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How Not to Embarrass Yourself When Making a Sex and the City Joke About Cynthia Nixon

As with most things, the internet could be better at this.

Images of Cynthia Nixon as Miranda on Sex and the City and as herself.
For one, Cynthia Nixon played Miranda, not Carrie. Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images, HBO.

When I heard Cynthia Nixon was running for governor of New York, challenging Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary, I, too, lost my mind. I went straight to the bank to convert my life savings into Magnolia Bakery cupcakes, which will be our only currency when New York state becomes the Commonwealth of Miranda Hobbes. I ripped my driver’s license in half because I know its listing of sex, height, and eye color will be obsolete under the new regime, when the most important government classification will be whether you’re a Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, or Miranda. I’ve already started giving away all my flats; it will be uncomfortable at first to get used to wearing the compulsory state-issued Manolos, but I firmly believe the world will be a better place under Nixon/Hobbes’ leadership.

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This is all to say that I understand why people are freaking out about this not-even-a-week-old-yet gubernatorial run. Good New York citizens are worried this election is about to be hijacked by know-nothing voters too ensorcelled by celebrity to pay attention to the real issues—after all, we saw how well that went the last time a celebrity ran for office. I know that what they’re worried about is basically people like me. Fair enough. I promise to educate myself on Nixon’s positions in relation to the other candidates’, but in exchange, I ask that those who are unfamiliar with Nixon’s work on the groundbreaking HBO comedy educate themselves as well.

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Some points worth reviewing:

The show was called Sex and the City. My grave concerns about the populace approaching Sex and the City without the proper amount of reverence were substantiated almost immediately after Nixon announced her run on Monday, when the Associated Press, in its infinite wisdom, referred to the show as “Sex in the City” on its Twitter account. This is a common mistake, right up there with whether the Ace of Base song goes “I saw the sun” or “I saw the sign,” but in no way does that excuse its grievousness. And! The city is just as important as the sex! How the AP can go on calling itself a news organization I do not know. And yet the AP was not the only one to make this mistake. Please put some respect on Sex and the City’s name when you talk about it.

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Cynthia Nixon played Miranda on the show, a very different person than the main character, Carrie. I am reiterating this point because when the announcement hit Twitter, a curious meme emerged. People started posting tweets that began with Carrie’s trademark phrase, “I couldn’t help but wonder …” As a sex columnist, Carrie’s musings frequently served as the show’s voice-over narration, and she wondered a lot. But tweeting that you couldn’t help but wonder whether Miranda could fix the subways, har har, is not a joke that actually holds up to any sort of scrutiny. (Miranda Hobbes was a lawyer, after all. We object!) For one thing, “I couldn’t help but wonder” is firmly Carrie’s signature phrase, not Miranda’s. For another, Carrie, endearingly self-centered, never would have dedicated a full “I couldn’t help but wonder” to Miranda—the phrase usually preceded bigger questions, like whether you could be friends with an ex, or if it was possible to escape your past.

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This character confusion also showed up in a cartoon the New Yorker published that spoofed the show’s opening credits. In it, a Cuomo figure is wearing a tutu and a bus with a Nixon-for-governor ad drives by, splashing him. On the show, though, it was Carrie who wore the tutu, not Miranda, and it was Carrie on the bus! If you want to reference the show, by all means, but get it right. Miranda had her own cool Miranda things that should be alluded to instead: like that time she ate chocolate cake out of the garbage. Or that time she pretended to be a flight attendant. Or that time she was a good friend and the show’s voice of reason, which was every time.

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Cynthia Nixon didn’t collude with Sex and the City’s producers to invent gentrification. In a New York Times piece widely circulated on Twitter, Nixon was held personally responsible for the world Sex and the City hath wrought:

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[S]he earned her celebrity and fortune through a pop cultural product, “Sex and the City,” that promoted a vision of New York that stands entirely in opposition to her professed values. It was the HBO series, beyond any other entertainment, that 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.

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First of all, it was a TV show (and a fictional one at that)! And Nixon was an actor on it, meaning she said the (fictional) lines that were given to her by the TV show’s writers. Do we blame Jon Hamm for the sexist, racist excesses of 1960s advertising?

All that being said, the idea that Sex and the City was all cupcakes, Cosmopolitans, and luxury is a misconception (granted, one perpetuated by me at the beginning of this post and, more importantly, by the movies that came out several years after the series ended). It’s true that the characters lived in unrealistic apartments and had access to unlikely wardrobes, but no more so than on any other television show. It’s also true that the show coincided with a period in New York City’s history when the economic outlook was particularly sunny, but who’s to say it was the cause of that and not a work of fiction that captured and chronicled it? And to invoke $800 shoes seems like a particularly low blow, especially since the series devoted one full, excellent episode to Carrie’s financial choices (Season 6’s “A Woman’s Right to Shoes”), which finds Carrie reckoning with the fact that prioritizing Manolo Blahniks over saving was probably unwise. Also, she specifically mentions that her shoes cost $485 in that episode: expensive but considerably cheaper than $800!

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All of this brings me to note that it’s true that my initial excitement about Nixon’s gubernatorial run may have come from her having been on Sex and the City. I freely admit that. But I’m also excited because she did that—starred in a hit show, in addition to many other theater and film turns—while also quietly building up a reputation as an activist and champion of progressive causes. One does not invalidate the other, and the fact that she did both makes each more impressive. I know Sex and the City screams shallow, privileged, and unimportant to some people, but it’s hard not to wonder if that impression, which has flourished online this week, has more than a little to do with how, more than all those other things, the show screams female. And so, I reiterate my plea that in talking about Nixon’s past, we at least attempt to characterize the show with the reverence and nuance it deserves.

Female viewers saw themselves in the show, and even though Cynthia Nixon is not Miranda Hobbes, female voters might find that they see themselves and their concerns in Nixon in a similar way. This is an asset: Sex and the City was a great show, and Cynthia Nixon was great on it. This is not reason enough to vote for her, but it’s not a reason to discount her either.

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