The term “nepo baby” took off after a tweet last February about Maude (daughter of Leslie Mann and Judd) Apatow, and soon became a popular TikTok hashtag linked to performing artists with famous parents in the business. Like the actor Maya Hawke, for instance, whose parents are Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. Or Kate Hudson, whose mother is Goldie Hawn.
In December, New York magazine declared 2022 the “Year of the Nepo Baby” and published a jaunty taxonomy of the species. But the conversation about celebrity nepotism has followed us into 2023; see, for instance, the articles that followed the death of Lisa Marie (daughter of Elvis) Presley.
Referring to the 54-year-old Presley or, for that matter, the 73-year-old Jeff (son of Lloyd) Bridges as a “baby” might seem dismissive. It’s supposed to. The subtitle of New York’s “Guide to the Hollywood Nepo-Verse” captures this air of knowing cynicism: “Actors, singers, directors who just happen to be the children of actors, singers, directors.”
As an exposé, this is pretty tame stuff, like a conspiracy board covered in circles and arrows and Post-it notes revealing that wealthy people just happen to have wealthy parents.
What the nepo baby conversation reveals isn’t that people pass on their advantages to their kids — we knew that — it’s that the rest of us think that’s unfair.
Some celebrities have asserted that, in fact, it is fair, because what they’re passing on isn’t advantage — it’s the “family business.” Responding to a question about his son Truman appearing in his new movie, Tom Hanks told Reuters: “We have four kids, they are all very creative, they are all involved in some brand of storytelling, and if we were a plumbing supply business or if we ran the florist’s shop down the street, the whole family would be putting in time at some point, even if it was just inventory at the end of the year.”
Sure. But the plumbing supply business isn’t a famously sought-after career path that grants continuous employment to only a lucky few. You never hear about people waiting tables or slinging espressos until they get their big plumbing-supply break.
Entertainment careers, on the other hand (at least the more visible ones), have to be “broken into,” because most of us are locked out. Or if it’s not locked, then the door to Hollywood success is at least firmly closed.
A famous name can open it. Lily-Rose (daughter of Johnny) Depp argues, “Maybe you get your foot in the door, but you still just have your foot in the door. There’s a lot of work that comes after that.” Well, yes, but in a business where success often depends on breakthroughs and lucky breaks, one shouldn’t underestimate that initial advantage.
To her credit, Allison Williams (star of “M3gan” and “Girls”; daughter of news anchor Brian) doesn’t underestimate it. She told New York magazine, “All that people are looking for is an acknowledgement that it’s not a level playing field. It’s just unfair. Period, end of the story, and no one’s really working that hard to make it fair.”
Oddly, though, while we’re arguing about whether or not celebrities have earned their success, no one seems to care much about some of the more blatant examples of nepotism in other realms, such as the nice young Englishman who literally inherited his royal job, the president who ran his administration like a family business and the CEO of the company that owns the magazine that just ran a cover feature on nepo babies.
A new report finds that college football coaches often bring their relatives on staff (which leads to Black people being underrepresented). A sociological study reveals that children of lawyers are 17 times more likely to become lawyers (which leads to working-class people being underrepresented).
If we are annoyed at the thought of Lily-Rose Depp’s foot in the door, where’s the viral outrage at the fact that so many elite colleges openly favor the children of their alumni in the admissions process?
Maybe some of us still harbor the illusion that sheer talent can supersede structural inequality. Despite everything we know, we still want to believe in a world where greatness breaks through. A world where the first door slams and the second door slams, but if you can dance like Gene Kelly, the third one stays open.
And maybe some of us would rather dish about Hollywood nepo babies than think about the ways we, too, participate in and profit from inherited wealth and privilege. I’m thinking about my own Ivy League parents here — I just happened to go to the same college my father did.
How many of us are nepo babies?
In response to the nepo criticism, self-proclaimed “OG Nepo Baby” Jamie Lee (daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony) Curtis complained on Instagram, “there’s not a day in my professional life that goes by without my being reminded that I am the daughter of movie stars.”
Well, if that means she never forgets the advantages she inherited, then I think that’s a good thing. And not just for celebrities.