Words: Marlow Elliot Fortnum (he/him
This article was featured in our third print issue of the year, Ashes to Ashes.
Nepotism seems to be a word on everybody’s lips these days; we have become acutely aware how often nepo-babies occupy magazine covers, star in blockbuster films, and walk the runways. As a direct opposition to the meritocracy we are led to believe we live in, the issue serves as a constant reminder that the world is not a fair one. But why, and when does it bother us so much?
When Rupert Murdoch’s children were handed control over his media empire, I think it is safe to say that there was little reaction or controversy. In the business world, and other monetary-focused industries, nepotism rules, as it always has done, and we are neither surprised nor particularly affronted by the privileges afforded to those born to these rich and “successful” parents. This seems to be a different conversation; one focused on class, privilege, and wealth disparity. The headlines that scream outrage seem to stem primarily from concerns about the issue’s prevalence in the public/celebrity sphere and the creative industry. In regards to celebrity culture, it is a world surrounded with its own set of issues and I’m not too concerned about how we can subject more people to its superficiality. Although that may not be everyone’s opinion, I think the battle against nepotism is hard fought in an industry in which names, image, and status are its primary components.
However, when we do start to focus on the issue within the creative industry, I don’t think too much blame can be placed on the nepo-babies themselves. Although their privileged position is something they should not be allowed to forget, can you blame them for taking the opportunities presented to them? I’m sure that I can speak for anyone involved in music/acting/art and say that if I was offered a major opportunity by my parents or family I would take it, it is a competitive industry and knowing people within it, is sadly part of the game. With all this being said, what is it about nepotism within the world’s creative industries that rubs us the wrong way?
A figurehead for this topic, Lily-Rose Depp responded to the subject by denying its role in her life, sparking controversy, when she stated that ‘the internet seems to care a lot about that kind of stuff … nothing is going to get you the part except for being right for the part’. While her viewpoint does indicate a fair amount of naivety regarding her privilege, she raises two interesting points. Firstly, that the internet, and popular society, seems strangely obsessed with the issue – as I have mentioned before. And secondly, creativity is not thought of as something inherited, something one can pay for.
We like to believe that it comes purely from a source of distinct, intrinsic talent, that whoever is gifted one of these rare and sought-after roles, did it based purely on their own merit, they were “right for the part”. Seeing someone like Jaden Smith cast on to our TV screens, therefore, perhaps reminds us that this is not always the case. This is, of course, exaggerated when one of these nepo-babies delivers a bad acting performance or a shoddy album, and we understand that it may not have seen the light of day had they not had their distinctive last names.
An infamous example of this is the casting of Sofia Coppola in The Godfather Part III, where critics responded with outcry at a performance they believed to cripple the film. Both she and her father (the director Francis Ford Coppola, who was responsible for her getting the role) claimed that she was simply a last minute replacement for a sick Winona Ryder. Although this may be true, the act of employing her still denied the part to someone who may have used it to establish an acting career. The fact that Sofia went on to largely abandon her acting dreams, and yet have a successful career as a filmmaker, highlights a worrying fact: for a nepo-baby this incident is merely a blip on the road to some type of success, while for the unknown actors who would have clamoured for this opportunity, it is a chance at stardom wasted.
Despite the unfairness of this aspect of the industry, actual talent, I think, does play a large role. While it is not surprising that the child of an actor might share the traits that helped raise their family to stardom, what they gain most importantly from their upbringing, is cultural capital. Being surrounded by, and having consistent access to, opportunities within a given field is a resource that cannot be overlooked. This, however, seems to be an issue that can be dealt with. Recently I went to see the London-based jazz band Ezra Collective, and during their performance drummer Femi Koleoso took time out of the show to talk about the origins of their group. He acknowledged the massive influence of Tomorrow’s Warriors, an organisation that promotes and provides education on jazz music, an art form often seen as elitist. Organisations such as this one can provide the experiences and facilities that can aid young creatives in pursuing these careers. The value of providing this type of access to creativity cannot be overstated and contributes to the battle against the experienced nepo-babies that have an unfair advantage.
Rather than tackling the issue head on, and attempting to get in between children and parents who, despite their privilege, are looking out for each other as most families would, creating alternative methods of developing cultural capital could perhaps be a more apt response. Although this doesn’t confront the problems caused by biassed casting directors and producers, increased funding in the arts could be an initial step to even the playing field a little. In a world in which schemes like Rishi Sunak’s mandatory maths A-Level continually undermine the arts, we need to establish their worth, not only as a method of opposition to nepotism but also through the rich cultural and personal experience they can provide.