There’s a picture going around the Internet, some poster or ad sheet for the television series “Girls,” which has been modified so that the headline is “Nepotism” and each of the actresses has their parentage neatly captioned. All four lead actresses have something going for them, from being Brian Williams’ daughter to being the daughter of an artist no one angry about nepotism had heard about without a Wikipedia search. It was the header picture for Joanna’s review of the show last week. Dustin’s fantastic think piece on Tuesday tackled this question from one angle: internal to the series. I had a diametric response, one aimed at the debate over the actresses and the roots of the series.
As Joanna noted, it’s hardly plausible that Lena Dunham was handed a pilot and series order simply on the basis of her mother being a contemporary artist. But I don’t think it’s coincidence either.
Everyone believes in equal opportunity, that every individual should have to earn their own way, that birth should not dictate status. That’s the great dream anyway, the idea that slew aristocracy, that lifted a billion peasants from scraping dirt to the hope that their children at least might be something more. And gods how those hoary old fingers grasping at a thousand years of power slipping away let slip rivers of blood. We like to think that we’re different today, that here in America at the very least, the last vestiges of nobility would have dissipated. But people are the problem.
See, we all want equal opportunity with our minds and then break our hearts trying to get an extra inch for our children. It’s individually ethical, hell, we would think it indefensible if a parent didn’t fight for their kid that way, but it is the source of hereditary advantage when practiced by everyone. Said the Economist last week: “wealth is the distillation of opportunity.” The single best statistical predictor of an individual’s income is not their SAT scores or GPA but what their parents’ income was. Either the system is broken or the ability to be successful in the economy is both genetically transmitted and independent of measures of actual competence.
It’s not even just money. It’s the endless little insults of advantage granted to the spawn of the elites. Those eighteen year olds darting to the front of the line every week at the airport, with their first class priority on the wings of daddy’s frequent flier miles. One of the most deeply stupid people I ever met getting early admission to an Ivy because of legacy.
It’s not all opportunistic advantage. The Manning brothers are not NFL quarterbacks simply because their father was, any more than Ken Griffey Jr. got his first job in the majors because of his dad. Even if the meetings were set up, even if extra chances were given, extra patience allotted, the bottom line is that if either Manning couldn’t hit a receiver in stride or if Griffey Jr. hadn’t been able to hit a curveball, no parentage in the world would have kept them employed for longer than a season. But the arts and business aren’t so cut and dry. There’s no sabermetric mechanism for deciding whether Joe Hill in retrospect deserves the initial publication for which Stephen King’s name at least cracked the door.
Jay MacLeod took a year living in the inner city to write his senior thesis. It’s a bit more ambitious than most undergraduate projects, but the end result a few years down the line he transformed into a book called Ain’t No Makin’ It. He managed to get inside two groups of high school kids, one predominantly white, one predominantly black, both vaguely adopting the middle class college kid, not exactly as a friend, but tolerated at the very least. The white kids are by and large without ambition beyond their myopic world of working enough minimum wage hours to buy alcohol and weed, of eeking out petty and meaningless lives. On the other hand, the black kids he happens to take up with are the opposite. Despite living in the same housing project, going to the same failing school, some of them dream of more. They talk of college, they don’t skip classes, there is talk of careers, of futures beyond fast food.
But in adapting the thesis to book form, MacLeod returned to the housing project a few years later, an additional bit of research that produced an additional few chapters as an afterward about where the kids ended up. All that ambition was for naught, the black kids were left in the same place as the white kids, and not for lack of trying. They did everything right: finish school, get job training, apply for college. And yet they’re not any better off.
While not denying that race played a role, MacLeod argues that a greater factor was a sociological phenomenon called habitus, which amounts to all of the unconscious patterns of thought and behavior that are ingrained from the earliest age. All the little rules of social behavior that allow us to socially integrate with everyone else around us. But try to leave your zone, and it becomes clear that you don’t belong, and from that point in the job interview it doesn’t matter what color you are or what your qualifications are. You’ve failed the gut reaction test of the interviewer and it’s done. It’s not as simple as discrimination, or that those from higher classes look down on those from lower. It even functions in both directions. Take a kid from the suburbs and even if you dress him right, he’ll stick out as badly in the inner city as if he was wearing a class ring and a blazer. Take a walk down the street of Moscow and without opening your mouth or wearing an American flag t-shirt, everyone knows you’re not Russian. But even if the phenomenon isn’t unidirectional, the brunt of the effect certainly is since the kids from the suburbs aren’t trying to get job interviews in the projects.
So yeah, Lena Dunham might not have gotten direct access or favoritism, might not even have gotten inherited networks of contacts to get a foot in the door. But she probably unconsciously already knew the right things to say, the way to act, all the little signals of competence picked up on by the industry suits that a normal twenty-five year old with a screenplay would not even know she was missing. There would be no conscious favoritism, but that’s what makes it all the more frustrating.
The side effect though, is that as Dustin noted, Dunham’s source of material is scarce, it’s about rich brats with no connection to the real world that most people inhabit. The poverty of experience leads to a poverty of story that no amount of wealth of social connection can make up for.
Solzhenitsyn once argued that an eternal problem of art was that the literati had the ability and connections to make great literature but that it was the non-elites who had stories worth telling. That generally meant that most of what passed for literature ended up being either self-congratulatory drivel by the elites and about the elites or patronizing and ignorant drivel by the elites about the masses. The greatest, and rarest, works were those by the few literati who had actually experienced the life of the people.
When I applied to graduate school, I had all sorts of things that I told professors at potential schools, of what my research interests were, of what methods I wanted to use and why. In retrospect, just about everything I said was bullshit, though I didn’t know it at the time. I had no way of knowing it. Someone whose parents were academics, who had grown up hearing the words and having the concepts woven into their subconscious, they would already know that secret language without knowing that they knew something different. It’s like when you learn a language as an adult compared to when you learn it as a toddler as your native tongue. Twenty years of fluency starting at age fifteen and you will never quite pick up every nuance that the kid who learned from the cradle simply knows as if it was born to him.
And yet I don’t know where I stand after all this prattle. I don’t know whether to be angry, to rail at the patent unfairness of it. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t even know if there is anything to fix.