We Need to Talk About Nepo Babies Because We Live in a "Just Deserts" Culture
until people understand that chance plays a huge hand in life, we have to be real about the reasons successful people succeed
I have a new piece in The Daily Beast, arguing that Elon Musk's takeover over Twitter is the perfect opportunity for media to escape from its addiction to the service.
The cover story for the latest issue of New York magazine is about “nepo babies,” people who have been successful in Hollywood and who have direct family connections to others in Hollywood, suggesting that they got to cut the line. I found the piece fun and a little tongue in cheek and not too mean to anybody, but to my surprise, it’s generated controversy. Here’s a Hollywood Reporter piece speaking out for the feelings of nepo babies; Fox News says the debate has “divided Twitter.” A lot of people have criticized not just this particular expression of complaint towards the beneficiaries of nepotism but, seemingly, the very concept of resentment towards nepotism in general. I find this strange. Nepotism is the most direct and obvious means through which success under capitalism is handed out in a capricious and unfair way, undermining our culture’s dogged insistence that our system rewards pure merit and that you can look at someone’s station in life and understand their character. I don’t know why any progressive person would decline to examine unearned familial privilege.
First, the weakest criticism of all: “all other fields have nepotism/nepotism in Hollywood has always existed, so what’s the big deal?” This is illogic of such an obvious kind I can’t believe anyone takes it seriously: the fact that something was bad before does not mean it isn’t bad now; the fact that something bad is widespread doesn’t mean that it isn’t bad in the specific. Yes, there’s lots of nepotism in finance and the law and small businesses and all manner of other sectors in our economy. Why on earth would that mean that nepotism isn’t bad? There’s fraud in finance and in tech and in medicine and all other industries, and yet I persist in believing fraud is bad. And the fact that Hollywood has always been rife with nepotism doesn’t move me at all. Problems don’t stop being problems because they got grandfathered in. It doesn’t work that way.
A lot of the chatter takes the predictable tack, which is to say that those who complain about nepo babies are just jealous. Most critics of Hollywood nepotism might very well be jealous, but I don’t think they’re just jealous, for reasons I’ll discuss. Also, I think there’s a countervailing tendency at play here - a ton of people in media and commentary and journalism are people who assume that, someday, they’ll be players, that they’ll be big in Hollywood one day too. Every other content mill writer churning out takes for Buzzfuck.com has a screenplay or treatment for a TV show squirreled away on their Dropbox. And I think people defend nepotism in entertainment in part because they don’t want to foreclose on future opportunities. More, I think this is an example of where people are so sure that they will later enjoy a privileged status, they act and behave as though they already have that privileged status, like poor voters supporting low taxes on the wealthy. People who may have no creative credits to speak of still think of themselves as “creatives” and don’t want to criticize the industry they imagine they’ll soon be a part of. I genuinely tl believe that’s at play here.
I think it’s worth talking about the probabilities at work. The odds of making it in Hollywood are very, very long. There are thousands, tens of thousands, of people trying to make it for every person who actually does make it. The odds of any two members of the same immediate family both independently striking gold are very, very remote, even given that some of the skills of Creative Field X are going to be partially heritable. So simply in terms of multiplying probabilities, the odds of a parent and child independently becoming celebrity-level success in creative fields are quite low. For every actor who makes it, there are untold thousands that don’t. So the odds that Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith, and Dakota Johnson all got in while playing the same odds as the rest of us are just about nil.
Also, the benefit of being, say, the son of a powerful agent isn’t just that you can get into auditions you wouldn’t have otherwise. It also means that your parents are rich and can devote time and resources to your career. It’s a lot easier to try and do the Hollywood thing when your parents can always pay your rent, when your parents can take as much time off of work as they need, when your parents can chase your dream across the country…. Wouldn’t it be nice to always have a safety net, when you’re trying to vault into the stars? The ancillary benefits are vast, and the resentment from those who don’t enjoy them is natural. I’m reminded of someone (maybe it was Norm Macdonald) responding to Kiefer Sutherland claiming that he used to sleep in his car when he first started his career by asking “was it parked in front of your father’s mansion?”
The thing is that responding to being called a nepo baby is easy. Exactly like this:
I recognize that I've had an easier time than some other people, and I'm grateful for all the opportunities I've gotten. But I think I'm talented and deserving and I'm going to continue to take advantage of the shot I've been given.
And that's all you've gotta do! You don't need to apologize for your success. You just have to show a little gratitude and perspective. I was unaware that Pierce Brosnan’s sons were in the entertainment industry, but this quote attributed to them is just the right tone: "I think we need to just be grateful for our blessings. It's always gonna be there, and we got to recognize it.” That’s it! That’s all. I need to recognize my unearned privileges, and be grateful for them. That’s an attitude that’s healthy for all of us.
What’s not a great way to respond? Look to Lottie Moss, sister of Kate Moss, who recently said,
I’m so sick of people blaming nepotism for why they aren’t rich and famous or successful - obviously it’s not fair that people who come from famous families are getting a leg up because of that but guess what? Life isn’t fair - if you put your mind to something you can accomplish Anything ! So instead of being negative about other peoples success go and try and create your own !
Besides the fact that she says “life isn’t fair” and then immediately insists that you can have anything if you work hard for it, pretty much a direct contradiction, this is exactly what I’m talking about - it’s a defense of the beneficiaries of nepotism that sounds an awful lot like bog-standard economic conservatism. Poor people are just jealous; progressive people who want more for the worst off are just bitter and unwilling to “put their minds to something.”
That’s particularly egregious, and from a not-very-famous person, but there’s more tempered takes that are still problematic. Take, for example, the director Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman, by which I mean please take him from the Planet Earth and send him somewhere far away. I detest pretty much everything he's made - the cloying and self-impressed Juno, the tissue-thin Up in the Air, the nostalgia-humping horrorshow that is Ghostbusters Afterlife. (Ghost Egon, everybody!) His movies are not very good, in my opinion, and he's gotten chance after chance. But in the past he hasn't even have the decency to graciously accept that his father's success has helped his own. In 2009, he said “People presumed that nepotism would pave the road for my career… Nepotism let me down, frankly." You'd think you'd be pretty upfront about getting a head start when you're literally directing a sequel to the blockbuster your father directed.
The simple reality is that we aren’t in complete control, or even mostly in control, of our own destinies. Thanks to chance, genetics, the whims of others, the vagaries of fate. And I do believe there’s utility in pointing this out when it comes to Hollywood, as celebrity culture has outsized influence in our social understanding of the world. We need to take this opportunity to remind people that the myth of the self-made man is, indeed, a myth. Here’s an impressive new study that shows that socioeconomic class is the single greatest barrier to career success in one’s given profession. There are many other studies like it. You can take this conversation in any direction you’d like, whether the problem is that the meritocratic ideal hasn’t been realized or that the meritocratic ideal itself. But we don’t do ourselves any favors, as leftists or simply as people, by pretending that some of the most privileged people on earth earned all of it.