Interview: Lucy Smee and her Bechdel Test Film Club

Mildred Pierce,  one of the films screening at the Bechdel Test Film Club

Mildred Pierce, one of the films screening at the Bechdel Test Film Club

The Bechdel Test, to the uninitiated, might sound like something you have to pass before getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time. It is in fact a simple test, named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, that any film viewer can use to check if a film, or any work of fiction, features gender bias. It was introduced in Bechdel's comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For": in a 1985 strip titled "The Rule”, a female character says that she only watches a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

    1    A film has to have at least two women in it,

    2    Who talk to each other,

    3    About something besides a man.

You may well wonder if such a test would have any use in this progressive 21st century. Take a minute and think back over the last five or so films you watched, then apply the test to them. You might well find yourself coming up with a 100% failure rate. Consider the sad truth that report after report shows that gender bias in the film industries of the US and the UK continues, with women (and other groups) under or mis-represented at all levels in front of and behind the camera. It is with this depressingly persistent situation in mind that film archivist Lucy Smee set up her London-based film club, who’s name honours the original Bechdel Test. It provides, in Smee’s words: “a space where lots of different female experiences are represented.”

“It's been going for a bit over a year now and I'm having a great time running it”, says Smee. “I started it because I felt fed up about the media we consume every day and how women are represented in it. It's also great to meet people from my local area! I like that the film club has become a room full of (mostly) women who talk to each other about things that aren't men.”

When it comes to the film choices, Smee says: “I like the process of researching good films to show that aren't necessarily on Netflix or that aren't shown that often in cinemas, that pass the test. One of the most popular films has been Desert Hearts, which is famous for being the first positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship in film; lesbians in films often die or commit suicide or are punished in some way. “

The club is small, operating usually in New Cross upstairs in a pub, where Smee says: “20-30 people is a good turn out.”  But for the Desert Hearts screening Smee says she got a full house: “It was a full house as someone posted the night on a South London Lesbians forum. I do think this is an example of why the club is popular: it’s a relief to see women being normal and living full lives and having agency, and it's a relief to see something akin to your own experience onscreen. It's not something that queer women get to see much, or women of colour, or trans women for example.”

Smee continues: “Crooklyn (directed by Spike Lee) was another popular screening, and again, the people of colour in the audience spoke afterwards how pleased they were to see something familiar to them onscreen. I do strongly believe it's damaging to your sense of self not to see yourself represented in the media you consume, and it's sad that often people don't realise what they're missing. It just makes me mad that marginalised groups of people have to live this way; not seeing or rarely seeing any aspects of themselves in the media. So I just thought it would be nice if occasionally there was a place where you could!”

The Bechdel Test Film Club will be screening Mildred Pierce on 26 January at 19:30 at The Amersham Arms in London

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.