How California’s New IMDb Age Law Helps Actors In More Ways Than One
Hollywood is about to get a bit shaken up. A new California law, the unofficial hub of the American film industry, was recently passed which now requires that IMDb remove an actor's listed age upon request. It may seem a relatively minor law in a wider industrial context but this small law has the power to reshape the way actors can be cast and even go so far as to affect how we relate to and perceive celebrities. It would appear that this is the kind of law that will slowly chip away —in a positive fashion—at industrial stances on ageism and privacy. While ageism most directly affects women in film, privacy has become a major sore spot over the last few years for celebrities (considering this has been a consistent issue, that's saying something). But how exactly will this law have a major impact? Can it really stand to change anything if it's simply relegated to one website in a myriad of sites?
There's a certain amount of illusion we, the populace, accept when it comes to Hollywood. Part of that great illusion is the idea that youth is eternal and as a result, the celebrities we watch onscreen should reflect that to some extent. But this focus on youth somehow forming an inextricable link with beauty and employability has had an insidious stronghold on the industry for decades. We hear stories of how actresses were passed along for iconic roles because they looked too old (remember Olivia Wilde's Wolf of Wall Street tale?). We know that seeing an actress age in her career is a rare thing: Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Alfre Woodard, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett...just a few of the names in a pool of actresses who still work today and have kept up their level of work for decades.
But not all actresses are created equally and in a world where Olivia Wilde, still in her early 30s, is considered to old to play the wife of a man in his 40s, age can be the one major factor between an actress getting hired. "She's so young/so old for that role!" is common thinking. Look at Jennifer Lawrence: her career spans a handful of years but in that time she has played women aged 16 (The Hunger Games franchise) to 40 (Joy). In reality, she is only in her mid-20s. Sure, we can accept the illusion of someone in their mid-20s playing a teenager, but playing a woman in her 40s? That sets up the dangerous, and yet somehow very, very ingrained Hollywood influence of how women should age in reality.
Which is why the IMDb law could have the most notable impact on women in Hollywood. While IMDb is just one fish in a swirling sea of industry sites wherein you can access the resumé of any member on the site, it is among the most accessed and, arguably, one of the more trusted sites for obtaining this kind of industry information. Which means that it can play a direct role in the casting process of an actor: their visibility/popularity, their body of work and even snippets of their own lives can all be found on an IMDb page. Age is one of the first facts you can learn on an actor's IMDb. The unconscious bias towards age as it intersects with gender can become one of the most pressing factors when considering her for a role.
To be able to remove one's age means that you can remove an unconscious bias, a seemingly insignificant factor in the casting process. Even from a superficial standpoint, if projects were to be cast simply based on the appearance —as well as, crucially, ability and commitment to the role—then there could perhaps be a more authentic casting process occurring. Removing the age from a reputable site means one less thing for an actress to worry about being referenced when she walks in to read for a part. You may be tempted to nit-pick and tell me, while possibly rolling your eyes, that an actresses' age can simply be found through other means but to me, it's the slow erosion in the visibility of a factor that shouldn't necessarily be so visible in an industry that is slow to progress despite a navel-gazing tendency to profess "progressiveness."
If age is a relatively peripheral consideration for us in our day-to-day activities, then the same rule applies to our more famous bretheren. SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris wrote in praise of the law, stating that "[i]t is time to stop the ageism that permeates Hollywood’s casting process. This problem exists for all performers, but most distinctly for women. Performers create characters and often employ illusion to do so. That’s acting." That illusion, the one we readily accept going into film, television and theater, should remain in this case because it is such as asset to an actresses' career; otherwise, debacles like the Rebel Wilson age debate gather a life-force all their own and devolve into needless scrutiny that only negatively affects the person in question.
Bigger still, this new law reinstates a level of agency and privacy to celebrities that, for the sake of common sense, should have always been in place. For an actor to be able to pull the plug on a site when they feel it is broadcasting too much personal information feels like it should be an in-place practice and yet, the public's perceived entitlement to the private lives of a celebrity regularly manifests itself as an ugly side effect of fame. Again, IMDb may be one site in a line-up of millions, but its statue as a trusted source means that if an actor makes the statement of removing their age there, it should be taken seriously. If the right to privacy is just that, a right, then this law strengthens it even further.
Age should remain, as the saying goes, "nothing but a number." This new law has the power to patiently return a level of humanity and agency to those we give our time and attention to on a regular basis because we enjoy their work entertaining us. Just because they do that, entertain, does not mean that they should surrender every small detail of their lives to us. To be able to redact something like your age from a widely circulated website is, in short, a power move that should be embraced and should effect real change.
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