The world wide web is in a swivet about nepo babies. “Nepo” is short for “nepotism,” and nepo babies are the celebrity children of celebrity parents. New York magazine last month declared 2022 to be “the year of the nepo baby” and furnished a “(nearly) exhaustive” list.
Some nepo babies are “just getting started,” so you’ve probably never heard of them. Thus Thandiwe Newton’s daughter, Nico Parker, is an actress like her mom, and Reese Witherspoon’s son, Deacon Phillippe, is an actor like his mom (and dad, the actor Ryan Phillippe). Other nepo babies are similarly well known, like the actress Lily Collins (Emily in Paris), daughter of the musician Phil Collins, or Zoe Kazan (She Said), granddaughter of the director Elia Kazan.
Some nepo babies have been famous for a pretty long time, like Liza Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland, and Jane Fonda, daughter of Henry Fonda. And many nepo babies—unmentioned by New York—are by now nepo skeletons. These include President John Quincy Adams, son of Founding Father John Adams, and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., son of the nineteenth-century essayist and poet.
The opening salvo in the nepo wars, according to New York, was a February 2022 tweet by a Canadian tech-support worker named Meriem Derradji. “Wait,” wrote Derradji. “I just found out that the actress that plays Lexie is a nepotism baby omg [weeping emoji] her mom is Leslie Mann and her dad is a movie director lol.” The actress who plays Lexi (on an HBO show called Euphoria) is Maude Apatow. Her father is the director Judd Apatow. This tweet set the tone for the social media furor that followed. It received 4,420 “likes” and was retweeted nearly 3,000 times.
To the limited extent that tagging celebrities (or quasi-celebrities, or wannabe celebrities) with the epithet “nepo baby” constitutes a social critique, as opposed to mere gossip, it goes something like this. Many talented people deserve to be celebrities, but only a few succeed, and it’s a rigged game because the children of celebrities have an inside track. We must therefore identify nepo babies on social media and shame them, especially if they won’t acknowledge their advantages. “I swear recently majority of new rising stars are nepotism babies,” wrote one TikTok commentator. “I don’t have anything against them personally, but there should be more backlash.”
I’d feel more charitable toward such petty denunciations if they were a gateway to engaging with the larger problem of unequal economic opportunity throughout American society. Alas, they aren’t. The anti-nepo-baby revolt remains, one year after Derradji’s fateful tweet, mired in the itty-bitty question of how celebrity gets allocated.
Celebrity is neither an intrinsic good nor, in most cases, a rational goal. The adoption of the religious term “iconic” to describe what is merely famous (a pet peeve of mine going on a decade) conditions society to conflate celebrity with virtue, but this veneration is misplaced. You can get famous by robbing a bank. You can get famous by getting killed. The public’s attention span is arbitrary, often perverse, and usually fleeting. No mechanism save perhaps government propaganda can distribute the good kind of fame—the fame that’s a reward for talent—more equitably.
Even professional athletics, the purest meritocracy the celebrity economy has to offer, is under anti-nepo attack. “In Tennis, the ‘Nepo Babies’ Are Everywhere,” pronounced The New York Times on January 26. “Good DNA is a start,” the piece observed. “Also, pursuing tennis can be incredibly expensive.” Oh, please. Should we redistribute DNA? Redistributing wealth is more practical, but why limit the tax target to rich tennis pros? “Nepo baby” is a complaint in search of a diagnosis.
If a nepo has little or no talent, then his fame will very likely diminish over time. Even if this person has a great deal of talent, her fame may diminish rapidly. I see no urgent social need to gloat when nepo babies fail to match the success of their parents. Nepo babyhood is an especially hard road for the children of bona fide geniuses. I’ve been told Jakob Dylan is a pretty good singer-songwriter, and he’s won himself some recognition, but I can’t pretend not to feel sorry for the guy, because his musical career will always be an asterisk to that of his Nobel-laureate father, the most revered living figure in popular music.
For nepo babies, the only winning strategy is to surpass your parent’s accomplishments. This has been known to happen. When we speak today of Johann Strauss, usually the person we mean is Johann Strauss II, the supreme genius who wrote “The Blue Danube,” and not Johann Strauss père, the lesser genius who wrote “Radetzky March.” When we recite with reverence the name Martin Luther King, we almost always refer to Martin Luther King Jr., the great civil rights leader and author of “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and not his father, the eminent minister who preceded Martin Jr., as pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Strauss and King fit the definition of nepo babies to a T, but only an idiot would ever call them that because it would trivialize to the point of obscenity their large contributions to humankind.
Do some celebrities enjoy unfair advantages in life? Of course they do. Is it ungracious for such people not to acknowledge them? Sure, though I’m not aware that happens very often. If unequal opportunity is what bothers you, I guarantee that you won’t even things up by tossing pebbles at Dakota Johnson (daughter to actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith). A better approach would be to weigh public policies to enhance opportunity for those who are otherwise denied it.
The United States is not a terribly mobile society. That’s comparatively new information. As I wrote in this magazine 11 years ago (“The Mobility Myth”), it was only in the early 1990s that economists discovered there was less upward mobility in the United States than in Canada and most of Western Europe. The evidence suggests this is at least partly because of growing income inequality. We could reduce that inequality if as a country we strengthened labor unions by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act; created higher marginal tax brackets well above the current maximum of 37 percent; raised corporate taxes above the shamefully low 21 percent; and eliminated loopholes for estate taxes.
To the significant extent that unequal opportunities are based not on money but on race and gender, the Supreme Court’s expected elimination this term of affirmative action will take us in the wrong direction, reducing equality of opportunity rather than expanding it. The conservative criticism that affirmative action can squeeze out qualified white person X bears a striking resemblance to nepo-baby griping on TikTok. In both cases, the childish demand for perfect fairness at the individual level (which is impossible) displaces the pursuit of greater fairness at the societal level (which is always achievable, if seldom achieved). You’re never going to save the forest if all you can think about is a single tree.
So, kids, stop hating on nepo babies. The distribution of fame is a petty distraction. Unequal access to opportunity is the real problem—indeed, it may be your problem—and groaning about whatever advantage Jamie Lee Curtis got from parents Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh gets you no closer to fixing that. The world would be poorer without Jamie Lee Curtis’s excellent comic turn as the title character in A Fish Called Wanda. To paraphrase King, the arc of the moral universe is long, and it does not bend toward Grauman’s Chinese Theater.