Hollywood is awash with “nepo babies”. It may sound like some sort of children’s craze – some new kind of Tamagotchi or Neopet perhaps – but the reality is far more unseemly. The term, of course, refers to the children of celebrities who go on to pursue careers 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, more than ever, celebrity children in their hoards are surfing to fame on their parents’ velveteen coattails. And people aren’t having it.
On Monday, the model and musician Lourdes Leon – Madonna’s eldest daughter – gave an interview with The Cut in which she discussed her own “nepo baby” status. “I want to feel like I deserve things and not just like I’ve been given things,” she said. “And, yes, there’s undeniable privilege that I’d be stupid to not realise… Nepotism babies are pretty awful usually, and my mom and my father raised me to be so much smarter than that.” The remarks cut across the kind of cagey denialism that often colours such interviews. (Just days earlier, Lily Rose Depp had disputed the idea that her parentage had got her cast in projects: “I can definitely say that nothing is going to get you the part except for being right for the part.”) But that’s not saying all that much. The truth is, Hollywood’s many star-children have a responsibilty to fully acknowledge their own privilege. Nepotism must be dragged into the light of day if it is to be confronted.
What Leon probably knows is that, for celeb sprogs, there is no way of talking about privilege without sounding either deluded or ungrateful. As society has slowly bent in the direction of equality, “nepo baby” has become something of a dirty word. Some remain immune to the stigma, or transcend it through sheer talent – no one thinks of Nicolas Cage or Laura Dern as mere winners of the Beverly Hills lottery. Others, however, come to embody the worst kind of social imbalance. (Consider the reputational difference between Colin and Chet Hanks.)
I realise this is all getting a bit “drunk driving may kill a lot of people, but it also helps a lot of people get to work on time”, when I mean to say the opposite. Nepotism pervades society; it is a problem that needs addressing, pressingly and systematically, but for that to happen it needs to be talked about. To be understood. It is not something that can ever be stamped out or even, really, legislated against, only mitigated.
In Hollywood, the framework for nepotism is harder to uproot than in other industries. The idiosyncratic financial ecosystem of the entertainment industry plays a part. For a mid- or low-budget production, hiring the child of a famous star guarantees free and immediate publicity, intrigue and name recognition, without the fees that usually come with it. It likely keeps their famous parent in the studio’s good graces. Social media has streamlined the process, too. Instagram has catapulted many a nepotism baby into the limelight from a young age; some arrive at the doors of Hollywood with a following already millions strong.
Then there’s the genetic factor. This comes in terms of innate talent, I suppose – it stands to reason that there must be something particular in Henry Fonda’s DNA that lent itself to charismatic screen acting. But on a more superficial level it boils down to appearances. Call it what you will – sex appeal; telegenicism. Whether we’re talking movies or record labels, showbiz favours the good-looking. When two telegenic actors have a child, odds are that their child will grow up to be just as telegenic. Combine that with the dietary and fitness privileges of a wealthy upbringing, and you’re playing with some seriously loaded dice.
Perversely, there are also ways in which the entertainment industry is, in the long run, more meritocratic than most other spheres 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 be long before studios would stop casting him. Show business is a popularity contest, and you can only coast so far on inherited goodwill.
I am, like many people in my profession, a beneficiary of nepotism. Like many such beneficiaries, I can’t help but play apologist in my own head. I tell myself that my weaselling into journalism was benign and only partial – a foot in the door rather than a silver platter. I tell myself that there are far more egregious offenders out there, and besides, don’t I know how to string a handsome sentence together as well as the next guy? But it changes nothing. Even if you leave aside the countless other ways I am unduly favoured in our country’s professional climate – being a university-educated, non-disabled white man from the south of England – it is a bare immutable fact that I have been given opportunities where others have not. Doubting one’s own deservedness for a role is a small and inevitable price to pay, and an ugly one to complain about.
So what, then, is the solution here? Stifling the infernal “nepo baby” trend would require an intersectional and holistic re-appraisal of the way both the entertainment industry and society itself is structured. Hollywood nepotism, and nepotism in general, feed into wider social divides that only a large-scale redistribution of wealth could hope to address. For now, just talking about it may have to suffice. The first step has always been admitting there’s a problem.