It’s time for a serious national conversation on male bias in the film industry.

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February 20, 2013  |

Stop the presses! Hollywood is still a man’s world. If you have any doubt, consider this: last year, six entire Academy Awards categories were completely free of female nominations. It’s even worse this year, up to seven. The roster of 2013 nominees includes 140 men and a paltry 35 women. Getting nominated is a huge factor in career success for every aspect of the film business, from acting and directing to editing and production.

So what’s up with the man bias?

Might have something to do with the fact that a bunch of older white dudes hold the cards when it comes time to pick winners. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, the legendary head of MGM, comprises mostly working professionals in film and television. Its membership is highly secretive, and includes only people who have been nominated for an Oscar, recommended by at least two current members, or endorsed by the branch’s membership committee or the academy staff.

Sound kind of like a frat? It is. According to a 2012 study by the L.A. Times, 77 percent of Oscar voters are male. They also have a median age of 62. The study found that some of the academy’s 15 branches are nearly all white and male. “Men compose more than 90% of five branches,” noted the Times, “including cinematography and visual effects. Of the academy’s 43-member board of governors, six are women; public relations executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the sole person of color.”

That is a sorry state of affairs. As Julie Barton, president of the Women’s Media Center, recently put it: “In a film industry where 78% of the top-grossing 250 films of 2012 had no female writers, and 89% of them had no female directors, the Hollywood boys’ club needs to start admitting women.”

Academy leaders say they have been trying to diversify, but they face a daunting problem: the entire industry lacks diversity. Fewer than one in five screenwriters is female, and women directors make up less than 10 percent of the total. A vicious, self-reinforcing cylce exists in which guys pick the winners, winners get the jobs, and then these same folks go on to join the boys club.

There are very few signs that the circle will be broken any time soon, despite the recent success of women like Kathryn Bigelow, whose film The Hurt Lockerlanded her a Best Director award in 2009. (Her most recent film, Zero Dark Thirty, is up for several awards this year, including Best Actress, though Bigelow was not nominated for Best Director this time around.) Unfortunately, Bigelow is the exception that proves the rule in a business where sexism pervades every aspect. Consider pay scales: in 2009, the median annual pay in film was about $76,500 for men, compared with just $62,500 for women.

Predictably, movies made by men are also made for men. The Bechdel test, invented by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, tests movies for gender bias. The test is based on three questions: Does a movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? If so, do they discuss something besides men? The test demonstrates that movies in which women act as the handmaidens to male adventures are still the norm, and even in films with female characters, the interactions between the women are primarily concerned with what the male characters are doing.

Looking at recent movies, Zero Dark Thirtypasses the Bechdel test, because even though the women in the film talk to each other about Bin Laden, he’s certainly not a love interest, and their conversations have a political context and often concern the planning of strategy. Gangster Squad, on the other hand (one of the most stupifyingly tedious films I have ever seen, and that’s saying a lot) flunks the Bechdel. There are two named female characters, but they don’t have anything to say to each other, and they probably couldn’t hear each other if they did, for all the pointless shooting.

Americans are patting themselves on the backs right now for Oscar-nominated films like Lincoln and Django Unchained that purportedly further the conversation on race. But there’s a deafening silence on how the film industry remains stuck in testosterone-soaked aspic when it comes to sexism.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of ‘Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.’ She received her Ph.d in English and Cultural Theory from NYU, where she has taught essay writing and semiotics. She is the Director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.