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Nepo Babies are the symbol of our broken meritocracy

Nepo babies are everywhere in entertainment these days – from Maude Apatow to Dakota Johnson to Nicolas Cage, one of your favorite actors is probably related to the Hollywood elite. A nepotism baby is the child of wealthy, well-connected parents who are famous or highly successful in the entertainment industry, and the nepo baby experiences an expeditious ascent to fame, wealth, and success – at least in part thanks to their family’s connections and status. For some, the nepo baby is an opulent fantasy; for others, discovering another nepo baby feels like more proof that America’s meritocracy is broken. So what do these stars really say about inequality in entertainment, and in America more broadly?

TRANSCRIPT

Nepo babies are everywhere in entertainment these days – from Maude Apatow to Dakota Johnson to Nicolas Cage, one of your favorite actors is probably related to the Hollywood elite. A nepotism baby is the child of wealthy, well-connected parents who are famous or highly successful in the entertainment industry, and the nepo baby experiences an expeditious ascent to fame, wealth, and success – at least in part thanks to their family’s connections and status.

George Louise: “I kind of fell into acting. It was nothing I sort of set out to do… I was at a gig and this lady came up to me and she just said ‘I love your look’...She knew my mom.”

For some, the nepo baby is an opulent fantasy – it’s easy to imagine the delights of growing up as this figure, with all their advantages and iconic connections; for others, discovering another nepo baby feels like a betrayal, more proof that America’s meritocracy is broken.

So what do these stars really say about inequality in entertainment, and in America more broadly? Here’s our take on why the Nepo Baby inspires such strong feelings, and what they tell us about ourselves.

Joré Aaron: “His viral, not viral videos being his big break… or we could take into account his parents’ decades long experience in the theater scene.”

(Maybe) They’re born with it …

Being born into a wealthy family comes with innumerable perks, like a robust safety net, a massive, elite professional network, and an effortlessly glamorous lifestyle.

But nepotism babies aren’t a new phenomenon: they’ve been around for longer than Hollywood itself. The earliest moving images captured by the Lumiere Brothers featured their own kids, the first literal nepo babies. And the child actors of the silent film era were often related to industry insiders – take “The Solax Kid” Magda Foy, who was the daughter of two stock actors at the Solax studio. Even some modern day nepo babies can trace their roots back to early Hollywood: Drew Barrymore is the grandchild of silent film star John Barrymore, and Zoe Kazan is the granddaughter of Elia Kazan, a legendary director from the Classical Hollywood era.

Zoe Kazan: “He knew himself and he was the person he answered to. And I think all of that is a really good example in terms of being an artist.”

So the nepo babies of today are part of a long tradition of successful artists lifting up their relatives to create Hollywood dynasties. People like Maude Apatow, Sam Levinson, Billie Lourd, Kate Hudson, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal – these stars are all genuinely talented, but it’s impossible to separate their success from their family.

In addition to all their connections, nepo babies’ names have a distinct commercial value. Jamie Lee Curtis went through a long audition process for her breakout hit, Halloween, and gave an acclaimed iconic performance in it, but she’s very open about how her family helped her get the role.

Jamie Lee Curtis: “Given that John and Debra were such fans of Psycho… To have Janet Leigh’s daughter as one of the two, obviously it tipped it my way.”

Many of these stars make the counterpoint that – while their names may have got them in the door– that didn’t take them all the way, and they still had to earn their ultimate success.

Still, perhaps one of the biggest benefits of being a nepo baby is the informal education these kids get from being raised by parents who are at the absolute top of their field. Maude Apatow grew up on film sets and cut her teeth as an actress in Hollywood movies directed by her dad – that’s a kind of learning environment most kids can only dream about.

Euphoria creator Sam Levinson’s knowledge of cinematography and storytelling is no doubt informed by the fact that his father is the Academy-Award winning director of Rain Man, Barry Levinson. Most film students have to pay an arm and a leg for top-notch training in the craft and even when they do, if they’re not Sofia Coppola, they’d never get access to the knowledge and insights of a Francis Ford Coppola.

Sofia Coppola: “I was lucky to have such a great teacher and he gave me a book as a teeanger. It was the encyclopedia of poetics and he always talked to me about film as poetry.”

Jennifer Lopez’s child is a naturally gifted singer, and it’s great that they get to share their love of music with their mom – but for most kids, that means singing together at a talent show, and for Emme Muniz, that means singing on stage at the Super Bowl. Zoe Kazan didn’t just benefit from the Kazan name; she learned about the craft of acting from her screenwriter parents.

With all these privileges, it’s no wonder TikTok is full of people fantasizing about being a nepo baby. But others feel let down when they learn their idols came from less-than-humble origins.

The Dark Side of the Nepo Baby

So many opportunities in life are about being at the right place at the right time – so it can be frustrating to see nepotism babies who are born in the right place and constantly provided with the right times. Especially when they refuse to admit they were put on a path to success by their families.

Lena Dunham: “The nepotism thing is ridiculous. It’s like no one ever got a TV show because their mother was like, you know, an alternative art figure in the 80s and 90s.”

Some nepo babies are aware of and acknowledge their leg up, along with the responsibilities that brings.

But others try to sell a misleading image that hustling and working hard alone got them where they are today. This amplifies that feeling of being let down when a fan discovers their role model has nepo baby origins – when someone has been presenting an image of themselves climbing up a pure meritocracy, it can change your whole view of them to discover they were actually born at the top.

Jess Elgene: “Just acknowledge it. One time, just say ‘Yes my parent is famous, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities it has obviously afforded me.’”

