On Lena Dunham, “Nepotism” and What Words Mean
I was just 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 “nepotism” means actually do not know what that word means at all. (Here is one example of this—a meta-example, actually, because the post about the poster gets it all wrong, too—in case you have been doing other things with your life over the past few months than tracking the semantics of this riveting and crucial public discussion.)
I am gonna get totally 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 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.
• something regarded as a rare opportunity and bringing particular pleasure : I have the privilege of awarding you this scholarship.
• chiefly historical a grant to an individual, corporation, or place of special rights or immunities, esp. in the form of a franchise or monopoly.
verb [ trans. ] formal
grant a privilege or privileges to : English inheritance law privileged the eldest son.
• (usu. be privileged from) exempt (someone) from a liability or obligation to which others are subject.
ORIGIN Middle English : via Old French from Latin privilegium ‘bill or law affecting an individual,’ from privus ‘private’ + lex, leg- ‘law.’
(By the way, thanks to Ruth Graham for this tweet, which kinda crystalized this thought/flipped some switch in my brain to write this post.)
What people mean when they say that Lena Dunham’s career is based on “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 presumably financially throughout her life, most recently helping her through a very good school (Oberlin) and the making of her first movie (Tiny Furniture) and possibly beyond (Girls). There is perhaps also some vague suggestion 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.
OK. So let’s assume these assumptions, these bits of received wisdom, are true. (I actually don’t know if they are! Maybe they aren’t.) Her parents wrote checks and made introductions. This is a thing that happens—a thing that happens and a thing for which there is a term. But that term is not “nepotism.” That term is “privilege.”
I often wonder if people pulling the “nepotism” card even actually know what Dunham’s parents do, or if they knew about them before they knew about her and how she had these ostensibly famous parents. 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’ 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.
Another thing about “nepotism”: It is not limited to the realm of the rich and famous and/or “famous” (and/or “rich”). If Lena Dunham was hired to work as, I dunno, 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 be nepotism. You, too, could benefit from nepotism! You probably have, in fact. This is because relatives, qualified or not, are hired over unrelated candidates to work in family businesses all the time. And it’s no big deal. It’s in higher-up realms where it gets nasty, where it matters. Not in retail.
And certainly not in Hollywood! Oh my god, if you’re actually that repulsed by the idea of a person getting a movie gig because they’re related to someone or friends with someone, or shocked that famous/”famous” people have famous/”famous” parents and famous/”famous” friends, have fun not watching any movie or any TV show ever ever again, because I doubt you could find a single one ever made that didn’t bear some smear of blood.
If you want to go there, it isn’t Lena Dunham who’s been the beneficiary of “nepotism”—it’s her mother and her sister, who are not actresses, but who were cast to play Lena’s 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,” 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.
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