Deirdre Does Burlesque

An opera singer with stage fright, a stay-at home mother who’s tired of seeking societal approval, a dark and twisty virgin, and a young woman who has struggled with body hatred and bulimia are among the ten women who seek out Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque for an opportunity to change their lives in just six weeks—and first-time filmmaker Deirdre Allen Timmons’ A Wink and a Smile captures that transition on film.

The first movie to explore the process of becoming a burlesque dancer, this musical documentary shows that Burlesque is more than just a campy striptease. It’s about embodying a powerful persona, mocking traditional gender roles and sexual scripts, exploring sexuality through a teasing playfulness, and having a wicked sense of humor. A Wink and a Smile is full of delightful surprises that uncover both the history of the art form and its modern day incarnation through a handful of today’s popular performers. Burlesque is about the creativity of the reveal, not the reveal itself, so here’s a brief interview with Timmons to whet your desire to see this film.

When did you decide to make a film about Burlesque?

In February of 2007. I was looking for an edgy and musical documentary subject when I met a woman who was studying burlesque. As she explained her surprising journey of sexuality and self-acceptance through striptease, I knew immediately that this was a topic audiences would find compelling. Then I went to my first show and it was love at first sight. Seeing the women and men in these incredible costumes performing these beautiful and hilarious acts practically knocked me to the ground. I attended more than 50 burlesque shows and met with performers and producers around town as I settled on an angle for the film.

How did you go about hooking up with Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy?

So I needed an angle. What’s interesting about stripping? Well, lots of things, but for a mainstream audience I figured the escapism and imaginative elements of, “What would it be like if I became a striptease artist?” would be universally fascinating. I approached the headmistress of Seattle’s Academy of Burlesque, Miss Indigo Blue, and asked if she’d let me cover her 101 class. Eventually she agreed to let me bring my cameras and crew in and start chronicling the journey of ten women learning the art of peeling and revealing.

You have a lot of enthusiasm for the subject matter, which I can only assume means you’ve participated in Burlesque yourself. What do you get out of it personally?

Hells yeah! Not too far under the exterior of a responsible mother and longtime journalist is a comedic exhibitionist just waiting to throw it down. I also figured, if I were covering these women’s journey, I’d have to know what it was like from the inside. But really, that was just an excuse. I’ve performed several ridiculous acts as Duchess Moorehead and it was so freeing and so fun. In her tassel twirling class, Miss Indigo Blue even taught me how to spin tassels in several different directions. It’s a skill I don’t exactly list on my resume, but I’m damn glad I have it.

In your film both the students and performers opened up to you about some very intimate parts of their lives, which creates an interesting juxtaposition of baring one’s soul (or secrets) with baring one’s body. How challenging was it for you to gain people’s trust with a camera was rolling?

The women in the film were very sweet and generous from the get-go. That’s not to say that they just bared all right up front; they had to get used to the cameras and the process of being interviewed. But we started out with simple questions, and as the weeks passed, the questions became more intimate. Also, they don’t remove clothes in the beginning of the class, so they had time to get used to that notion. It also helped that I have been a reporter for years. I assured them that I would respect their information and the footage we shot, and I did. I wanted this to be a film that they could be proud of—or at least live with—for the rest of their lives. I was not going for reality TV smear. At the end of the day, however, they didn’t have to trust me and I thank them for giving me their trust.

There is a distinction made between being a Burlesque dancer and being a stripper. What is this distinction and why is it necessary?

Of course both involve the removal of clothes on stage and voyeuristic entertainment. So it’s safe to say that burlesque dancers are strippers. But strippers are not usually burlesque dancers. I think of burlesque as a traditional performance art form that comprises comedy, music, dance, elaborate costumes, clever storytelling, heightened theatricality, and exaggerated sexuality. I think of stripping as entertainment designed solely for sexual titillation. Burlesque shows attract varied crowds of all races, ages and sexual orientations. Stripping tends to attract a specific audience depending on the venue. Burlesque dancers don’t tend to make much money. Strippers do.

One of the students ended up dropping out of the class before the final performance, which adds an element of realism to the film, but must have been a curveball in the process. How did you feel when that happened?

It freaked me out in the beginning. I was like, “Oh, here goes the movie.” But then I realized that one woman’s decision not to take it all the way illustrated how complicated this was, because we may fantasize about stripping, but we have obligations to family, ethics, religions, or ourselves that may—in the end—kill that fantasy. It really pointed out that this is not easy, and if you think you can just take a class and become a burlesque performer, you’re wrong. So it actually gave the film more depth in the end.

What reactions have men had to seeing this film?

I’m so glad you asked. Straight men LOVE the film. How can they not? There are 18 scantily-clad beautiful women sharing trade secrets about women and nudity. Gay men love it too because it’s quite simply fabulous to watch and Waxie Moon and Ultra bring in stunning boylesque performances. And while this film is mostly about the students’ journeys, men have shared the most poignant responses to the notions of body image and abandoning fear to chase a dream.

