Today we heard that Simon Rich, wealthy son of New York Times writer Frank Rich and product of Dalton and Harvard, has a new movie in the works, in addition to a gig writing for SNL. Is that unfair?
Of course my knee-jerk reaction to news of this little Rich pipsqueak is that his lightning fast rise to showbiz success is entirely frustrating and unfair. How easy it was for him to achieve a career so desired by many (AHEM — though, not really the SNL thing in my case) and so typically difficult to obtain. All he had to do was flounce about Cambridge and futz around on the Lampoon for a few years until he magically sold two books and landed a plum job as a television writer shortly after college. Surely his dad, his connections, his wealth were huge legs up in his quick rise to a dream writing career, and that feels really fucking unfair. So many good, talented writers slave away in obscurity for years and never get to that point. (Other more mediocre writers were lucky to have fallen ass-backwards into a blogging job and should probably just shut up.) So why should we be happy for him? Why should we appreciate anything he does as a true accomplishment of a sharp and deserving talent?
Well, in Rich's case he actually is talented. He's a funny kid. His writing for the New Yorker might not be everyone's particular cup of tea, but he has undeniable comedic flair and imagination. Maybe he inherited his writing gifts from his dad, and surely shouldn't be punished for genetics. But still, in a country where so many doors are closed to so many people, that a twentysomething born into a life of ease can just saunter in and get exactly what he wants on the first try seems to fly in the face of our noble belief in the meritocracy. Rich's success proves a depressing and obvious fact: the rich and well-connected almost always have it easier, they tend to get what they want far more easily and more quickly than the rest of us schlubs who were born under the crushing weight of normalcy. Just because Rich is talented, his success can still frustrate us, because it wasn't won at all. It was handed over, it was bestowed. And for that he, it, the whole thing, sucks.
But then we run into the tricky problem of being bitter, of not wanting good for other people simply because they had different childhoods than we did. We wouldn't want a world without Sigourney Weaver, would we? And her dad was the head of NBC! Mamie Gummer is a talented and interesting stage actress who has done some exciting work in the New York theater. Would we be happier not having her around just because her mom is Meryl Streep? Knowing where they came from, and how much more easily they landed agents and auditions and meetings (and that they didn't really need to support themselves while they did it), would we prefer that our strange and jealous (yes, jealous) egalitarianism relegated them to years of rejection and struggle, just like we had it? Why are we wishing bad on other people? Their parents worked to achieve their success, and were thus able to professionally provide for their children. That's not wrong, is it?
These questions mostly have to do with careers that seem charmed and fabulous. We don't complain when a plumber nails and "& Sons" to his sign, do we? We revel and delight in family-run restaurants. (They're sooo quaint!) It seems as long as people stay reasonably blue collar, if they don't stand to make a ton of money, we're OK with it. In the arts, though, are we really even talking about the money? I think we're more talking about opportunity, a chance to build a life in a tiny and competitive field, one stuffed with people with passions, corny and condescending as that may sound. That a few slots are already filled by the privileged children of the elite may be disheartening in a broadly sociological way, but as long as those children are actually good at what they do (like Rich is, like Gummer is, like Weaver is), we should probably try to not immediately deem them obnoxious, spoiled, undeserving. Sigourney said "Get away from her, you bitch!" better than anybody probably could (except maybe her Yale classmate Meryl), so who cares if her dad was the king of television and she his precocious princess.
Simon Rich is... well, his chosen profession is a bit too close to mine for me to fairly assess the validity of his success. But we can at least be sure that he isn't a Cody Gifford or Ben Lyons (what is it with film critics?). His brand of rich white boy tweeness may, again, not be to your liking, but there is something there. The burning question of whether he would be where he is today without his dad is kind of pointless to ask because we'll never know the answer. Could he maybe have moved to New York, joined UCB, done the sketch writing thing, struggled, felt defeat? Yeah, sure. And maybe then it would have seemed like he earned it more, in whatever vague and relative way you define earning something. But be honest. If you were a senior in college and your dad was like, "Want one of my friends in publishing to take a look at that book you've written?" you'd probably say yes. So we can't blame him. We can't blame any of them.
And maybe that's what annoys us so much when we hear these stories. It's not that they got the wonderful opportunity, the secret passage through the back door. It's that we didn't. And that just makes us seem a little petty and insecure and, in a strange way, vain. It sort of implies that the only thing standing in our way is a lack of access. Our talents are vast and undeniable! That's not the reason we're struggling. It's just that we're unlucky, that's all. Born normal, born on the hardknock streets of the lower classes. Relying on unluckiness as a way to explain away not being where we want to be in our careers is probably just as bad as relying on family to actually get where we want to be in our careers.
The one thing I take comfort in is that when I do get there — and I will, and you will — I'll maybe feel like I did work a little bit harder than Simon Rich or anyone else who was given a career as a graduation present. I know what the bottom looks like and what it is to gaze up. The view from the top is always better when you know how far up you are, right? Right??