Join 3,516 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"the current system is the most practical and 'seems to work'"
April 24, 2013 8:56 AM   Subscribe

"Despite her pedigree, success came slowly," the story bravely ventured. This slowness was maybe not so apparent to several thousand other 24-year-olds who want to be actresses, but who haven't even figured out how to get to a reading for Law & Order to fail at it. Tom Scocca on Nathaniel Rich, Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet, and cultural nepotism. (Related: How David Carr Became the Daddy of Girls)
posted by Rory Marinich (42 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
See also: Every other Gawker article relating to Lena Dunham. Now, in general I like the Gawker guys, but to suggest that their ranks of writers aren't primarily composed of graspers and opportunists really wouldn't be true, so this line of attack of theirs always seems kind of hollow and weird to me.
posted by Artw at 9:06 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is a nice case study in ideology-production: how the myth of the meritocracy maintains itself even in the face of the evidence to the contrary. Even self-evident nepotism and clique/in-group self-promotion, once you learn how to tell the correct story, is really success being earned by sweaty hard work.

to suggest that their ranks of writers aren't primarily composed of graspers and opportunists really wouldn't be true

Who knows the hypocrisy of the "successes" better than the failed or failing grasping opportunist? People who aren't trying to play a particular game often don't know how it works well enough to critique it this way.
posted by RogerB at 9:10 AM on April 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


I was thinking about including a disclaimer about this being a Gawker article, because yeah. Gawker has written some awful shit about Girls. But this piece was solid and, I felt, worth a read/neutral evaluation.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:11 AM on April 24, 2013


Even self-evident nepotism and clique/in-group self-promotion, once you learn how to tell the correct story, is really success being earned by sweaty hard work.

And of course the one doesn't exclude the other; plenty of children of famous people do work hard at their profession, but they did get their foot in the door because of whom mommy and daddy were.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:12 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


The points about cultural capital (knowing what you need to do) as well as social capital (who you know) are very interesting. I know that I have benefited from cultural capital when I applied to grad school (my inlaws are academics), and also from social capital when finding work (being hired by a friend of a friend). Neither of those meant that I wasn't qualified/a good worker, but at the same time, someone who was equally - or even possibly more qualified - would not have had the same opportunities.
posted by jb at 9:14 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


While I agree with the overall point (everybody at the Times knows when one of their co-worker's kids has a book coming out, and that does change what coverage said kid's book gets,) I find some of the arguments bizarre.

The insistence that nobody at 23 knows how to get published is just plain wrong. I was publishing regularly by 23. There are literally 16 and 17 year olds getting published in the young adult category every single year. The year my first novel came out (I was an (apparently decrepit) 36 year old,) I was in a debut author's group. At least half of them were 25 or younger.

Yes, it makes a difference if your wife also happens to be a high-powered agent. Or your husband happens to run a book packaging company. Or you work for said book packaging company and you decide you want to write a book. Or if your parents work for the New York Times.

But the wherewithal to find out how to finish a novel, how to query, and how to get represented isn't wildly out of reach of 23 year olds. There's a reason why there's a regular Top 30 Under 30 article about those authors. There are a lot of them, with and without connections.
posted by headspace at 9:15 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


plenty of children of famous people do work hard at their profession, but they did get their foot in the door because of whom mommy and daddy were.

Or, because their parents were helping them financially while they were starting out. This was something that stuck in my craw the last time I saw an interview with Lena Dunham - she'd said something about how after a certain point, her parents had cut her off, and so the nepotism claims and rich-kid claims were all bogus. And I just thought, "yeah, but the thing is, most people's parents don't ever pay for them in the first place." I suspect that if Lena Dunham had had to go straight into the working world upon graduation, like I did, her career path would have been very different.

My parents weren't connected in publishing. But they also weren't paying my rent either. And the latter may be even more important than the connections.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:26 AM on April 24, 2013 [9 favorites]


I don't really see the nepotism itself as cultural, except in the sense that the careers and fields being talked about are within the domain of the cultural broadly speaking. The nepotism is just regular old nepotism, and the unwillingness to speak openly about it joined with simultaneous denial/deflection/defense is the cultural aspect, I suppose. On the other hand, that unwillingness is also very clearly material in character, as you wouldn't want to annoy the Rich family if you work anywhere in entertainment or publishing.

