A new California law allowing actors to have their birth dates removed from websites like IMDb has a laudable goal—ending age-discrimination in Hollywood casting—but is trampling on the Constitution to achieve it.
The bill, signed by California governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 24, requires subscription websites to delete the ages of performers if they request it. It was championed by the Screen Actors Guild, led by Gabrielle Carteris, who starred on Beverly Hills 90210. In an op-ed in the Hollywood Reporter, Carteris says actors, and particularly actresses, face “blatant age discrimination” in casting, and the ease with which casting directors can now find ages online has worsened the problem.
Carteris says she was 29 when she was cast in 1990 to play 16-year-old Andrea Zuckerman, a role she says would have been impossible for her to get had casting directors been able to find her age on the web. Today, ages on online casting services are so visible, “casting personnel practically can’t avoid seeing it, even if they try,” she wrote.
Hollywood’s fascination with youth, and reluctance to cast women over 40s, is a longstanding problem that has given rise to bizarre age disparities, such as Humphrey Bogart being paired at age 45 with 19-year-old Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, or Sally Field being cast as Tom Hanks’ mother in Forrest Gump, despite being just 10 years older. According to one study of 2,000 screenplays, only 23% of dialogue spoken by women comes from actress over 42, compared with 44% of men’s dialogue.
As a practical matter, it’s not clear how effective the law will be. It specifically refers to subscription services like IMDb Pro, where actors pay to post their resumes and photos, as well as “companion websites,” presumably IMDb’s free site. But it excludes other, easily searched sites like Wikipedia and Google, which prominently list celebrities’ ages in their online biographies.
The law also seeks to prevent the release of publicly available information. Ages—like addresses, voting histories, and traffic violations— are public records and generally have been fair game for the media and others to publish. While those records once could only be found by searching court documents, the Internet has made those records much more accessible, and trigged a backlash in some cases. Louisiana, for example, passed a 2013 law barring the publication of gun permit records, after a New York newspaper published a list and map of local residents permitted to carry concealed weapons. While First Amendment experts called the Louisiana law an example of unconstitutional prior restraint, it has yet to be challenged in court.
In her op-ed, Carteris dismisses constitutional concerns about the California law, saying it’s “highly doubtful” free speech would be chilled because the restrictions apply only to subscription sites.
But the internet is just a scapegoat for Hollywood’s fixation on young women, which is a product of centuries of cultural and commercial notions about beauty and femininity, and the direct result of thousands of casting decisions by hundreds of directors and producers. After all, it’s much easier to target a website than the Hollywood patriarchy.