Lena Dunham and her not-that-famous dad, artist Carroll Dunham, at the Emmys.
Today I was reading about how Lena Dunham seems poised to get at least $3.6 million dollars for her debut book deal and feeling some feeling that is definitely not jealousy but that I don’t know the exact word for. The sensation itself is akin to what I imagine it would be like if a large land mammal was sitting on my chest and panting heavily. Kind of hot and flattened. To combat that feeling, I scrolled down to read the comments on that article, I guess because some part of me in that moment preferred the sensation of my brain being both shit on and set on fire at the same time. And of course it only took two or three commenters to bring up “the n-word.”
Yes — if Dunham’s success has taught us anything, it’s that most people who think they know what the word “nepotism” means actually do not know what it means at all. (In case you have been doing things with your life over the past few months other than tracking the semantics of this riveting and crucial public discussion, here is one example of what I mean — a meta-example, actually, because the post about the poster gets it all wrong, too.)
I’m about to get all seventh-grade-Modern-Woodsman-of-America-oratory-competition-opening-statement on your ass here and whip out some definitions to make my point. (I’m also about to write so much on this subject you might mistake me for a Dunham fangirl, but this would be false. I would classify myself as “reasonably fond” of her/her work, nothing more.)
Here, according to the very handy little dictionary app on my Mac’s dashboard, is what nepotism means.
the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, esp. by giving them jobs.
ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from French népotisme, from Italian nepotismo, from nipote ‘nephew’ (with reference to privileges bestowed on the “nephews” of popes, who were in many cases their illegitimate sons).
And here is the definition of the word I think most people should be using when they use the word “nepotism” (or at least some of its definition; I snipped out the more legalese-y bits):
a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people : education is a right, not a privilege | he has been accustomed all his life to wealth and privilege.
ORIGIN Middle English : via Old French from Latin privilegium ‘bill or law affecting an individual,’ from privus ‘private’ + lex, leg- ‘law.’
What people mean when they say that Lena Dunham’s career is the result of “nepotism” is that she is the daughter of two famous (or at least “famous” — more on that in a second) people who have been in a position to support her creatively and financially throughout her life, most recently helping her through a very good college (Oberlin) and the making of her first movie (Tiny Furniture) and the creation of her first TV show (Girls). There is perhaps also the implication that her parents “knew people” who were able to help their daughter get ahead in her creative pursuits, connections that most folks do not have.
Perhaps these assumptions are not entirely accurate; perhaps Dunham has been secretly scrappin’ it out via waitressing gigs and LinkedIn endorsements like the rest of us. But most likely there is some truth to this received wisdom. So let’s assume, yes, her parents wrote checks and made introductions. OK. This is a thing that happens — a thing that happens and a thing for which there is a word. But that word is not “nepotism.” That word is “privilege.”
I often wonder whether people pulling the “nepotism” card even actually know who Dunham’s parents are, if they knew who her parents were before they knew she was a person with ostensibly famous parents. The word “famous” also feels inaccurate here. I think probably “well-known in their fields and among a very specific cultural demographic” would be a far more accurate description of her parents’ relative status (and would probably be a more accurate way of describing most “famous” people these days, actually). Her mother is Laurie Simmons, a photographer, and her father is Carroll Dunham, a painter who does not have a Wikipedia page. With all due respect to these people and their life’s work, I do not think we get to call them “famous” and still fancy ourselves entirely accurate.
Girls: Alison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, and Zosia Mamet.
Charges of “nepotism” have been made against Dunham’s Girls cast mates, too. The three other female leads are all the daughters of celebrities of some stripe or another: Zosia Mamet’s father is playwright/director David Mamet, Allison Williams’ dad Brian is all up on your NBC Nightly News, Jemima Kirke’s father played drums for Bad Company but I cannot even remember his name and I’m refusing to Google it just to reiterate that point about being “famous.” But as satisfying as it may be to imagine David Mamet storming into the Carroll-Dunham family loft and delivering some fiercely sardonic Glengarry Glen Ross-style monologue to bully the quaking directress into giving his kid a part, it seems safer (also: saner?!) to assume that Dunham simply assembled the cast that she wanted to assemble, drawing from a pool that happened to include close friends and children of these nebulous cultural elite.
To me, it seems like the backlash to Dunham’s success has way, way more to do with America’a deep-seated and largely unconscious class disparities and anxieties, not to mention our still-prevailing cultural narratives about What Women Are Allowed To Do. But that’s wading into deeper waters than this post about semantics is prepared for.
Here’s another thing about “nepotism”: it’s not limited to the realm of the rich and famous and/or “famous” (and/or “rich”). If Lena Dunham was hired to work as, say, her mother’s photography assistant, that would be some form of nepotism. If her Uncle Bocephus got her a job at his gas station in Podunksville, Iowa, that would also be nepotism. You, too, could benefit from nepotism! In fact, you probably have. This is because relatives, qualified or not, are hired (sometimes over other candidates, sometimes not) to work in family businesses all the time. Friends recruit friends to work on their companies and their projects all the time. This can be frustrating, especially when you’re on the losing end and feel like you could’ve done a better job. But in a certain light, “nepotism” can also look a lot like “upholding family traditions” or “community-building.” It’s in the high-up realms of business and politics and Really Important Stuff where these incestuous hiring practices get nasty and dangerous.
And in Hollywood — my god, if you’re actually repulsed by the idea of a person getting a gig because they’re related to someone with power to get them that gig, have fun not watching any movie or any TV show ever ever again. You’d be hard pressed to find a single one that didn’t bear some smear of blood. Dunham herself cast her own mother and her sister, neither of them actresses, to play her character’s mother and sister in Tiny Furniture, one assumes because they were her real-life mother and sister! But no one is calling that “nepotism,” of course, because no one is suffocatingly jealous of Lena Dunham’s mother and sister or threatened by their ability to get shit done in the lives they were randomly granted by the universe.
Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Ga. A slightly different version of this piece first appeared on her Tumblr.
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