Although the adage holds that “it’s never polite to ask a lady her age,” in Hollywood, the very point of view captured in that aphorism has itself become a new flashpoint. That’s because women, unions, politicians, industry executives, and those who run online sites are struggling with the unhappy reality that in Tinsel Town “leading men age but their love interests don’t.”
For many actresses, age isn’t simply a number— it is leading reason why some will be passed up for a role. Just ask Maggie Gyllenhall, who recently was told that “37 is ‘too old’ for a 55-year-old love interest.” Ageism, as industry critics have decried, is widespread and rampant for actresses, especially for those older than 34.
As more headlines detail Hollywood’s woes with ageism and sexism, in anecdotal tales from the industry’s leading ladies, in infamous corporate hacks, and in comedy sketches parodying the situation, the movie industry is showing how hard it is grappling for solutions to its long-accepted issues with biases.
But is the right response to these incendiary issues to be found in California laws? There’s a new one that will require select websites, starting in Jaunuary, to pull down performer’s ages upon request. Gov. Jerry Brown supported and recently signed AB 1687. Since its enactment, the Internet has been abuzz over this bill. Why?
Hollywood’s struggles with sexism, ageism
Sexism, critics say, is too big a part of the industry, and its all too visible — in the inequality of roles for women compared to men, the dearth of female industry executives, and in the industry gender pay gap.
Meantime, more actresses are speaking out about Hollywood’s gender discrimination. They’re also renegotiating their pay, and seeking new avenues to address industry bias by forging their own roles. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s break out comedies Fleabag on Amazon and BBC hit Crashing were born out of the lack of interesting roles for women offered, writes The Telegraph.
AB 1687’s roots.
As for AB1687, it not only arose against the background of greater, recent gender activism. It was sparked by a failed legal battle between Vietnamese actress Junie Hoang and IMDB (and its parent company Amazon).
In 2011, Hong sued IMDB after finding out that the company published her date of birth without her consent, and after it declined to remove that information on request. Hoang claimed that the disclosure of her age created a “double-whammy” on her career as she was unable to get roles, which led to decreased acting credits, work, and overall earnings. Her suit emphasized the gender bias in the industry noting:
In the entertainment industry, youth is king. If one is perceived to be ‘over-the-hill,’ i.e., approaching 40, it is nearly impossible for an up-and-coming actress . . . to get work . . . regardless of her appearance or talent.
Hoang went on to lose her legal case, with a federal court finding that IMDB could not be held responsible for decisions made by casting directors, whom the company had zero control over (the ruling’s here).
Although she lost in court, her case didn’t go unnoticed, as industry groups advanced to the fore of gender discrimination and ageism issues. Since March, such groups and actor unions have lobbied hard for AB1687, writes Consequence of Sound.
SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors Guild American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), “championed the bill, noting in a message to its members that ‘age discrimination is a major problem in our industry,’ and that these websites are a major part of the casting process,” The Verge notes. The group’s president wrote about age bias, saying this “problem exists for all performers, but most distinctly for women. Performers create characters and often employ illusion to do so. That’s acting.”
Actresses speak out
Aya Cash, a lead in the TV series You’re the Worst Star, has said that IMDB offers more than just information on who is in what flick next. It serves as a critical employment hub, she told New York Magazine. The actress “who has been vocal in her support for the new legislation,” makes the case why female performers need AB 1687, telling the magazine:
IMDb is a site used by people in the industry: The public uses it, but it’s essentially used as a job site . . . It’s illegal to ask your age on a job interview, because as soon as someone learns your age they decide certain things about you — and it really affects casting . . . I just think that people coming up in this business should have the right to decide whether or not it’s out there.
An anonymous actress told the popular blog “The Mary Sue” that the new online age disclosure law, “while it won’t be a solution across the board … will provide significant relief to the working actors most impacted by age discrimination.”
Proponents say this is a step in the right direction, with one legal blog remarking, “[o]bviously this won’t make much of a difference for already established actresses, whose birthdays are quite easy to figure out. But it may make a difference for up-and-coming talent, or at least let actresses (and some actors) take the emphasis off their ages and let their work stand on its own. There’s still a lot of work to do to fight ageism in Hollywood, but maybe this will serve a tiny first step.”
But opponents see AB 1687 as political correctness run amok, paving the way for censorship. Critics say the law is a setback for age equality, and poses as a distraction from the underlying issue: Hollywood’s “devaluation of actors who are no longer young” a piece in the The Huffington Post said.
Michael Beckerman, in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, argued that AB 1687 will neither remedy nor alleviate ageism nor sexism but instead will create terrible precedent. It could lead into the “dangerous waters of censorship,” and instead of addressing bias in the industry, will instead set a precedent for state legislatures to solve problems by preventing “the free flow of information online.”
First Amendment icon Floyd Abrams of New York’s Cahill Gordon & Reindel told The Hollywood Reporter, “[t]he statute seems to me of the most dubious constitutionality. . . Birth dates are facts. It’s hard to see how the government, consistent with the First Amendment, can bar or punish their disclosure.”
While the free speech debate hinges on “a) if age is a basic fact in the public domain, and b) whether or not the law could have wider implications on censorship in general,” advocates emphasize that the “actual language of the bill is pretty narrowly focused, specifically restricting its coverage to sites that provide employment related services on a subscription basis (e.g. IMDb, IMDb Pro, StudioSystem), writes LAist.