So I guess the best deployment of culture here would refer to the particular current regime of the NYC-centric publishing world, as it and its interests are defined through the specific individuals and coalitions who hold key positions of power.

Also, people interested in the idea of cultural/social/other kinds of capital should read Bordieu, a sociologist who originated these concepts now regarded as so patently analytically useful and correspondent to the workings of the world that people forget someone actually came up with it.
posted by clockzero at 9:28 AM on April 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


See also: why I refuse to see any Will Smith movie where his character's son is played by Smith's actual son. It distresses me, slightly, that there is more than one movie that fits this profile.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:33 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Okay, look, meritocracies only work by definition when judges have adequate time and interest and objectivity to review all applicants. Since that is absolutely not the case, except in special circumstances with juries etc. (and often not even then), there is some other selection process at work. Merit might have a factor at some point, but it is way WAY down the scale of success weightings, far far below marketing and networking. Whether you care to pick on the Rich family or not specifically, the overall message is 100% true: who you know really, really matters.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:34 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyway, Zosia Mamet needs to get her ass back to the 60s and sort Peggy out.
posted by Artw at 9:39 AM on April 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


I went to high school with a rich girl named Merit Dickee so I feel conflicted about privilege attacks.
posted by srboisvert at 9:40 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


See also: why I refuse to see any Will Smith movie where his character's son is played by Smith's actual son. It distresses me, slightly, that there is more than one movie that fits this profile.

How does this intersect with works wherein Diane Ladd plays Laura Dern's mom?
posted by shakespeherian at 9:45 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't really see the nepotism itself as cultural, except in the sense that the careers and fields being talked about are within the domain of the cultural broadly speaking.

The article discusses some examples of cultural capital: knowing how to get published/audition for parts, where to make inquiries -- this is all cultural capital. Sure, you can work it out on your own, but that is a) much harder and b) you don't have the advice of someone who has been through the process. I used no social ties in my applications to graduate school. None of the people at schools where I was admitted knew me or anyone I knew. But I did have my application essays read and commented on extensively by people who themselves sat on admission committees; one was a master of editing statements to different word lengths, due to her years of writing grants.

Again, this doesn't mean that I wasn't an excellent candidate. But I also didn't make mistakes in my applications that someone working solely on their own (or with the short bits of advice my actual professors offered) would have. And I probably had opportunities that person didn't. (Heck, even getting through undergrad, I drew on both cultural and social capital constantly).
posted by jb at 9:47 AM on April 24, 2013


This was something that stuck in my craw the last time I saw an interview with Lena Dunham - she'd said something about how after a certain point, her parents had cut her off, and so the nepotism claims and rich-kid claims were all bogus. And I just thought, "yeah, but the thing is, most people's parents don't ever pay for them in the first place."

And her entire movie is specifically about choosing to be supported by her parents! And her actual show is basically a "what-if" story about if she HADN'T been supported by her parents!
She's clearly an intelligent and perceptive person, and it's very irritating that she's only addressed this weird, extremely central aspect of her career and her actual work by obviously misrepresenting why anyone would think she was privileged.
posted by 235w103 at 9:48 AM on April 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


Okay, look, meritocracies only work by definition when judges have adequate time and interest and objectivity to review all applicants.

But their interest and objectivity is supposed to be defined by the system of selection itself, so of course it's the case that decision-makers in a meritocratic system must not act with interests or biases which are characterized by criteria other than merit. As for time, is there some reason I'm not aware of to think that publishing executives have mere minutes or second to decide which book to publish?

In any case, we have to be careful when we talk about meritocracy: sean is absolutely right that there are always multiple intersecting interests in the real world, and so it's overly reductive to characterize (e.g.) America itself as a meritocracy, much less a specific industry, which in the majority of cases will have no promised allegiance to or institutional structure/culture oriented toward an ideal like meritocracy anyway.
posted by clockzero at 9:48 AM on April 24, 2013


Duncan Jones only gets to make movies about space because his dad is from space.
posted by Artw at 9:51 AM on April 24, 2013 [21 favorites]


Yeah, this sucks, I tell you what.

