The Myth of Meritocracy

The Myth of Meritocracy

Get your fucking ass up and work.

In a recent interview with Variety, Kim Kardashian gave this weird advice to women in business, adding “Nobody wants to work anymore." This statement was remarkably tone deaf for one of the wealthiest women on Earth (net worth: $1.8 billion) to give on International Women’s Day, a day founded by socialist labor movements to celebrate the economic achievements of women in male-dominated professions. The whole thing had a real “let them eat cake” energy.

Several of Kim’s former assistants and producers responded to the video, accusing her of profiting from exploited labor, treating her “worker bees” like servants, and outsourcing the manufacturing of her Skims brand to Turkey. That same week, Kim appeared in this Balenciaga ad that stretches the definition of modeling to its extreme. As she poses stiffly on her own sofa, fumbling with a couture handbag, one is left to wonder if she has a different definition of work than the rest of us.

While it’s easy to poke fun at the Kardashians for their baffling fame, this is only one example that raises the question of whether the entertainment industry runs on talent or something else.

Kim seems to believe that she earned everything she has through hard work. While it has doubtlessly taken elbow grease to leverage her celebrity into an empire, her “advice” openly asserts that people less successful than her are lazy. Ironic, given her entire career hinges on the premise that she was born into extreme privilege and has famous friends.

We merry cynics wouldn’t think anyone could be naïve enough to call Hollywood a meritocracy. Just take one glance at the Coppola family tree and that illusion is crushed. But in the interest of science, I ran a very not-scientific Twitter poll, just to check my own assumptions.

(Turkington, 2022)

To my dismay, there are still some true believers out there. Bless them. Some argued that access is different than nepotism because you won’t continue to get jobs if you don’t pull your weight. Others said that things even out once you break in.

While these are fair points, the negative effects of nepotism extend far past a first foot in the door.

Generational wealth advantage

It’s no secret celebs like to keep it in the family. Although no official study has been performed on the number of second and third generation Hollywood players working today, even cursory observation yields hundreds of examples.

One Medium article analyzed available Wikipedia data for parent-child relationships and estimates as many as 1,300 “star kids” are working as actors and musicians, although this number is likely much higher if you account for other high-exposure gigs like modeling, influencing, and other above-the-line roles. These celebrity offspring get hired more often (avg. 80%), and receive more awards (avg. 50%) than the industry at large.

(Chakraborty, 2020)
(Chakraborty, 2020)

From those estimates alone, it is clear there is an income-based advantage. But there are other financial benefits to having famous family. Let’s use our friend Kim as an example. Her dad left her $20MM in trust when he passed; the Jenner family was worth $100MM when they merged. Conservatively, Kim K showed up to the starting line with $30MM and high-level connections at her disposal.

Yes, that’s a lot of cash, but it’s also advantageous in other ways.

Wealthy parents mean wealthy kids. 42% of children from the highest parental wealth quintile end up in the highest wealth quintile themselves (net worth: $631K+). This likelihood only grows with longer lineage. (Kiki’s multimillionaire grandparents owned the largest meat packing company in SoCal, by the way.) Generational wealth provides advantages for financial capital: cash, business opportunities, property. And social capital: wealthy peers and marriage partners, high-quality schools, and exposure to investment behavior.

It is a myth that if you work hard enough, you’ll break in. Nepotism all but guarantees that certain people will stay in power and others will stay out. And yet, we hear this adage over and over. If you don’t make it, it’s due to lack of work ethic/talent.

The numbers say otherwise.

Hollywood by the numbers

A study in the UK commissioned by the BFI found that “nepotism, word-of-mouth employment practices and the widespread use of unpaid work experience have created a ‘pandemic lack of inclusion’ in the British film industry.” While there is no comparable wide-ranging study in America, I was able to find stats from smaller studies and will list them here for comparison.

Only 3% of the film production workforce is from a minority ethnic background, compared with 12.5% nationally.

BIPOC people make up 23% of the American labor force, despite making up 42% of the U.S. population. Per the WGAW Inclusion Report [2022] and the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report [2021], this is on par with the national average. While we are ahead of the UK, we still have a long way to go to achieve parity.

(UCLA, 2021)
(UCLA, 2021)

Numbers from the WGAW Inclusion Report [2022] and UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report [2021] are almost identical to the UK when it comes to women writers, and substantially worse when it comes to other above-the-line roles. The gender pay gap has remained stable in the United States over the past 15 years. In 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned.

