Cynthia Nixon's Audition for Governor: When Performers Get Political

Sarah Elizabeth Grace

On March 19th, 2018, the Emmy and Tony award-winning actor Cynthia Nixon announced that she is running for New York State Governor, challenging current Governor Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic Primary.

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In Nixon’s first campaign video she states, “This is a time to stick our necks out, to know where we come from, to be visible.”  The statement obliquely addresses the fact that she is new to the world of public office, as many of the famous actors-turned-politicans have been in their first race. Many scoffed when Ronald Reagan threw his hat into California’s gubernatorial race in 1966 or when Arnold Schwarzenegger did the same in 2003: neither actor had any previous political office experience. Both won.

It’s easy to say Nixon is most commonly known for her role as Miranda Hobbes in Sex and the City.  However, to many New York voters who live below the poverty line or have otherwise gone without an HBO subscription for their entire lives, she may simply be seen as a fresh face in the race.  Everyone starts somewhere before running for public office, and though the daily routine of an actor is quite different than that a governor, reviewing how Cynthia Nixon has spent her time outside of performing indicates that she could be a viable candidate.

Throughout her life, Nixon has been a grassroots-level activist for issues surrounding women’s rights, the LGBTQ community, and public education.  Her campaign platform also includes solving New York’s income inequality and its unending public transportation issues.  As a New York City resident, she certainly has first-hand knowledge of how inefficient the subways are. She has given time and money to progressive organizations such as Planned Parenthood and Alliance for Quality Education for many years.  Even her family life is rooted in politics: she met her wife Christine Marinoni while they were both protesting a proposed education budget cut.

At her kick-off party at the historical Stonewall Inn on March 21st, Nixon said that New Yorkers shouldn’t accept anything less than satisfactory policy “particularly when we have that small, miserable orange man in the White House.”  It’s hard to ignore that “orange” individual these days, especially when it comes to pointing out why so many actors are pairing their productions with political action.

For many Americans, November 8, 2016 marked a divide in the political landscape. In this post-election world where the presidency of Donald Trump is a daily reality, an increasing number of artists have found themselves becoming more involved in advocacy and government as a counter to the Trump administration’s agenda.  Some performers have been vocal on issues via social media, others have spoken at rallies and marches.  Many are encouraging their fans to get involved with and/or donate to political organizations.  Only a small few are so dedicated to policy change that they are willing to change careers altogether, setting aside performing and going into politics.

Though Cynthia Nixon’s choice puts her acting career on hold—perhaps indefinitely, if she wins the governorship—actors can be advocates for change without giving up their careers. Some have always been vocal activists for causes dear to their hearts.  Mark Ruffalo is the poster boy for actors who are considered both performers and activists: he devotes his life to political change when he’s off the set, speaking at rallies and devoting time to projects that support causes he believes in.

Perhaps the most effective recent use of celebrity to affect political policy is embodied by the Time’s Up movement, started by hundreds of women in the entertainment industry.  These advocates for change have created a legal defense fund for lower-income women seeking access to justice for sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. Time’s Up proponents also advocate for legislation to punish companies that tolerate persistent harassment and push for gender parity in studios and talent agencies.  Over 400 women came together to create this movement, including high-profile actors such as Reese Witherspoon, Octavia Spencer, and Meryl Streep.  They are using their voices to help those who have less access to media platforms and fewer funds to devote to legal recourse to speak up about harassment.

For non-celebrity performers, political engagement manifests in myriad ways, from attending protests to performing material relevant to the current political climate.  Even those who have little to give are donating to causes the Trump administration refuses to assist, such as hurricane relief for Puerto Rico and the gun control advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety.  Historically, the arts have been a reflection of and an instigator for change, and therefore artists are an integral part of it. 

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many people, including performers, find themselves becoming unexpected advocates for positive change.  They are realizing that if they don’t try to make the world a better place, perhaps no one will.  One of those people is Cynthia Nixon.

Sarah Elizabeth Grace is an actor and playwright based in Brooklyn.