You’re sitting on the couch after a long day at work, embarking on your next Netflix binge. You spot an actor you know you’ve seen before, but just can’t place … maybe Law and Order? (Let’s be honest—it’s always Law and Order.) Seconds later you’re on your smartphone scoping out the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), learning his name, where you’ve seen him, and maybe even some personal trivia. Sometimes you can make some pretty fun connections. Once, on a particularly fruitful IMDb sleuthing expedition, I discovered that S. Epatha Merkerson (the inimitable Lieutenant Van Buren on Law and Order) majored in dance at Wayne State before studying acting, and that she was Reba the mail carrier on Pee-wee’s Playhouse (a mainstay of my childhood).
Another thing you can learn on IMDb is an actor’s birthday. It’s an important feature to me because it’s how I learned that I share a birthday with Christian Bale. But that could all change. On January 1, a California law called AB 1687 went into effect. Under the law, anyone with an IMDb Pro account (a pay-based service) can have their age removed from their IMDb profile. The law was designed to help actors avoid age discrimination, as IMDb Pro is considered an “employment referral website.” SAG-AFTRA leader and former 90210 star Gabrielle Carteris pushed for the law, arguing that she would not have gotten her 90210 role today because of the influence of sites such as IMDb on casting decisions.
Putting aside whether it made sense for a 29-year-old woman to be cast as a 16-year-old high school newspaper editor, I do agree that it must be much harder for actors—especially women—to overcome both conscious and unconscious age bias these days. That said, the law itself doesn’t make much sense to me. If you couldn’t find an actor’s age on IMDb, you could just visit any number of other Internet sites, including Whitepages.com (for those who haven’t gotten their big break yet), Wikipedia, Biography.com, or even Famousbirthdays.com. (Thanks to the latter site, I just learned that I also share a birthday with FDR, Phil Collins, and Jalen Rose!) The info is out there, for better or worse. Perhaps a more direct approach to fighting age discrimination would be to advocate for more substantial roles for people of all ages or to do specific training or education within the casting world.
For its part, IMDb is refusing to comply with the law. On February 22, a federal judge granted IMDb a preliminary injunction, stating that “it’s difficult to imagine how AB 1687 could not violate the First Amendment.” The judge explained that while preventing age discrimination in Hollywood is a compelling goal, there’s nothing to show that singling out IMDb in this way would have any effect at all. We’ll have to stay tuned to see how this one ends.