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Is ‘cultural nepotism’ really a thing?

It’s obvious that nepo babies benefit from their parents’ wealth and status – but we’ve failed to consider hereditary cultural capital until now

What do Brooklyn Beckham, Maude Apatow, and Lily-Rose Depp all have in common? As you might have guessed from their surnames – they’re all nepo babies.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, nepo babies (short for “nepotism babies”) are essentially celebrities who have been ushered into stardom through Hollywood’s back door, propped open for them by one or two rich and famous parents. Obviously, nepo babies are not a Gen Z-specific phenomenon – there’s Angelina Jolie, Liza Minnelli, Sofia Coppola, etc etc – but interest in celebrities’ backgrounds has piqued in recent years. There’s even a whole community on TikTok dedicated to ‘exposing’ nepo babies where videos rack up millions of views.

It’s not surprising that interest in nepo babies is growing. In the age of the internet, finding out whether someone is a nepo baby is as simple as firing up their Wikipedia page and checking if their parents’ names are hyperlinked to their own biographies. Gen Z are also notoriously progressive, with a keen eye for injustice, and the thought of someone bagging a lucrative job purely because their dad is a millionaire obviously smacks of unfairness.

People have also always loved a good ‘rags-to-riches’ story: à la Elvis, Cardi B, Jade Goody. It’s why our obsession with reality TV – where ‘ordinary’ people are catapulted into the limelight – endures, and why there are annual calls for Love Island to please cast ‘normal people’. It’s also a large reason why The Beatles were so captivating – there was something inspiring about the idea that four teenagers from a northern city could make it based on merit alone.

Brooklyn Beckham, for instance, is the ultimately nepo baby. He’s tried his hand at being a footballer, photographer, model and chef, all at the ripe old age of 23. It’s fair to say he’s not displayed a particular talent for any of these trades, bless him – but it doesn’t matter! The safety net of his parents’ combined £380 million net worth cushions his fall every time he fails. Maybe one day he’ll hit on something he is actually good at – but hopping between glamorous jobs every six months is, obviously, a privilege not afforded to the average person.

Usually, nepo baby critics hone in on two main factors which offer celebrity children the much-needed leg-up into their chosen industry: money and connections. But more recently, many have also drawn attention to something else which imbues nepo babies with a helping hand, particularly in creative circles: cultural capital. It’s likely Philip Edgar-Jones, head of entertainment at Sky, knew who to speak to land his daughter Daisy a role in the 2016 Outnumbered Christmas special, but it’s also likely that Daisy knew how TV shows worked. Thanks to her dad, she would have known about the audition process, what the inside of a TV studio looked like, what ‘corpsing’ means. Doubtless this knowledge, self-assuredness, and confidence helped Daisy eventually land her role as Marianne in Normal People.

Some people have even suggested that having ‘cool parents’ – even if they aren’t necessarily wealthy or famous – is a form of nepotism in and of itself. “We talk a lot about intergenerational wealth but I think we need to start talking about the inherited coolness held by ppl with art school parents who introduced them to esoteric media at a young age,” cultural commentator Rayne Fisher-Quann tweeted last month. Some people don’t have rich or notable parents but they have really cool parents who, in turn, make them impossibly cool,” another user wrote. “This is nepotism of the mind”.

Dubbing this “nepotism of the mind” is arguably a misuse of the term, but cultural capital is undeniably A Thing. The term ‘cultural capital’ was first coined in the 1970s by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who built on Karl Marx’s idea that social mobility was hindered by families’ accumulation of economic capital. According to Bourdieu, cultural capital played a more subtle – but equally important – role in maintaining the social hierarchy.

In abstract terms, cultural capital is defined as familiarity with the ‘legitimate’ high-brow culture within a society. In practice, someone with cultural capital might spend their time reading Iris Murdoch and traipsing around art galleries and museums, as opposed to vegetating in front of the telly. Cultural capital is often something that can drive a wedge between inter-class couples – while one party might feel totally at home in a high-end restaurant, the other might, understandably, have no idea what an amuse-bouche is.

Cultural and economic capital are intrinsically linked, as cultural knowledge is ultimately something that money can buy – historically, the aristocracy had the privilege of leisure time, meaning they could go to the theatre and the races and the opera while the working classes toiled away in factories and mines. Nowadays, cultural capital is usually accrued by the wealthy depositing their offspring at a £10k-a-term boarding school and receiving, once the five years are up, a ‘well-rounded’ adult who can quote Cicero, play the violin, and host a good dinner party.

Much of this recent discourse, however, glosses over the fact that there’s a clear distinction between a wealthy parent carting their child off to private school and a working-class parent introducing their child to Fleetwood Mac. The former is a symptom of economic privilege; the latter is just a parent bonding with their child. Every parent passes on something to their children (trauma and DNA, if nothing else), and this isn’t inherently Bad. Branding this as nepotistic erodes the real meaning of the word and unhelpfully draws attention away from real instances of unfairness and favouritism in the creative industries.

Recent discussions around this topic also elide ‘high-brow’ culture and ‘cool’ culture. Grouse shooting, for example, is a high-brow pursuit – the kind of ‘legitimate culture’ Bourdieu was talking about – but it’s not very cool. Culture is changing, and the most interesting and exciting art nowadays is working-class anyway, with the wealthy often cosplaying as poor in an attempt to seem on-trend – hence FKA twigs (who attended a private school in Cheltenham) donning a puffer jacket and wandering round a council estate as in the video for “papi bones.”

The issue of capital – and, specifically, cultural capital – is one worth talking about. We should continue to make the arts more accessible and question the role of private schools in gatekeeping certain forms of culture. But, at the same time, maybe it would be more productive to question whether the idea of ‘high-brow’ culture is actually still relevant. Perhaps it would be more worthwhile to celebrate the art of working-class creatives and redefine what culturally valuable art actually is. Because while class can grant you cultural capital, as Brooklyn Beckham has spectacularly proved, talent, creativity, and coolness is something money just can’t buy. And maybe that’s a good thing.