally McBeal’ look emotionally healthy,” Ellen Gray wrote for Knight Ridder. “More sophomoric than sophisticated,” Newsday’s Steve Parks said.
Given the unique combination of being cultural icons and habitual lack of respect the “Sex and the City” women have endured since the show’s premiere 20 years ago, it’s particularly significant that one of them is running for political office. In fact, Nixon’s run encapsulates the trajectory of women’s political power over the past two decades. “Sex and the City” allowed women to wage war culturally, but only within their “feminine” territory: dating, sex, fashion, food and shopping. Nixon is taking that fight outside the girly stuff and taking on a man with literal patriarchal power behind him; he is the son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo.
In “Sex and the City” lore, Miranda was the most substantively feminist of the four, and that makes Nixon’s run for office still more resonant. She was “the smart one” among the four women, a successful lawyer whom we often saw actually at work on screen. She often railed against the show’s core values — complaining, for instance, that the women talked too much about men, to the detriment of more important topics. She unapologetically considered getting an abortion. She made no secret of her disapproval when her friend Charlotte quit her job to be a housewife.
Miranda has also experienced an image renaissance since the show ended in 2004: She had been the “Sex and the City” woman few fans claimed to identify with; now, as evidenced by online reaction, she is the one most claim, most notably younger women who have only recently found the show via reruns or streaming. These days, we all want to be the smart, feminist one.
With a record number of women running for office in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential loss, it feels right that TV’s patron saint of liberated, modern women would be among them. Even so, as a candidate, Nixon is a threat to the status quo, as much as her character was back in 1998. Her character was a sarcastic, feminist, successful lawyer who wasn’t interested in finding a man to marry. Nixon herself is a longtime education and marriage-equality activist who is married to a woman (and fellow activist) and has a degree from Barnard. Much has been and will continue to be made of her celebrity status as a somehow disqualifying trait. (Never mind governors Reagan and Schwarzenegger.) But it’s clear that a vote for her is not a vote for the patriarchy.
Her candidacy also demonstrates that women have come a long way since the time when a show about smart, independent women like “Sex and the City” routinely defanged itself politically to maintain its mainstream appeal. As its most egregious example, please see the scene in which the women “discuss politics” because Carrie is dating a local politician played by John Slattery. Carrie unapologetically reveals she isn’t registered to vote, and Samantha offers what passes for political insight: “The country runs better with a good-looking man in the White House. I mean, look at what happened to Nixon. No one wanted to f–k him, so he f–ked everyone.” No relation, of course, to our Cynthia Nixon.
Single women are still largely absent from politics, where a spouse is nearly a prerequisite for candidacy. And Nixon won’t change that. But her symbolism in the world of single women brings them a little closer into the fold. The more she’s taken seriously as a candidate, the more that will indicate that ambition, fun and politics can coexist without canceling each other out.
Some of the online reaction to Nixon’s run has reflected the changes in the way we perceive Miranda, politics and women with ambition. Writer Jennifer Wright tweeted: “ ‘You’re such a Miranda!’ circa 2004 – You are the no fun one who works all the time. BOO DRINK MORE COSMOS ‘You’re such a Miranda’ circa 2018 – You are a strong woman with gumption and the drive to run for office. You are an inspiration. I pray my child grows up to be like you.” Twitter user @racheld nailed it even more succinctly: “Miranda for governor is the ending to SATC that we so richly deserved.”
Please, God, don’t let Mr. Big ruin this one, too.