On Saturday, Governor Jerry Brown passed a law requiring sites with paid subscribers like IMDb and StudioSystem to remove information about subscribers’ ages within five days of their request. The purpose is “to ensure that information obtained on an Internet Web site regarding an individual’s age will not be used in furtherance of employment or age discrimination,” according to the law, which will go into effect at the start of the new year. It’s a dramatic step toward putting a close to at least one apparatus for age discrimination in Hollywood—an oft-debated issue, especially among female actresses within the industry.
It’s a decision that rewards the years-long advocacy efforts of the Hollywood actors union, the Screen Actors Guild, which has argued for years that databases like IMDb need consent to publish information on the thousands of actors it includes—many of whom aren’t famous, and whose information isn’t in the public domain. Internet advocates, on the other hand, have opposed the law, arguing that it sets a dangerous precedent for the removal of factual information on the Web. “This is not a question of preventing salacious rumors; rather it is about the right to present basic facts that live in the public domain,” the Internet Association’s Michael Beckerman wrote in The Hollywood Reporter in August.
Even if the new law isn’t subject to a Constitutional challenge (though it may be, TheHollywood Reporter’s Ryan Parker and Jonathan Handel suggested Saturday), Beckerman also pointed out that the bill would only prevent age discrimination on individual websites: “Were this bill to pass, age information would continue to be available on any number of substitute websites, completely undermining the bill’s intention,” he wrote, since casting directors could access age information on Wikipedia or journalistic outlets as well as IMDb competitors. As such, he added, the measure “does not even address the root cause of discrimination.”
Saturday’s decision seems like a cosmetic fix.
Beckerman has a point: A recent University of Southern California study found that women over 60 comprised just 2.9 percent of characters in 2015’s highest-grossing films, a figure that is pretty consistent with numbers from decades prior. The average age of a working male actor, meanwhile, has consistently remained eight years above that of an actress since the era of silent cinema. Older male actors have regularly played more leading roles since the 1920s, while actresses have long had the advantage under the age of 29.
The average age of actors has increased over time: One analysis found that, for men, it rose from 38 in 1920 to 45 in 2011; for women, from 31 in 1920 to 38 in 2011. Yet the researchers argued one probable reason for the uptick was not changing social norms, but plastic surgery and treadmills: “One likely factor contributing to these changes is the development of technologies (Botox, exercise machines) that allow the prolongation of a youthful appearance,” they wrote.
Saturday’s decision seems like a similarly cosmetic fix. While the removal of age information for paying subscribers of IMDb and StudioSystem may provide more opportunities for women older than 29 (and men under that cut-off age), it’s ultimately just another way the entertainment industry is erasing all evidence that its public-facing performers age just like the rest of us. Scrubbing age data from IMDb won’t end the number of entertainment figures who lie about their age, especially women (Rebel Wilson, Nicki Minaj, and Agyness Deyn, among them); it may ultimately enable them to fib more effectively.
The entertainment industry isn’t welcome to mature actors, especially not those who are women, and an IMDb makeover won’t change that.