One gentleman wrote me a long impassioned email. He had lost more than 100 pounds and watching these women accept their bodies so they could present them—in all their naked glory—to perfect strangers touched him deeply. Other men have said they’re relieved and excited to see real women on screen, not hyper-produced, skeleton-thin girls who are on their 15th plastic surgery “improvement” at the age of 20. I’ve had only two men say they prefer old-school stripping for the trench-coat crowd. They specifically did not like the idea of women being funny while being sexual. Maybe they fear we’re ultimately laughing at their penises, which of course we’re not.

Since Burlesque is all about the element of surprise, what surprised you during the making of A Wink and a Smile?

This was my first film, so I was learning how to make a film as the students were learning how to become burlesque performers. The process was grueling for all of us, together and independently. As we were all dragging through the glittery trenches, I found myself becoming very protective and maternal toward them. The love that infiltrated the making of the movie actually reads onscreen. And that was a beautiful surprise!

by Mandy Van Deven
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

This is nonsense. There is

This is nonsense. There is absolutely nothing feminist about your response to this particualer bit of pop culture. 50s-style "humorous" objectification is STILL objectification. Wow, so now women with healhy amount of body fat and no silicone can be objectified as well? That's AWESOME! Total progress!

Oppression and discrimination is, of course, bad. What's really saddening is the part of it that we're somehow tricked into believing is self-chosen and "liberating".
Do you really believe that the best way to sexual (and general) self-acceptance is taking your clothes off in an entertaining way in front of strangers? Is that what gives you a self-reliantly strong body-image?
As for the straight men who "LOVE" this film: Has it taught them respect for women in any way? You really think so?

Re: LenaSG

I responded far more in depth to this on my blog, but I felt that the following is relevant to the discussion:

Burlesque is a form of self-expression. It is a form of political and legal dissent, it is a form of humor, and it is a form of art. By denying people that right, and referring to their performance, their chosen self expression as "objectification" you are denying both the history of burlesque and the performers their rights and honors as equal citizens.

Elsa S,

where does "denying people that right" come from? I haven't denied anyone of anything. I have criticized Bitch Magazine for not doing agreeing with me (as any sensible person of course would :D) on what burlesque actually is.
Playboy models can, and they often do, claim that what they do is a healthy way of expressing themselves. I can disagree, and if a feminist publication should agree with them, I can disagree with that too - and also be slightly disappointed and call it nonsense. I have said nothing about people not being equal citizens, not even implied it, and I'm frankly a bit baffled by your accusation.

As to the history of burlesque: That's how striptease was done in the olden days. Plain old seedy striptease, where men ogled women. See Mad Men, scene in stripjoint, for illustration. Tassels! It's not that great!

I'm all for stripping (no pun intended) symbols of oppressive meaning, taking it back 'n all - but the same way I don't think the word "slut" can be reclaimed (whereas "bitch" is an entirely different matter), I don't think stripping can ever be truly liberating for womankind. Being naked and self-assured (which is great, I say, having tried outdoor unisex showers - freezing cold, though) is not the same thing as jiggling your jugs for an audience.

Slight modification

Just in case I sound frigid and condescending: I don't mean to. I don't see women who do any kind of striptease as immoral in any way, just so that's said. I just get so fed up with what I see as one of many steps backwards for women's lib, and I don't understand why it's always women who have to express themselves with being "sexy". Why do men get to grab the guitar, kind of?
And I'm surprised to see a feminist mag run the same burlesque story that I feel Cosmopolitan could have.
But I'll say this: The impression I've had of burlesque so far, is that it's just another form of objectification, made "cool" and "fun". I don't see any political, or legal, dissent. My impression comes mainly from the media, however - and they do tend to focus on the titties whenever they can. Apparently, it sells.
So: The trailer to this film REALLY doesn't tempt me, but if I'm ever given the chance to go to a "serious" burlesque performance, I'll go, as open-minded as I possibly can.