Thank you Internet for allowing people to immerse themselves in subcultures and subsubcultures where, rather than being crushed by a monocultural monolithic system of nepotism, we can flirt with many smaller and more permeable circles of influence.

I mean, the big cultural gatekeepers are still there too. But now there are alternatives. (There used to be *geographical* alternatives, where people could be *locally* famous and beloved, but it seems like local cultural institutions aren't flourishing, so we have to turn to the hyper-local internet for our small communities with their own tastes and favorites and micro-fames.)
posted by edheil at 9:55 AM on April 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Both of these articles are unusually evenhanded for Gawker articles on Girls, and that's because because they are explicitly neutral on the quality of the show. You tell that there's an implicit argument bubbling under the surface: they're going to provide the ammo, and let readers figure out for themselves that Dunham et al. should be attacked. But if you reject that inference or ignore it, the articles are pretty interesting sociological studies of how people get where they are.

Here's to Gawker keeping their self-righteousness implicit!
posted by painquale at 9:56 AM on April 24, 2013


I don't really see the nepotism itself as cultural, except in the sense that the careers and fields being talked about are within the domain of the cultural broadly speaking.

The article discusses some examples of cultural capital: knowing how to get published/audition for parts, where to make inquiries -- this is all cultural capital.


Yes, that's totally right and I'm aware of what cultural capital means. My comment which you quoted was intended to argue that "cultural nepotism" is not a helpful or analytically useful way to characterize what's going on here (meaning, in the events described in the linked article), and makes it sound like this is something other than regular nepotism, which of course exists because high-status, successful parents can share their various forms of capital with their children. That's not "cultural" nepotism.
posted by clockzero at 9:57 AM on April 24, 2013


She's clearly an intelligent and perceptive person, and it's very irritating that she's only addressed this weird, extremely central aspect of her career and her actual work by obviously misrepresenting why anyone would think she was privileged.

Yeah, as much as I like Lena she's very thin-skinned about criticism. And that's not a bad thing, but it does mean that she gets overdefensive to the point of sometimes misinterpreting her critics' claims.

How does this intersect with works wherein Diane Ladd plays Laura Dern's mom?

There's the rub, this non-totally-meritocratic system often produces wonderful things. I'd be totally okay with that except for how much the people within this system are fawned upon and treated like these glorious wonderful beings who are elevated above the rest of us. Lots of cultural touchstones like the New York Times turn their gaze inward and the result is you have a culture that suggests the way to be is to act like somebody who the New York Times likes to write about. Which means, have influential parents within the New York scene?

One of the reasons people find New York/New Yorkers so irritating is this attitude like it's at the center of the world. And it's got a rich, magnificent culture, don't get me wrong, and because of that it's got all these institutions that are truly world class, but then those world class institutions become obsessed with New York and New York-ness and sometimes acts like it can't envision a meaningful reality outside of its teeny boundaries. Same with Los Angeles and, to a lesser league, cities like Portland and the Ivy League universities. It's not that those places aren't all wonderful so much as it's those places sometimes act like that cultural concentration is the only way for wonderful things to exist.

On preview:
Thank you Internet for allowing people to immerse themselves in subcultures and subsubcultures where, rather than being crushed by a monocultural monolithic system of nepotism, we can flirt with many smaller and more permeable circles of influence.
This this this. This is why the Internet is such a wonderful thing.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:00 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, as much as I like Lena she's very thin-skinned about criticism.

I mean, she's 26.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:04 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'd probably less sympathetic towards Dunham and Jones if they hadn't used the opportunities afforded them to produce something interesting. Reframe the argument in terms of more people should afforded the opportunity to do interesting things and I'm all for it.
posted by Artw at 10:05 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Reframe the argument in terms of more people should afforded the opportunity to do interesting things and I'm all for it.

Yeah, this is a really good point. If Dunham said, "Yes - although I've become successful on the merits of my own work, I can't discount the support of my parents and my social background. The larger question is, what can we do so that these things are not necessary to the success of young, female creators?", I would SWOON.
posted by 235w103 at 10:12 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


I mean, she's 26.