People also feel betrayed by nepo babies if they don’t consider those people talented or hard working enough to deserve their level of success. It can also seem like nepo babies get endless chances to try and fail before they find their grooveanother thing that’s great for them but exceedingly rare for everyone else.

On the other hand, the scrutiny around nepo babies can get a little harsh – for example, when actors and creators who (despite their privileged starts) have proven themselves on their own merits are headlined simply as “nepo babies,” this can seem a tad vicious.

The nepo baby may feel they can’t take risks and make mistakes without being subject to hyperintense criticism. In fact, some genuinely talented nepo babies have changed their names to distance themselves from their famous relative and avoid the constant comparisons

Nicolas Cage: “I changed my name because I was doing a little movie called Fast Times at Ridgemont High and I was still Nicolas Coppola and people would not stop saying things like ‘I love the smell of Nicolas in the morning’ because of Apocalypse Now.”

On social media, some people sort nepo babies into two distinct categories: the deserving and the undeserving.

We want to know which stars truly earned their success. But maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Because what does it even mean to “deserve” your success? Can we truly judge that, and is that framing actually useful?

Who “Deserves” It?

The deeper reason critics of the nepo baby feel betrayed is because nepotism shatters the illusion of the American Dream – America is supposed to be the land of opportunity, where anyone can be anything if they work hard enough. Nepo babies are proof that isn’t true.

But perhaps it was pretty naive that we ever expected it to be true in the first place. Even when they’re not Hollywood nepo babies, lots of celebrated talents in our culture today came from social and economic privilege. Taylor Swift’s father was a wealthy financial adviser at Merrill Lynch, and he invested $300,000 in the label that Taylor was signed to at the start of her career – that’s an investment that is impossible for most families.

Taylor Swift: “My dad is the one who’s like ‘I had this crazy idea’ or you know, he’s the daydreamer.”

Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga came from similarly affluent backgrounds – their families didn’t have a direct tie to the music industry, but Gaga’s family sent her to a famous private school known for its well-connected alumni, and Ariana’s parents could afford to let her live in Los Angeles to pursue her dreams at the age of 14.

Hollywood dynasties may be a particularly visible instance of inequity, but they’re far from the only reason the entertainment industries aren’t meritocracies. The American Dream has never been real – success in America has always been tangled up in race, gender, and generational wealth. Interestingly, when “the American Dream” was first coined, it didn’t even refer to the idea that anyone could go from rags to riches. The phrase came to prominence thanks to Progressive Era reformers: their “dream” wasn’t to build a country where everyone had an equal shot of rising to the top of an unequal system – but to build a better, more equitable system.

So if nepo babies are the latest example shattering an out-dated illusion about equality in America, maybe that means it’s time to update our American Dream – to fixate less on taking down a few high-profile individuals, and focus more on evaluating the broader system around them. Does it really matter so much if a few particular nepo babies deserve their success – or does it matter what they do with it?

Ariana Grande: “To be a leader and a role model. I just hope to make people feel that they can be themselves.”

Favoritism and nepotism have always been a part of Hollywood – and pretty much all industries – and they’re not going anywhere. But for as long as the nepo baby has existed, there have been privileged stars who have used their platform to advocate for the real American dream – a more equitable and just society.

Jane Fonda, daughter of Henry Fonda, leveraged her strong Hollywood connections to take politically unpopular stands for social issues that some of her peers could not take without risking their careers.

She used her father’s network to advance her career, but she lifted others up with her – for example, she made the iconic feminist comedy, 9 to 5, after learning about working conditions for secretaries from a labor organizer.

Jane Fonde: “She would tell me stories that were terrifying of how these women were treated. So my producing partner, Bruce Gilbert, and I decided we wanted to make a movie about it.”

Another nepo baby, Mia Farrow’s and Woody Allen’s son Ronan Farrow, used his platform and connections to aid his journalistic investigation of the abuses committed by celebrated Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

These nepo babies walked a short road to success – their success is proof that America isn’t fair. But they’ve used their privilege to fight for fairness, and that’s an American Dream we can get behind.

Taylor Swift: “There was a petition… for the equality act, which basically just says we deserve equal rights under the law.”

Sources

Bowenbank, Starr. “Ariana Grande Recalls Living at an L.A. Hotel During ‘Victorious’ Auditions: ‘I Was So Nervous.’” Billboard, 20 Sept. 2021, www.billboard.com/music/music-news/ariana-grande-kelly-clarkson-show-interview-victorious-auditions-9632884/.

Brisco, Elise. “‘Nepo Babies’ in Hollywood: What Do Famous Families Say About Industry Equity?” USA Today, 15 Mar. 2022, www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2022/03/15/famous-families-nepotism-babies-hollywood-maude-apatow-tracee-ellis-ross/9437227002/.

Diamond, Anna. “The Original Meanings of the ‘American Dream’ and ‘America First’ Were Starkly Different From How We Use Them Today.” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/behold-america-american-dream-slogan-book-sarah-churchwell-180970311/.

Holtermann, Callie. “How Do You Feel About ‘Nepotism Babies’?” The New York Times, 11 May 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/05/11/learning/how-do-you-feel-about-nepotism-babies.html.

McGee, Madison. “18 Celebrities Who Came From Wealthy Families, And Not Gonna Lie, I Had No Clue About Some Of These.” BuzzFeed, 5 Apr. 2022, www.buzzfeed.com/madisonmcgee/celebs-rich-before-famous?fbclid=IwAR3vgybMFgNQaJYvQqX14c6C-r0jMFQQ7WSEXKCG-L8QLUoz7QvBr2vRKxM.