Did We Get the Nepotism Conversation Wrong?
On Monday, New York Magazine featured extensive coverage on the “nepo-babies” of Hollywood. The story examined Hollywood’s relationship with star kids, and how a vast network of connections and influence determines who enters the public eye. The word “nepo” is short for nepotism, referring to the birth privileges children of celebrities enjoy to enter the entertainment world. Hailing from famous, connected, talented families, these children get early exposure — and unlimited attempts to break in — to the world of cinema and entertainment. The magazine concludes that “nepo-babies” today through their networks, interpersonal relations, and famous families, are spread all around Hollywood and adjacent businesses, and follows up on this claim by providing an elaborate who’s who of star kids and “industry babies” currently in business.
However, in analyzing only Hollywood and the arts, the publication makes out nepotism to only be an influential factor in entertainment, underplaying its omnipresence in other aspects of life.
Long before it became an active conversation in Hollywood, audiences launched a cultural campaign against Bollywood nepo-babies’ credibility. The Hindi film-viewing audience has often scrutinized the merit of star kids, their repeated employment despite their mediocrity, and the number of opportunities they have had to make a mark for themselves. In 2020, these sentiments reached a crescendo after the demise of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Rajput was an “outsider”, a first-generation movie star who made it big coming from a humble background. Even before Rajput’s death, though, anti-nepotism was a popular sentiment among the Hindi movie-viewing audience.
One could argue that nepotism in the arts has existed almost as long as the arts themselves. However, there seems to be a special place of resentment for its presence in mainstream popular art, particularly in cinema. In India, for instance, every major film industry in the country is controlled and populated by a handful of film families respective to that industry. Some of these families control the production processes, while others boast of illustrious lines of creators and performers. The two strands, of course, aren’t mutually exclusive. Together, these families control the majority of all the resources and capital in the film business, and often also remain the most popular faces of the industry.
But sometimes, this translates into — or is supported by — political, business, and other interests. In a way, actors are only the most visible of the nepo-babies, but their success is also determined by their connections to adjacent industries. In Tollywood, for instance, political and film industry clout go hand in hand. But a fixation on who gets to become a star ignores looking at the systems — rather than people — operating behind the scenes.
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Nepotism accusations, moreover, are absent in other fields. Take the example of classical music or dance, for instance, where children of noted artists are often expected to carry forward the legacy of their parents and their parents. The accusations of mediocrity, favoritism, privilege, or nepotism are often absent in conversations around classical music or dance. Children following their parents’ professions in academia, bureaucracy, law, medicine, business, and at times even politics, are not met with the same scrutiny that is reserved for those working in showbiz.
A misplaced belief in meritocracy explains this. The New York Magazine pits nepotism as an antithesis to meritocracy. This is true of all fields, but there’s a persistent belief that nepotism is less likely in fields where one needs to be equipped with certain skills. Professions like politics, business, law, medicine, or any other field associated with tangible, objective, “hard” skills are thus often hailed as being nepotism-proof. But this neglects the many factors that go into building the myth of meritocracy.
Merit doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is shaped by one’s skills, and their ability to access those skills in the first place, which in turn is determined by their social position. When someone is born into a family of academicians, or lawyers, or bureaucrats, they are born with immense financial, social, and cultural capital — which translates to access to many institutions usually taken for granted. This includes stable education, housing, networks, and cultural know-how. This automatically puts them at an advantage over many others without access to these resources. When meritocracy is hailed as a supreme medium to count talent, it invisibilizes the privileges one has access to that make it possible for them to be meritorious in the first place.
The nepo-baby, then, is not just a non-meritorious figure that is present in the cinema or the arts. On the contrary, in many ways, the cinema nepo-baby is just another way in which cultural and social capital play out to ensure that the privileged are able to remain in their positions of power. Ultimately, it is generational wealth and privilege — irrespective of the field — that prevents the creation of a level-playing field.