‘Nepo babies’ are trending, but not for the reason you might think
The new-gen offspring of Hollywood’s great and good are surprising everyone – by owning their privilege
Sunday 4 September 2022 By Chante Joseph
After a recent conversation between Gwyneth Paltrow and Hailey Bieber on the latter’s YouTube channel ruffled feathers online, the phrase ‘nepotism baby’ (or ‘nepo baby’ as its more commonly deployed today) has entered the pop-culture lexicon once more. Used to describe the children of well-known and well-connected folk in the entertainment industry whose success in the same industry, it is argued, has come partly by riding on the coattails of their notable parents, it has long been a contentious one.
Yet Paltrow – who as the daughter of Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danne, was born into celebrity royalty – claimed to Bieber that nepotism actually meant she had to work harder than her peers. ‘I really do feel that once your foot is in the door, which you unfairly got in, then you almost have to work twice as hard and be twice as good,’ she said. To which Bieber – whose dad and uncles are Hollywood’s famous Baldwin brothers – agreed.
It didn’t take long before a social media backlash erupted, with people criticising the actress-turned-wellness guru for defending her privilege with a ‘poor me’ narrative. Yet Paltrow comes from a generation of nepo babies notorious for making similar claims. Who could forget the infamous Ben Stiller (probably one of the most famous nepo babies) Twitter spat where he defended the cast of his film, The Rightway, after several of Hollywood’s most famous children were picked to play lead roles? He stressed that the criticism was 'Too easy' and that ‘Showbiz as we all know is pretty rough, and ultimately is a meritocracy’.
Denying the driving impact external factors can have on your career is nothing new. In fact, the privileged and wealthy have always wanted the world to believe we live in a meritocracy, where everyone is rewarded in proportion to their hard work and sacrifice alone, even when that is patently not the case.
These conversations have however, tended to be hush-hush historically – likened to gossip or bitterness. In this round of nepo name-calling, however, these things aren’t just discussed, but boldly called out. And unlike many of those who have gone before them the current crop of Hollywood’s Gen Z nepo babies are actually owning their privilege.
This new breed has managed to shift public opinion by, for once, acknowledging their advantage, gaining them new levels of respect and support in return. Take Maya Hawke, who played Robin Buckley in Stranger Things and is the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. As a tier-one nepo baby, she has been given a generous amount of help to get into that position and owns it. In an interview with People, she spoke candidly: ‘I'm very grateful for the fact that they made it so easy for me to do the thing that I love. I think I'll get a couple of chances on their name and then if I suck, I'll get kicked out of the kingdom. And that's what should happen. So, I'm just going to try not to suck.’
Her honest response was refreshing, considering the long line of nepo babies who have so desperately tried to rebrand as ‘self-made’ (enter Kylie Jenner, Forbes ‘youngest self-made billionaire’ in 2018 – despite coming from the most famous family in the world).
A new standard has been set by Hawke and other likes her, including Bieber’s cousin, Ireland Baldwin (daughter of Alec), who recently made a TikTok explaining that ‘nothing is worse than when someone is born into a famous family or between two famous parents...and they fail to, like, acknowledge how these doors were opened for them and how they've had it a lot easier than other people.’
Instead of treating this privilege as some sort of terrible generational burden, their stance is to own it for the stepping stone it is. Or better yet, use it to support those who don’t have what you do. When Destry Spielberg, daughter of – you guessed it – Steven Spielberg was criticised for benefiting from nepotism, she accepted it but also acknowledged that she makes it her mission to ‘bring new talent into the industry [and] give opportunities to artists of all backgrounds’.
Idris Elba didn’t let nepotism blind him when his daughter, Isan Elba, auditioned for the role of his on-screen daughter in his film, Beast, and didn’t get it. Elba claimed the casting caused a rift between them that lasted three weeks, but most people agreed with the decision. If only other industry parents had the same mentality, the creative industries might actually become closer to the 'meritocracy' that Stiller claims it is.
Ultimately, it is not the idea of nepotism that is problematic, because frankly, it’s been around forever and will probably always be part of society. And let’s be honest, there’s a secret part of us that revels in watching the spawn of a famous person try to make it in the world – whether that’s Brooklyn Beckham with his cooking videos or Ivanka Trump with her political, ahem, ‘career’.
The truth is that the real problem lies in the denial of privilege and has historically given nepo babies a reputation of being tone deaf. The new-gen nepo babies seem to be getting things right – so much so that they’ve become quite the cultural phenomenon, with fans online fascinated by the who’s who of Hollywood family trees. Just ask any of the 10.8 million (and counting) viewers under the ‘nepo babies’ hashtag on TikTok.