(WGAW, 2022)
(UCLA, 2021)

According to a 2020 Celluloid Ceiling report, the total percentage of women behind the scenes has grown only 4% over 22 years. Cinematographers remained virtually unchanged; producers and editors gained just 3%; directors rose 4%.

There is a sense among many that the industry is a “closed shop” with producers wanting to use the same crews over and again.

Women have barely made progress at all in other crew roles. Below is a chart from 2008.

(Celluloid Ceiling, 2008)

Only 12% of the workforce is from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Getting your foot in the door is difficult unless you are from a privileged background, with the average worker doing 46 days of unpaid work experience before gaining their first “official” position.

Per the MPA, the film & TV industry pays out $77B in wages each year. However, the average assistant salary after the recent IATSE negotiations is $18-20 per hour on a 60-hour work week ($50-60k/yr.). The average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in L.A. is $2,000/month. This is important for two reasons: 1) entry-level assistant positions are where most low-income people are likely to find work, and 2) these positions are where most low-income people are likely to remain employed.

While I was unable to find specific numbers around unpaid work experience in Hollywood, The Geena Davis Institute gives us some qualitative data that indicates unpaid work is commonplace:

Among the many barriers to entry underrepresented writers face, financial obstacles prove especially challenging … In describing their experience with development, one writer worried about covering their living expenses for the duration of their projects. They stated: “I am currently in development on three projects … For two of them, I have received nothing ... There’s been no money, no idea of money, no talk of money.” We found this to be a recurring issue for television writers in development.

Now add to that being a parent. Childcare costs anywhere between $12-$20K/year. Could you afford to take an assistant or mailroom job and “work your way up” via the traditional route? Given the trend in TV toward short orders and mini rooms, how many more years are people getting stuck bouncing around in these low-level roles because there is no time to get episodes or get promoted?

Just 5% of screen workers consider themselves disabled.

One in five Americans has a disability. The only available information on American screen workers is from SAG: able-bodied actors play more than 95% of all characters with disabilities on television; and the WGAW: people with disabilities make up about 1% of all writers. America is lagging behind the UK for this group.

If generational nepotism is truly rampant in entertainment, people working in the industry will skew largely white because those are the families who have traditionally held power. Looking at the demography above, that may hold water, though there are many reasons we see such disproportionate representation.

But what does all this mean?

The ease of breaking in—and staying in—depends on who you are.

The term “meritocracy” was coined in a satirical piece, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033. The author, Michael Young, stated “A perfected meritocracy is one where inequalities are precisely matched to abilities. It is a society where inequalities are justly unequal.”

So the term, even at its inception, did not imply that all things should be equal; it implied that all things should be fair.

Young asserted that a meritocracy is a socially stratified system, but based on intelligence vs. social caste. What he failed to capture was the illusion of upward mobility that this would grant certain groups. People won’t rebel against their status in the system if they believe they can move up, even if unlikely.

A meritocracy assumes effort+ability=merit, but negates the social constructs that restrict underrepresented people from cultivating their abilities within a capitalist society that still treats them as Other (TL;DR: The film industry can’t be meritocratic because America isn’t meritocratic, but it can sure pretend to be in order to keep people complicit).

In the film industry, this shows up in lots of insidious ways.

POC/women are more likely to helm lower budget films and shows.

(UCLA, 2021)
(UCLA, 2021)

Being anything other than a white male means you are more likely to stay in low-rung support staff positions for longer inside the writer’s room. From the Geena Davis Institute:

Many rooms still do not include any Disabled, Deaf, LGBTQIA+, or age 50+ lower-level writers. Even fewer head writers … are from underrepresented communities. This means that the increasing diversity we see behind the scenes is concentrated at the bottom of the staffing ladder. 35% of underrepresented writers had to repeat staff writer level positions, while only 24.2% of overrepresented writers had to do the same.

Women are more likely to be asked to do free work than men.

Regardless of race or ethnicity, women were more likely to be in unpaid development positions compared to men in the industry (59% of women compared to 41% of men).

Being in a low-pay job for longer means an increased likelihood of attrition.

With writer’s room support staff jobs paying below living wage, some writers may be able to rely on support from family, savings, or income from outside employment while developing projects for free, but others will simply have to walk away from the industry.