Yeah but for those of us raised by the Internet, at 26 you're supposed to be able to withstand heats of 40,000 degrees Celcius.

I think it's partly that because Lena's so self-mocking and self-conscious on her show, the fact that in person she gets as defensive as she does reinforces some people's irritation towards her. And I mean, there's a difference between understanding your weaknesses enough to be loud about them and being truly comfortable with yourself, but there's definitely a noticeable discomfort that leads to her saying some dumb things.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:13 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


If Dunham said, "Yes - although I've become successful on the merits of my own work, I can't discount the support of my parents and my social background. The larger question is, what can we do so that these things are not necessary to the success of young, female creators?", I would SWOON.

If Dunham said that then it would be digested down by "critics" into something for the Internet to be upset about and we'd back where we were. Really she shouldn't be engaging with either and should just try to continue producing interesting work.
posted by Artw at 10:22 AM on April 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


(And I'd say the same about Jones if a section of the Internet was dedicated to tearing him down, which, oddly, doesn't seem to be the case. )
posted by Artw at 10:26 AM on April 24, 2013


I like Girls 80x more than I liked Moon or Jake Gyllenhaal and the Nonsensical Time Travel Device Which Defies the Film's Own Stated Rules. So if you find that corner of the internet, let me know.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:29 AM on April 24, 2013


rather than being crushed by a monocultural monolithic system of nepotism, we can flirt with many smaller and more permeable circles of influence.

That's what science fiction fandom is and was, long before the internet came around, an informal grouping of people helping each other getting a leg up, where you can get all the cultural character the Rich boys soaked up from their family, poured into you along with the bheer of your choice by the wiser and greyer heads of the filthy pros at the con or writing for the same zine.

Plenty of people got their start as a published writer because of informal contacts made that way, all the way down to the original fan groups like the Futurians back in the thirties and forties.

Which strictly speaking isn't very meritocratic either, but at least more open than the nepotism on display within the Times publishing empire.

In general, a bit of nepotism, of who you know rather than what you know, is actually beneficial, but the problem with any such informal system is that there are always people who are excluded either deliberately or because they just can't handle this way of working.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:36 AM on April 24, 2013


In general, a bit of nepotism, of who you know rather than what you know, is actually beneficial

To what/whom?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:38 AM on April 24, 2013


Lena Dunham should Kickstart something, and watch that meritocracy explode.
posted by Artw at 11:32 AM on April 24, 2013


Who tastes the tastemakers?!?
Basically, the problem, the disappointment, when it comes to nepotism in our culture is that it's one more thing that upends the American myth of equality and equal opportunity for all.
Some Americans are "more equal" than others.
The gatekeepers prefer their own kind.
Small herds tend to dominate the cultural environment.
And yes, bless the internet's little binary heart for giving us access to each other directly!
posted by pt68 at 12:09 PM on April 24, 2013


It's not too hard to get people to understand the general idea that there are creative/talented/intelligent people that don't make it because of opportunistic barriers, e.g., some kid in the slums of Sao Paulo who could be the next Beethoven or Toni Morrison, but they'll never get the education or training they'd need.

What people are less likely to acknowledge is how much that skews the 99%/1% even farther than pure economics does; that those advantages ripple beyond the financial and contribute to entrenchment and dynastic power.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 1:33 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


A white guy pointing fingers at privilege of other white people while ignoring the merit of their art and whining about your own missteps. Is this what pass for cultural critique these days?

I loved how the article was prefaced so as not to offend any important or connected people, lest they might wanna rescue this poor sod and whisk him to the fairytale world of serious and well-paid journalism.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:37 PM on April 24, 2013


I struck my toe on this part:
" ... I even now have no idea which actual people would be indicated by the phrase "'Saturday Night Live' representatives." What does it mean to represent a TV show? How do these representatives go about obtaining book galleys to read?"
Uh, presumably, having already received an interminable number of PR emails, someone calls someone else and says "Hi, I'm So-And-So, assistant to Mr. Michaels. Can you send a galley of X to the office?" Or maybe it's just "Hi, send this month's list to the office." Either way, there's not a lot of mystery involved in getting a galley from an editor who wants to sell a book. You ask for one.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:38 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think this argument is interesting because the popular idea of nepotism is someone who gains an advantage even though he or she doesn't have the talent or qualifications, when sometimes it can mean you are a talented person in a line of talented people, but you get to move to the front.

