Quick, name all the famous men who’ve crept from a screen near you to the political scene. Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Al Franken, Clint Eastwood, Fred Thompson, Jesse Ventura, Donald Trump. Okay, now tick off all the women you know with the same CV? Hmmm. Shirley Temple Black? Turns out that it’s hard for an actor-politician particularly when she’s, well, a she.
Last month, Cynthia Nixon, whom you may remember from her iconic turn as uptight lawyer Miranda Hobbes on HBO’s “Sex and the City,” lost her bid for New York governor. Sure, the actress already had a tough hill to climb trying to oust incumbent and political scion Andrew Cuomo, but being famous and female didn’t help. In fact, it may have hurt.
“Men have more freedom to play the role of politician,” says Heather E. Yates, editor with Timothy G. Hill of the forthcoming book “The Hollywood Connection: The Influence of Fictional Media and Celebrity Politics on American Public Opinion.” Politics is what Yates calls “a gendered space.” Basically, men still dominate the playing field. And when it comes to A-list men, the big names are bestowed with hyper-masculinity by their fans, making politics an “organic” next step — “an extension of their persona,” as Yates puts it, real or scripted.
By contrast, women in general face a dizzying barrage of scrutiny when it comes to elected office. They’re often seen as less qualified and less credible than their male counterparts with the same résumé. Add a dollop of fame to that recipe and female celebrities are at even more of a disadvantage. The problem, in part, is that “women celebrities in politics may be viewed as a novelty,” Yates argues.
Diane Neal knows a lot about that. The actress spent several seasons playing prosecutor Casey Novak on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and is now running for Congress in New York’s 19th District. “It has been a wacky experience,” explains Neal, an independent. She’s been spit on, yelled at, called “every name in the book.” She’s been told, “I don’t like your face.”
Neal describes herself as “wildly tough,” but says it’s been a wake-up call to go from famous and beloved to famous and hated by the very people she plans to serve.
She regularly gets the “what qualifies you” question and often answers the same way: “Well, I’m over 25.” She says she rarely sees her opponents — one of whom, like her, has never held political office — questioned in the same way.
L. Joy Williams, a New York-based strategist who worked on Nixon’s campaign, has advice for women who decide to trade their Q Score for Congress. Ashley Judd, Melissa Gilbert and Stacey Dash — actresses who’ve contemplated running but never made it to the polls — should take notes:
First, figure out a good answer to the qualifications query. “It can be sexist and accusatory,” says Williams. So candidates need an answer that “challenges the sexism that may be baked in.”
Although Nixon’s name recognition helped her win media attention, that’s only a fraction of the race. The next step is to “change the narrative,” Williams says, from stories that lead with “former star” to stories that allow a candidate to tackle the issues.
Nixon’s campaign was Williams’s first time working with a celebrity candidate. They didn’t win, but she’d do it again — although there is one A-lister who Williams hopes won’t throw her hat into the ring: “I don’t want Oprah to run because I’m protective,” she says. “I don’t want this life for Auntie O.”
Helena Andrews-Dyer is co-author of The Post’s Reliable Source column.