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Nepo Babies

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The firing this morning of NFL nepo baby Nathaniel Hackett (son of semi-famous coach Paul Hackett) led me to read this amusing New York Magazine piece that has splattered the term all over the Internet:

The nepo baby’s path to stardom begins when they’re a literal baby. A celebrity child takes center stage in a series of highly visible tabloid rituals: “We’re expecting” photos, birthday parties, holidays. As they age into adolescence, the mere fact that they physically resemble their famous parents is a news event on par with a closely fought primary. (In the past five years, People.com has written no fewer than 17 articles about how Ava Phillippe looks like her mother, Reese Witherspoon.) There can be delicious Schadenfreude in the realization that, far more than most of us, a nepo baby’s destiny is determined by a spin on the genetic roulette wheel. The model Kaia Gerber has profited handsomely from looking exactly like her mother, Cindy Crawford, while Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s daughters were undoubtedly hampered by inheriting their father’s most famous feature, his chin.

Once children receive their own Instagram handles, they become tabloid protagonists in their own right. (From “7 Reasons to Follow Reese Witherspoon’s Daughter on Insta”: “No. 2: She Takes Perfect Selfies With Mom Reese.”) Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter, Apple, went from an object, most notable for her unusual name, to a subject by issuing sassy clapbacks on her mother’s posts. Kate Beckinsale’s daughter, Lily Mo Sheen, made headlines for posting selfies with her boyfriend, who fans thought resembled her father, Michael Sheen. But if they want to stick around into adulthood, an ambitious nepo baby must soon justify their place in the Hollywood firmament.

How can they begin to prove themselves? Traditionally, Mom and Dad have helped out. Apatow is the latest in a long line of directors’ children who got big breaks in their parent’s projects, one that stretches at least as far back as 1969, when a teenage Anjelica Huston made her debut in her father’s film A Walk With Love and Death. The disgraced screenwriter Max Landis got his first credit alongside his father on an episode of Masters of Horror. Jake Kasdan co-wrote the behind-the-scenes book for his father’s film Wyatt Earp. Hawke was one of many actresses who auditioned for a small part in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but she was the only one whose self-tape co-starred Ethan Hawke and hopefully the only one who received “an extra-tight hug and a wink from Quentin” after her callback. When Witherspoon told her friend Mindy Kaling that her son Deacon Phillippe was interested in acting, Kaling cast him as a prep-school cutie in two episodes of Never Have I Ever, in which he did an impressive job of not staring directly into the camera. “He’s obviously so talented, and he’s great-looking, and we just thought he would be great,” Kaling told Variety.

In a rough study, approximately 100 percent of celebrities’ children were hailed by their collaborators as talented, humble, and ready to put in the work. Noah Baumbach recalled going “through audition after audition and all the callbacks” to find actors who could play Adam Driver’s children in White Noise, only to land upon “these two Nivola kids” — Sam and May, whose parents are Emily Mortimer and Alessandro Nivola. (“They were just so wonderful.”) Donald Glover praised Malia Obama’s work ethic in the writers’ room for his upcoming Amazon series, telling Vanity Fair, “Her writing style is great.” Such quotes often appear in the nepo baby’s traditional coming-out party: a profile in a glossy magazine. (The Nivolas recently got one in The New Yorker.) The hottest trend in media right now is the intergenerational team-up, which GQ has made a specialty, running spreads of John C. Reilly posing with his “model-musician son” LoveLeo, and Pierce Brosnan alongside his “model-musician-filmmaker sons” Dylan and Paris.

The piece has predictably elicited a whiny backlash from several notable specimens of the genus. Here for instance is Jamie Lee Curtis:

“The current conversation about nepo babies is just designed to try to diminish and denigrate and hurt,” she says. “I have navigated 44 years with the advantages my associated and reflected fame brought me, I don’t pretend there aren’t any, that try to tell me that I have no value on my own. It’s curious how we immediately make assumptions and snide remarks that someone related to someone else who is famous in their field for their art, would somehow have no talent whatsoever.”

This is the basic nepo baby defense: I’m talented! I’ve worked really hard! The only advantage my background gave me was a foot in the door. After that it was all up to me.

Of course the problem is that, in fields where the ratio of talented hardworking people to desirable jobs is 100 or 1000 to 1, “a foot in the door” is about 95% of the battle, give or take.

This is most evident in Hollywood, but nepo babies are everywhere. Would massive academic fraud Alice Goffman had gotten anywhere at all if her name had been Alice Jones? Of course she wouldn’t have: an unintentionally funny passage in her faux ethnography On the Run describes how she got into Princeton’s sociology Ph.D. program even though she was failing all her classes as an undergrad at Penn — where both her parents were on the faculty — because she was hanging out with gangbangers instead of turning in her homework.

Again, one of the biggest myths that fuels our insidious meritocracy is that talent is in short supply. It isn’t — and nepotism and cronyism are sorting mechanisms that very predictably arise as a consequence of too many talented hardworking people vying for a tiny number of slots at the top of the “meritocratic” pyramid.

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