If you have a disability, you are much less likely to find work, and if you do, you are extremely unlikely to find consistent paying work. Per SAG:

  • Performers with disabilities worked an average of 4.1 days a year, despite having equivalent training as abled performers.
  • 103 performers with disabilities (20%) were cast in 426 lead roles and 357 supporting roles. 16 performers with disabilities had a total of 316 voiceover roles.
  • Most background actors with disabilities (56%) earned between $1- $1,000 a year.

If Hollywood were an equitable, meritocratic system, the above would be true only if women, POC, and people with disabilities were less intelligent and skilled than their white, able-bodied male counterparts. Of course, we know this to be untrue. So, we are told that the people who aren’t rising to the top must not be living up to their full potential due to lack of effort (The Kim K Effect™️).

Placing responsibility for institutional flaws on individuals is the easiest way to ensure the institution continues to flourish unchecked. If you don’t come from a place of social advantage, you are expected to have a boot-strapper attitude—go make your film with an iPhone, keep writing 24/7 or your competition will outpace you, work three night jobs and live in squalor so you can have the freedom to go on auditions.

Get your fucking ass up and work.

Don’t be that guy: The three villains

We already covered how a stratified social system works by keeping the lowest rungs pitted against one another, to see each other as the enemy and to self-police, rather than to see the big picture. Truthfully, there is plenty of room for everyone. Truthfully, resources and opportunities aren’t finite. Unfortunately, not everyone is hip to this.

I call these people The Three Villains, and all of us have the potential to be these guys if we’re not careful.

Villain 1: Inequity Aversion Avenger

Inequity aversion is when we feel guilty over getting something undeserved and we try to compensate by pointing fingers elsewhere. Nepotism requires advantage, which means displacing someone else more qualified. It’s interesting that when someone’s nephew gets staffed, it’s no big deal because there’s plenty of work to go around, but when diversity initiatives are rolled out, people are told they didn’t get jobs because the showrunner or the manager “had to” put an underrepresented person “in that spot," or “we’re not hiring white guys right now.” Both of these things can’t be true at once. So, who’s displacing whom?

Villain 2: Dr. Dunning-Kruger

The flip side of inequity aversion is the Dunning-Kreuger effect. This phenomenon is when you overestimate your own abilities, or “I’m the greatest” syndrome. This equates to overconfidence (*cough cough* Kim), narcissism, and refusal to acknowledge the unearned privilege that got you where you are. This not only means you aren’t great at self-reflection; it also means you’re more likely to step on others along the way, rather than help them.

Villain 3: Captain Schadenfreude

This is the worst kind of bully. Maybe schadenfreude is born out of the idea that the entertainment business is competitive, so it’s necessary to put others down to prove you’re “better.” Maybe it’s born out of survivor’s insecurity—I was treated like garbage, so you should be treated like garbage—but finding joy in others’ failures is a jerk move. This industry is 99% failure. We are all failing most of the time. Surviving the aristocracy is a hell of a lot more bearable when we support each other on the way up.

All hope is not lost

Look, the system sucks. Nothing major is going to change until there is a very big top-down shift. But we don’t have time for that. So, what can you do as an individual to get in, stay in, and open the door for others?

Building connections is everything. This is a business of relationships, and while that may benefit some people in extreme ways, it benefits the rest of us, too. There are a lot of unreliable people out there, so when folks feel they can trust you, they want to stick with you. People tend to rely on word-of-mouth for staffing because it’s faster, and that trust factor is huge. The more people you know, the more likely you are to leverage those relationships into jobs.

Doing great work does make a difference. Nepotism might get you in the door, and will definitely get you there faster, but you’re not going to last long if you don’t carry your weight. It’s a funny business, but it’s still a business, and a studio is not going to tolerate losing money, Star Kid or not.

Slowly but surely, things are changing. But, as the paradigm shifts, we’ll experience some growing pains. This kind of pain is good. Embrace it.

It’s probably too much to ask for Hollywood to ever be a real meritocracy. Nowhere in society does there exist a “real” meritocracy. The concept itself is an unobtainable ideal that would just replace our current problems with new ones. All we can do is try to make things better for ourselves and for each other, to get our fucking asses up and work, and to recognize that all of us, no matter our backgrounds, are capable of making it in our own time.

*Feature image by fran_kie (Adobe)

Melissa Turkington is a writer and script reader based in LA. She won the 2017 Nate Wilson Award and 2020 AFF Drama Pilot Award. She's been featured in Deadline and GOOD.
More posts by Melissa Turkington.
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