Actually Elsa S., I am the burlesque dancer from that Mad Men episode. First of all, always remember that scenes for television and film are cut in a certain way to portray a certain feeling that the writer/director wants. Since you know the history of burlesque so well, you should know that most of the shows were filled with both men AND women. Actually, our shows are filled with mostly women. I'm surprised you can't see the opposite side. Please know that you, and a few others who have commented on this article, are choosing to see one side of it, assuming why women do it, assuming what it means. It originally started as social satire, comedy, the word Burlesque is actually derived from the Latin word to laugh or make fun of, Burlare. You have probably seen most modern "burlesque" routines aka Neo Burlesque which is basically a less satirical version of the original form. Or you've seen a cabaret, which is basically just girls dancing around in cute undies. There are all different forms, styles. I have always been involved in a more 40's throwback where the girls are making fun of society, music is performed or played on a cd and there are comedy sketches in between. In our society, more is expected and wanted so many do push it. But if you assume burlesque is objectifying anyone, you're not looking at it from another angle. Try not to be so narrow minded. So you've taken a unisex shower outside, congrats. But it doesn't mean you're able to open your mind to viewing a situation differently. As you have shown us, it's just something you wanted to say you did but it doesn't mean you're truly of that mind set. Try seeing a burlesque show mimicking the styles of the 30's and 40's. I do agree that there is a lot stuff out there that is just women who want to flaunt their fabulous tata's, which is fine. However, if you're open to understanding it you would realize that it actually stands for something different, especially when done well. You should want to laugh during a performance, not feel uncomfortable and want to take the girl home to her daddy. It should feel fun and the reveal of pasties should be a pleasant surprise. Referring to a TV show that is cut and edited to what they desire is hardly a strong case for what you're arguing. There isn't an oppressive feeling in burlesque unless you want it to be there. Thanks for reading.

A former boss and friend of

A former boss and friend of mine has a killer burlesque show called Operadesiac. She's a wonderful singer and she and her show are brilliant and hilarious. Part of what makes it so great is that she and her co-performers don't look like supermodels, and not "despite that" but because of that, their show is all the more challenging, funny, and of course sexy. The challenge to our ideals and reified notions that the satire and the openness of the show's sexuality present are what's most important about burlesque. Sexual expression is necessary for most people, and for some that requires a stage or a camera. As long as it doesn't become a for-male industry, such expression will remain liberating and beautiful. If you knew my friend, you'd agree that she carries her burlesque into her everyday life--she lives it--and I wonder whether these other women do too. I can't wait to see this.

Are those promo photos on the "see this film" link photos of the show's women? I doubt it, based on the trailer. The body doesn't seem to fit the what the show is selling itself as. Was it still necessary to still use sex to sell the film?

Selling Sex?

The photos at the "see this film" link are of the professional burlesque performers that appear in A Wink and a Smile. Seeing as the subject matter of the film is sex and sexuality, I'm not sure how one would promote the film without using that as a selling point. ;)


This is an interesting bit of pro-sex feminism...(or, at least, that's one way it might be classified) Definitely seems worth seeing. I, for one, don't really find burlesque to be as objectifying as outright stripping-the women are there as a matter of choice and personal liberation, and indeed, it must feel liberating to to have such an amazing self-acceptance and self-love for one's own body. Kudos :)

Don't get it...

I don't really understand the big deal about burlesque? Why is it so great?

There are a load of people in my art college into it, and they seem to think it's above just 'average' stripping. I mean, I know that being forced into stripping is terrible, and that most of these women have chosen to do this, which is totally fine. But a lot of burlesque fans seem to look down upon women with 'blonde hair, slim figures, nice boobs'. They're just replacing one ideal of beauty with their own wacky hipster version.

There's nothing wrong with actually just being hot, you shouldn't be making excuses for it and covering it up with artsiness. If you wanted to be taken seriously for your acting skills or whatever, taking your kit off is not the best way to go. Not fair, but that's how it is.

I've never seen a burlesque show, can't understand the attraction. Anyone enlighten me?

It's up to you to decide...

I don't see Burlesque as trying to create an alternative hierarchy for beauty standards. I see it as expanding the idea of what can be seen as beautiful while poking fun at the existing hierarchy as well as sexual scripts. You should go to a show and decide for yourself what you think though. Well, or see this movie.

I'll give it a go, can't

I'll give it a go, can't figure if its supposed to be sexy or a joke. Maybe a sexy joke???

Cheers for the reply!

Thanks a lot for the post! I

Thanks a lot for the post! I want to share my own experience: I have performed in burlesque-style acts and I find the simple action of putting my body out there, as dimpled, imperfect and free of spray tan as it is, an inherently empowering and radical act. That means take me as I am, and I don't need a diet or a makeover or plastic surgery to be sexy, although some eryeline and a little glitter... By putting a real female body out there, I am helping to destroy fascist beauty standards that tell women there is only one way to look. I think this way, I'm taking matters into my own hands instead of waiting for some magazine to come along and make it happen. I can think of few things more empowering than that!

...But you're still a

...But you're still a stripper.
As far as I can tell there is no difference between burlesque and stripping. Burlesque is just a socially acceptable way to look at women taking their clothes off. Just because it's a bit tongue-in-cheek why does that make it any better? Yes burlesque acts may not have a size 8 body with DD breasts, but I still fail to see how that makes any difference . I don't understand all this nonsense about "real" women with "real" bodies. Women who are a size 6 are just as real as women who are a size 12, 20 or 32, and strippers who are a size 8 are just as real as strippers who are a size 12, 20 or 32.

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