I watch Girls and think Simon Rich is hilarious, but at the same time I understand and am frustrated that many of the people I know and respect would have more success if they were Dunham or Rich's (or both's) sibling.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 1:46 PM on April 24, 2013


I feel more affinity toward Artw's position on this. It's unfortunate that there are some discrepancies akin to nepotism -- but then it's not like they were hired by their parents, either. I'm sure this happens a lot more often where the work thunders to the ground with a thud, but Dunham and (perhaps) Rich and Jones have all produced worthwhile work that puts them on solid ground as far as I'm concerned. It's especially silly to start expanding the "nepotism" angle to include "only modestly well-known people who found your work more or less legitimately and then recommended you to their own more famous and better-funded friends" because, well, that's pretty much a HELL OF A LOT OF PEOPLE.

Unless comedy writing/movie directing/book writing auditions are now to be held behind a screen as with symphony musicians, lest somebody "know somebody" ....
posted by dhartung at 2:22 PM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is very little distinction between out-and-out nepotism and getting a job through a friend, or being supported by your family at a key point in time, or having your parents raise you to be a child performer, or having "good" genes. Life is unfair like that.

Learning about book publishing and how to work as an author from a famous writer father is not strange, nor even despicable. It's no more or less fair than learning from middle-class parents how to best navigate education, workplace etiquette, and financial planning.

It has never been the case, and we can never guarantee, that the best and the brightest will be the ones who get published. All we can do is to kick back and hope that history shakes out the memorable authors from the bad ones.

...

As for Lena Dunham, I don't know her work well enough to think one way or another about her, but it's interesting that Girls gets singled out as a hive of privilege and nepotism.

Let's compare Girls to Donnie Darko, of all things. I don't recall anyone ever accusing Donnie Darko of being an example of privilege and nepotism, nor do I think it should be. However, I bring it up to illustrate how these issues are all over just about all Hollywood productions.

Donnie Darko starred Jake Gyllenhaal, the wealthy son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Paris Trout, Waterland) and screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running on Empty, Losing Isaiah), as well as featuring their daughter Maggie in a small supporting role. Drew Barrymore, of the famous Barrymore acting family, both acted in the film and produced it. Finally, director Richard Kelly himself came from an upper-middle class background - his father was a NASA engineer who worked on the Viking project.

It adds up to a movie that I love, but it could not have happened without a fair amount of well-connected people. Welcome to Hollywood.

Is the venom directed at Girls because Lena Dunham is a woman? No doubt in part, but many other well-connected women have fine creative careers - hell, people forget how well-connected Drew Barrymore had always been. The thing with Girls is that the very concept, when paired with our knowledge of how well-connected its main players are, reminds many of Pulp's "Common People", which is fair enough. However, it's not much more absurd than a middle-class person writing about what it's like to be poor.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:04 AM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I find this article difficult to take seriously, because it envisions a world in which creators are not all super interconnected, and people's books don't shoot up in the world because they have friends who show it to their friends who happen to have influence.

This is the way the world works, and especially the way the world of writing and publishing works.
posted by corb at 6:44 AM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ugh, Donnie Darko, a movie I liked at first but disliked more the more I thought about it. Much like the recent Star Trek film, really. In a meritocracy it would not have been made.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:29 AM on April 25, 2013


Well, "in a Meritocracy" is a bit like "under true Communism" or "in a Free Market" - such a thing does not exist, probably never will, and by definition is awesome and perfect do off course things like Transformers 4 do not exist there.
posted by Artw at 10:05 AM on April 25, 2013


Hey! Lay off Donnie Darko! I do not even want to know what your problem with such a fabulously creepy tribute to the eighties and high school true love that movie was. Honestly! Sometimes I doubt your commitment to meritocracies.
posted by onlyconnect at 10:51 AM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


« Older "Them and Them."...  |  "I don't want to have to compr... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments