As your TikTok wielding students will no-doubt be happy to tell you, the term Nepo (short for “Nepotism”) Babies refers to the ease and frequency with which the sons and daughters of cultural elites are able to follow a little-too-closely-for-coincidence in the footsteps of their famous parents.
And this isn’t just “Going into the family business” closely (although that is actually significant as we’ll see in a moment) but rather in the sense the offspring of the rich and famous seem to find it much easier to get their foot in the doors of high-profile, high-reward, occupations than their poorer peers.
And while nepotism isn’t confined to either the current generation of media darlings or, indeed, to the media itself, it’s an arena where the various players, almost by definition, actively seek the public spotlight. And, by so doing, they unwittingly expose the extent to which it’s both “who you are and who you know” that seems to be crucial for career advancement in a highly-competitive, cutthroat, business.
This is something I mention by way of a preamble into the main point of this post: the idea of applying relatively simple concepts that are very familiar to your students (such as “Nepo Babies”) to illustrate more-abstract, complicated, sociological concepts. In this case different types of capital – economic, social and cultural.
You can use well-known Nepo Babies (such as Jayden Smith, son of Hollywood royalty and serial face-slapper Will Smith, Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of serial face-slapper Johnny – are you starting to detect a theme here? – and Brooklyn Beckham, son of David who has never, to the best of my knowledge, assaulted anyone ever) to illustrate these ideas.
Although this is likely to be a familiar idea to students it’s always worth reinforcing its importance. In relation to Nepo Babies, for example, you could explore the question of how wealth is connected to social capital (the networks people develop and exploit) and how, in turn, cultural capital can be used to exploit the opportunities afforded by social capital to create more forms of economic capital.
In this respect, high levels of economic capital can literally buy access to a range of elite social networks that can be exploited to help the less fortunate who don’t have access to economic capital in their own right. Such as, off the top of my head, the sons and daughters of the very wealthy. Brooklyn Beckham could be used as an example of this particular process given that, (like a lot of school kids. Probably), “he began modelling professionally aged 14“, evolved into a professional photographer at age 16 working for, among others, brands like Burberry and had a book of his photographs published by Random House when he was 17. At 19 he interned for one of the world’s leading photographers, Rankin.
At 21 he decided he’d had enough of photographing stuff and it was time for a career change. So he become a professional chef(!).
As you do.
Whereupon, “His online video series Cookin’ With Brooklyn attracted criticism when it was revealed that it took 62 professionals to create each episode, at a reported cost of $100,000 per episode“.
Nepo Babies like Brooklyn Beckham are good examples of how social capital works in that we can clearly see how a combination of money (his parents’ estimated £300m+ fortune) and connections combine to create opportunities for sons and daughters to enter into elite occupations (you’ve got to have some serious clout for brands such as Burberry to commission your 16 year old son to photograph a fashion collection…).
Similarly, Lily-Rose Depp “won” her first film role when she was 14 years old, coincidentally acting alongside her father, Johnny. She subsequently became a “brand ambassador” for Chanel at 15 and has developed a film and modelling career. She dropped out of high school aged 17.
While social and economic capital can be shown to be hugely significant in their contribution to what Marxist’s call “class reproduction” – in simple terms, how in a supposedly meritocratic system the wealthy are able to ensure their offspring become similarly wealthy in their own right – one criticism of this relationship is often that even if nepotism gets you a foot in a door that is firmly shut in the face of lesser mortals, it doesn’t guarantee success. You must, the argument goes, prove you deserve the opportunities created by your influential parents.
This, however, is where cultural capital comes into play. One of the interesting things illustrated by Nepo Babies is how immersion in their parents’ worlds of fashion, media and the like prepares them for the challenges they will face in adult life. This gives you an opportunity to explore how cultural capital involves “lived experiences”. The idea that immersion in a particular cultural world gives you certain cultural advantages (and disadvantages) when compared to your peers.
In the case of Nepo Babies, for example, their understanding of their parents’ cultural worlds gives them insights into what is expected of them in certain situations: how they need to behave, for example as well as how to meet and overcome the kinds of challenges their parents met and overcame. Children of movie stars, for example, are much more likely to understand how something like filming and acting works from years of observing their father or mother do just that. They are, for example, more familiar with things like audition processes and what’s expected of them in such situations. The cultural baggage they bring into such a process – their parents’ fame and influence – is not likely to hinder their progress.
Just as economic and social capital confers unfair advantages on the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful, the same is true of cultural capital. Being overly familiar with the world into which you plan to move – while your potential competitors may have no such familiarity – is a huge cultural advantage.
In addition, those who facilitate nepotistic entrance into elite occupations by the sons and daughters of their friends and associates have an interest in their success because failure reflects badly on all parties. Cultural capital, in this respect, extends from the individual to the groups in which they interact, creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy where “failure” can neither be countenanced nor acknowledged.
Once students have grasped the basic ideas – particularly of less straightforward concepts like social and cultural capital – you can then build on this understanding in whatever ways you like.
You could, for example, extend the discussion into areas like the social and cultural capital controlled by different classes – working, middle and upper – and how these applications impact on things like their respective life chances.
Alternatively you can explore how these concepts can be applied to understand and explain something like differential educational achievement across different classes.