A recent article in The Guardian, “Nepotism in the movies: it’s time to call out the acting school of mum and dad”, written by Caspar Salmon, rightly addresses a usually unnoticed issue in the acting industry: acting is becoming an increasingly upper-middle class profession. However, Salmon’s choice to describe this as “nepotism” does not go far enough critically, suggesting that this is just a simple issue of parents favouring their children. The word makes it less alarming, for most parents can probably relate. Who would not want to help their children if they can? As the film and television industry has an important role in representing society at large, there are much more serious repercussions. It leads to an underrepresentation of what a majority of the population looks like, and it leads to unfairness for actors from less privileged backgrounds.
Working-class underrepresentation has two primary causes. Firstly, actors, directors and big names are using their influence to get people close to them into top jobs in the industry. As Salmon notes, the Barrymores were essentially an “acting ‘dynasty'”. Jaden Smith, despite not being particularly good at either acting or creating music, has been given the chance to work at a high-profile level. Why is that? The answer is Will Smith. Of course, not everyone accused of being privileged by nepotism is a bad actor. Maya Hawke, the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, did a great job in Stranger Things 3, and she has a role in the new Tarantino movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The only bad actor Tarantino gives a role to in his movies is himself. The underlying issue is that there may have been other actresses who are just as good as Maya Hawke that may have not got the chance simply because they did not have the right connections, or they started on a lower step on the ladder.
Secondly, drama schools are getting more expensive, and the biggest names in Hollywood are coming from the most upper-class universities. Christopher Eccleston, in a 2017 interview with Sky News, addressed this issue. He notes that “my parents could not have afforded to pay for me to go to drama school now”. It is just too expensive. Only the very richest can afford to drama school, making the net used to find great talents much smaller in diameter. He also pointed out that most actors are pulled from higher-class universities and some of the top schools in the UK. This is certainly the case: Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, and Tom Hiddleston all went to Eton. Natalie Portman went to Harvard. Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson all went to Oxbridge. Earlier, in 2014, Julie Walters was concerned that “the only actors are going to be privileged kids whose parents can afford to send them to drama school. That’s not right. It feels like we are going backwards”. It is a problem that people within the industry are beginning to address, but, given the prominence of such movements as #MeToo and the #OscarsSoWhite, it is a problem that has been overshadowed.
Gender, race, sexuality and class are all marked by lines of oppression, where some social groups are privileged at the expense of others. Intersectional thinkers such as Audre Lorde have argued that all of these identity-based forms of oppression can exacerbate and enhance the others. A lesbian black woman is oppressed on more grounds than a straight white woman, for example. Equally, if you are straight, white, male and middle class, you have very little identity-based oppression to worry about. You have a lot of privilege. To address the issue of the underrepresentation of working-classes intersectional issue. If the film industry is predominantly white, as the #OscarsSoWhite movement sought to point out, and if the children of the current stars of the industry are the stars of the future, then the movie industry will remain predominantly white.
Privilege takes many different forms. These different forms work independently, but they also work together to exacerbate the oppression caused by each. To effectively deal with all forms of identity-based oppression, you have to deal with all of them and address their intersections. It is fantastic, and long overdue, that sexism, heteronormativity and racism in the film industry are being addressed. However, these issues will never be dealt with adequately if we only tip toe around the issue of class-based underrepresentation and privilege. We need a film industry that draws on talent from everywhere in our diverse world, not just small sections of it.