Nepotism is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “favouritism based on kinship.” More often than not, this favouritism comes to play among family members. In the job market, especially, ambitious young people more often than not get their first ‘big break’ in a desired field thanks to family connections in the industry.
It’s an unethical practice that contributes to systemic inequalities: keeping the glass ceiling perfectly intact, but it’s more common than a lot of people care to admit. A study by the Debrett’s Foundation found that seven in every ten young people aged 16-25 use family connections to get their first job, and chances are you know someone who benefitted from nepotism, or are one of the beneficiaries yourself.
But judging by the scale of discourse this year, it seems like the public — or, at least, social media — have only just discovered that Hollywood is one of the many industries wherein nepotism is present.
With the tag #nepobaby having over 100 million views on TikTok and nepo babies being the subject of countless viral tweets, think pieces, and magazine covers, the term has become one of both endearment and derision. The most important thing is to understand where this fascination comes from.
More often than not, people will go viral for expressing their surprise and disappointment that an actor or singer they admired was a ‘nepo baby’ — especially if that person in the entertainment industry was actually good at their job.
When we think of nepo babies, we think of daddy’s spoilt children stamping their feet and demanding leading roles on account of their name alone, but the thing is that some of these nepo babies are actually good at what they do and, are decent people that we, the average person, can relate to.
It is unsettling because when a talented, relatable, hard-working person turns out to be a nepotism baby, it can feel like a betrayal. Especially for people without those family connections, it feels like we’re being sold a dream when someone like us appears to have gotten where they are through hard work.
This is because, through their relatability, we feel that if they can do it, then we can too. These seemingly-inaccessible industries like Hollywood appear to be within our grasp, provided we have the talent and put the work in.
So, if we find out that their path into the industry was a lot easier than it would be if they had a different name, it can feel like a slap in the face and cause us to question the entire system on which Hollywood — or any industry — is based on.
In an ideal world, all industries would hire and operate based purely on meritocracy: meaning that people are hired based on their talent and potential above anything else. But the reality is, systemic inequalities pertaining to race, class, gender, and disability means that meritocracy, as it should be, doesn’t exist.
The omnipresence of unconscious bias and the intersectional nature of these issues means that people from working class, BIPOC, and gender minority communities are having to work double as hard as the average middle-class white man to even get their foot in the door.
So, to know that people you look up are born in a family which allows that door to swing wide open is an understandably hard pill to swallow. Contextualising people’s feelings about nepo babies, it’s also important to remember that Hollywood has a representation issue as it is.
In the US, nearly 60% of all actors are white, while less than 16% and 14% identify as Latinx and African American, respectively. Meanwhile, BIPOC people only make up 30% of directors, and 32% of writers.
With all that in mind, the fact that we are becoming hyper-aware of the role of privilege in elite industries and are actively questioning it is, on the whole, a positive thing. But as we continue down this path of discourse, we should bear in mind a few nuances.
First of all, being a nepo baby doesn’t automatically make you a horrible person — I think we can all agree that Stranger Things‘ Maya Hawke, The Boys cast member Jack Quaid, Black-ish’s Tracee Eillis-Ross, House of the Dragon cast member Ty Tennant, and Star Wars movie legend, the late Carrie Fisher, are indisputably some of the ‘good ones,’ if you will.
Furthermore, it makes sense that if someone spent their childhood on movie sets and growing up with famous parents, that they’d naturally develop an interest in the industry themselves.
Does this automatically mean that they should get every single role handed to them on a plate, irrespective of talent? Obviously not, but on the other hand, these children wanting to go into the industry themselves shouldn’t be as big of a shock as it’s made out to be; and calling someone a nepo baby just because their parents fixed a power lead behind-the-scenes on-set one time isn’t comparable to being the spawn of an A-list power couple.
As I mentioned before, nepotism is largely common across all industries. It definitely isn’t out of the question that some nepo babies land roles on the basis of their name alone, or that their parents utilized their vast wealth and industry connections to put them in the best position possible.
Are any of these things okay if we want a truly fair and equitable entertainment industry? Again, obviously not, and people are absolutely right to speak out against that — but equally, these actions and scenarios shouldn’t automatically be conflated with every single child of every single famous person.
That being said, even if there are actors who aren’t actively taking advantage of their famous parents, it’s still vital that they themselves acknowledge the fact that, in virtue of their identity and family name, they still have a huge degree of privilege which means that, even on a passive level, their journey into the industry will still be a lot easier than it is for the vast majority of people.
Jane Fonda, the daughter of Western star Henry Fonda, gracefully showed in her interview with WIRED. In it, she joked that she “became famous” because of her father, and demonstrated that it really isn’t difficult to acknowledge the inherent privilege that comes with having famous parents and the role it plays in their lives.
Acknowledging their privilege won’t be enough to undo systemic inequalities in Hollywood — that will be a much longer process — but showing a little more self-awareness and transparency about how privilege and Hollywood works in practice is a good starting point.