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Nepotism may be a part of our mindset

The term “nepo baby,” which refers to people whose quick rise to success and fame is partially due to their family’s influence and status, is a relatively recent addition to the extensive list of internet lexicons.

Atanu Biswas |

The term “nepo baby,” which refers to people whose quick rise to success and fame is partially due to their family’s influence and status, is a relatively recent addition to the extensive list of internet lexicons. It gained enormous popularity after New York Magazine’s December cover package offering an “all but definitive guide to the Hollywood nepo-verse”, featured famous “Nepo Babies” in diapers and offered an absurdly detailed examination of society’s love-hate obsession with them. It all started with a February 2022 tweet by Meriem Derradji, a 25- year-old Canadian tech-support worker, who coined the term itself after discovering that Maude Apatow had two famous parents.

From Jane Fonda to Angelina Jolie, the list of Hollywood’s nepo babies is long. Yet, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the son of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and the stepson of Mary Pickford, the world’s best-known pair in the 1920s, was Hollywood’s first example of a nepo baby. Paramount’s Jesse L. Lasky gave the 13-year-old Fairbanks Jr. a contract worth $1,000 a week and began working to establish him as a star. Yet Fairbanks Jr. never came close to matching his father’s legacy; in his memoir, he stated, “I have, since maturity, known full well the limits of my capabilities.”

While celebrities like Lily-Rose Depp (the daughter of Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp), Kendall Jenner (the daughter of reality TV star Kris Jenner and Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner), Gigi Hadid (whose mother, Yolanda Hadid, is a reality star), Hailey Beiber (the daughter of Stephen Baldwin and the niece of Alec Baldwin), and Maya Hawke (the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) are the targets of criticism in Hollywood, we in India have had similar situations for the past few years, possibly on a more intense scale.

In Bollywood, nepo babies have long been referred to as “star kids.” With the June 2020 passing of Sushant Singh Rajput, the 34-year-old Bollywood actor who was not a “star kid,” wild conspiracy theories began to circulate. These blew the lid off Bollywood’s power play by its self-appointed gatekeepers. Several “star kids” from Bollywood, including Salman Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, Karan Johar, and Alia Bhatt, are frequently the targets of “boycott nepotism” chants, especially in recent years, which are causing havoc in Mumbai’s film industry. Well, there hasn’t yet been a boycott call in Hollywood.

Ranbir Kapoor, who belongs to one of the greatest Bollywood families, called himself “a disarming product of Nepotism.” Sara Ali Khan said, “The access that my parents enabled me to have, is not something I can deny.” Pierce Brosnan’s son Paris acknowledged the benefit. “I think we need to just be grateful for our blessings…It’s always gonna be there and we got to recognize it,” Paris said.

But not all nepo babies are ready to acknowledge the advantage. For instance, Lily-Rose Depp felt that it was “weird to reduce somebody to the idea that they’re only there because it’s a generational thing,” and Gwyneth Paltrow, the daughter of Blythe Danner and filmmaker Bruce Paltrow, believed that family connections can be a disadvantage. While Kendall Jenner denied getting easy access because of her nepotism privilege, Hailey Bieber addressed fame as her family business. “Kids that already have a famous background are just following in their families’ footsteps. My dad and all of his brothers have done this. This is my family business,” she said.

Yet as American author Fran Lebowitz noted in a 1997 edition of Vanity Fair, “Getting in the door is pretty much the entire game, especially in movie acting, which is, after all, hardly a profession notable for its rigour.” Being a nepo baby does not, however, automatically imply that a person is less talented or deserving of a position in their industry. We are aware of numerous examples.

Several of the top personalities in Bollywood, of course, can be classified as “outsiders,” including Shah Rukh Khan, Ayushmann Khurrana, Deepika Padukone, and Ranvir Singh. In July 2022, Ranvir Singh made a subtle dig at Karan Johar in the first episode of the seventh season of the talk show Koffee With Karan, which is hosted by the son of filmmaker Yash Johar. After Karan was seen favouring Alia Bhatt in the show’s game segment, Singh implied that Karan has a bias for nepo babies and finds it harder to succeed as an outsider. Non-nepo baby Siddhant Chaturvedi summarised it in an interview by saying, “Their struggle begins where our dreams are fulfilled,” in reference to Ananya Panday.

The New York Magazine, of course, divided nepo babies into three groups: “classic nepo babies,” with well-known surnames and physical characteristics, such as Dakota Johnson and Maya Hawke; “industry babies,” with parents who work behind the scenes and have valuable connections, like Phoebe Bridgers and Billie Eilish, and children of billionaires, like Paris Hilton. Yet nepotism is pervasive not only in the entertainment industry but also in fields like business, politics, and sports. Also, our daily lives. A child may even inherit a kingdom! And there are a lot of politicians who come from political families.

In 1914, Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen published a book titled The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts, where he saw significance in the instinctive “parental bent” from which nepotism springs. Veblen’s “parental bent” stresses the social embeddedness of humanity and, therefore, the human instinct to care. In a more recent discussion, institutional economist William M. Dugger’s 1989 book Corporate Hegemony explains how the corporate career game involves nepotism-soaked “sponsored mobility” (in contrast to the “contest mobility” of a meritocracy).

In his 2004 book, In Praise of Nepotism: A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush, Adam Bellow perceives that nepotism offends our sense of fair play and our pride in living in a meritocracy. With a detailed discussion ranging from ancient Chinese clans to the papal lineages of the Renaissance to American political families like the Gores, Kennedys, and Bushes, Bellow argues that nepotism practiced badly or haphazardly is an embarrassment to all, including the incompetent beneficiary, but nepotism practiced well can satisfy a deep biological urge to provide for our children and even benefit society as a whole.

And last, those who are successful in any area of life typically have enough clout to influence other aspects of society as well, either voluntarily or unwittingly, to advance their children. What about the countless instances of “indirect nepotism” that could occur, such as when a successful athlete’s child chooses to pursue a career in modelling or acting, a politician from a wealthy business family, or a cricket player who is the offspring of a politician or sports official? And don’t the children of rich people already have enough resources for whichever path they choose in life? So, blaming the nepo babies themselves is not the right solution. Since this is one of the strongest human instincts, nepotism is difficult to eradicate. And nepotism may be embedded in our mindset too. The current social structure simply doesn’t provide enough equity, for sure. The legacy of such widespread outrage is still the term “nepo baby,” nonetheless.

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.)