Hollywood is full of “nepo babies”. It might sound like some kind of kid craze – a new breed of Tamagotchi or Neopet maybe – but the reality is a lot unseemly. The term, of course, refers to the children of celebrities who later aspire to a career in show business. The Maya Hawkes, Lily Rose Depps and Jaden Smiths of the world. This is hardly a new development; From Judy Garland and Liza Minelli to the Bridges and the Fondas, Hollywood has always loved a dynasty. But now, it seems, celebrity kids are surfing their hordes to stardom more than ever on their parents’ velvet coattails. And people don’t have it.
On Monday, model and musician Lourdes Leon – Madonna’s eldest daughter – gave an interview The cut in which she spoke about her own status as a “Nepo baby”. “I want to feel like I deserve things and not just like things were given to me,” she said. “And yes, there’s an undeniable privilege that I’d be stupid not to realize … Nepotism babies are usually pretty awful, and my mum and dad raised me to be so much smarter.” The comments pierce through Kind of low-key denial that often colors such interviews. (Just days earlier, Lily Rose Depp had disputed the idea that her parentage cast her in projects: “I can definitely say that nothing will get you into the role except that you’re right for the role.”) But that doesn’t mean that much. The truth is, Hollywood’s many star children have a responsibility to fully acknowledge their own privilege. Nepotism must be brought out into the open if it is to be combated.
What Leon probably knows is that there’s no way for celebrity sprogs to talk about privilege without sounding either infatuated or ungrateful. As society has slowly moved towards equality, “nepo baby” has become something of a swear word. Some remain immune to the stigma or overcome it through sheer talent — no one thinks of Nicolas Cage or Laura Dern as mere Beverly Hills lottery winners. Others, however, embody the worst kind of social imbalance. (Consider the reputation difference between Colin and Chet Hanks.)
I realize that this is all a bit like “drunk driving can kill a lot of people, but it also helps a lot of people get to work on time,” if to say the opposite. Nepotism pervades society; It is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently and systematically, but to do that it needs to be talked about. to be understood. It’s not something that can ever be eradicated or even truly legislated – only mitigated.
In Hollywood, the framework for nepotism is harder to eradicate than in other industries. The entertainment industry’s idiosyncratic financial ecosystem plays a role. For a mid- to low-budget production, hiring a famous star’s child guarantees free and instant publicity, intrigue and notoriety without the fees normally associated with it. It likely keeps the studio in the good graces of her famous parents. Social media has also simplified the process. Instagram has catapulted many a nepotism babe into the limelight at a young age; Some are reaching the doors of Hollywood with a following already in the millions.
Then there is the genetic factor. It’s innate talent, I suppose – it stands to reason that there must have been something special in Henry Fonda’s DNA that lends itself to being a charismatic film actor. But on a more superficial level, it boils down to appearances. Call it what you will – sex appeal; telegenism. Whether we’re talking movies or record companies, showbiz favors the good-looking ones. When two telegenic actors have a child, chances are their child will be telegenic as well. Combine that with the diet and fitness privileges of a wealthy upbringing and you’re playing with seriously loaded dice.
Perversely, the entertainment industry is also more meritocratic in the long run than most other fields of work. If Miley Cyrus couldn’t sing, she wouldn’t be performing at the Super Bowl. If Nic Cage couldn’t open a movie, it wouldn’t have taken long for the studios to stop casting him. Show business is a popularity contest, and so far you’ve only been able to indulge yourself with inherited goodwill.
Like many people in my profession, I am a beneficiary of nepotism. Like many of these beneficiaries, I can’t help but play the apologist in my own head. I tell myself that my entry into journalism was harmless and only partial – more a foot in the door than a silver platter. I tell myself there are far worse offenders, and besides, don’t I know how to string a beautiful sentence together as well as the next? But it doesn’t change anything. Even discounting the myriad other ways in which I am unduly privileged in our country’s professional climate – as a white male without a disability from the south of England with a university degree – it is a sheer, unchanging fact that I have been given opportunities that others not have. Doubting your worthiness for a role is a small and inevitable price to pay, and an ugly one to complain about.
So what is the solution here? Crushing the hellish “nepo baby” trend would require an intersectional and holistic reappraisal of the way in which both the entertainment industry and society itself are structured. Hollywood nepotism, and nepotism in general, creates major social divisions that can only be remedied by large-scale wealth redistribution. For now, just talking about it might be enough. The first step was always to admit that there is a problem.
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