The Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) has been waging a years-long legal battle with the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to stop the site from disclosing the ages of screen actors. Last June GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, signed on to support SAG-AFTRA in preventing IMDb from publishing performers’ private information. Six months later IMDb caved. On December 13 they initiated a new policy that allows industry professionals to self-submit and/or verify their birth year, birth name, alternate names and other demographic information, and choose whether to display the information.
The decision was framed as a major victory for both SAG-AFTRA and GLAAD. It is indeed an inspiring example of how marginalized groups can make change by joining forces. It’s terrific that people are now in charge of their data, and that transgender people will no longer be called by a name they’d prefer no one use, or “deadnamed.” It’s indisputable that being outed as a member of a marginalized group puts people at risk of discrimination, as both SAG-AFTRA and GLAAD argued.
But not everything about this decision is progressive. In fact, it’s largely performative. Where’s the outcry about the increase in violence against transgender people? Where’s the call for older actors to be cast in proportion to the percentage of older people in society? What does this decision do to remediate transphobia and age bias in the culture at large? If publishing actors’ ages fuels ageism, as SAG-AFTRA contended in their lawsuit, isn’t supporting age denial the opposite of a remedy?
I asked Mariann Aalda, who’s been acting since 1978, how the absence of age on IMDB might affect performers. “The same way being in the closet affected gay actors,” she replied. “In the short-term it was a boon. Long term it became a burden. Keeping secrets is stressful. It’s making something ‘wrong’ about being your authentic self.”
It’s wonderful that trans people can now be represented on IMDB as their authentic selves. We need to do a lot more work to ensure they feel safe doing so. Also a lot more work against age shame, so we can be our authentic selves at any age.