Owen Sheers’ ‘Show’ explores two contrasting scenes: one of Sheers’ girlfriend entering the room and one of the models walking on a catwalk. This poem is one that elevates female beauty, both simultaneously empowering women whilst also presenting the lurking presence of the male gaze. The focus on beauty seems shallow within the poem, the physicality of the models and Sheers’ girlfriend being the only aspect discussed of the women. A particularly good poem that contrasts against ‘Show’ in terms of the empowerment of women is Amazon, coming later in the anthology.
The rigidity of the first part, with no rhyme scheme, can be understood as a representative of the sterility of the fashion industry. The characters are seemingly lifeless, with very little physicalization apart from their beauty. This monotonous part explores the sexualization of ‘models’, both empowering and exposing the hypocrisy of the beauty industry.
Within the second part, which reflects on Sheers’ own relationship, there are elements of rhyming. Especially within the final stanza, Sheers embodies his relationship through his rhyme scheme, presenting the link between himself and his girlfriend through the coupled lines.
You can read the full poem here.
Part One – Stanza One
The models walk,
stalking a narrow shore.
The ‘models’ are depicted as ‘curlews’, using a simile to connect the two concepts. A ‘curlew’ is a very tall, long-legged bird. They are incredibly thin to look at, with their legs being long compared to their body. Sheers uses this depiction as a reference to the societal expectations of ‘models’ to be very skinny and very tall, with long legs. ‘Show’ focuses on this description throughout the first part of the poem.
The verb ‘stalking’ empowers the models, with a sense of purpose given to them as they strut down the ‘narrow’ runway. This verb is also reflected by the reference to ‘crocodiles’ within the final stanza of this part. Although Owen Sheers attempts to empower the models, there are other men lurking who seek the women; like predators to their prey.
We watch, spectators
as they turn,
The collective audience, ‘we’, watch in a faceless monotony as the women parade down the catwalk. The ‘spectators’ are all moving in ‘slow’ unison, seemingly devoid of characteristics while they watch the women. ‘Show’ is a poem that focuses greatly on the male gaze, palpable here. The voyeurism of watching the women in a seemingly silent environment oddly unsettling to the reader.
flex the featherless wings
and slip between the curtains,
The alliterative ‘flex’ and ‘featherless’ reflect the seamless poise the models have. They easily ‘slip between the curtains’, the lack of resistance showing the level of professionalism. The double enjambment of the first two lines of this stanza creates a smooth flow to the lines, seamlessly moving into one another. ‘Show’ has an odd balance of empowering women, but only within an atmosphere that is predatory. They are excelling at what they do, but are yet watched persistently by the eyes of the male gaze.
leaving the crocodile pit of cameras
flashing their teeth for more.
The sense of the predatory nature of the situation culminates within this stanza of ‘Show’. The paparazzi are referred to by ‘cameras’, with Sheers using metonymy to represent the collective group of people. The animalistic presentation of the ‘crocodile pit’ of men taking photos of the models shifts the power dynamic of the first part. Whereas before there was a strange balance of empowerment and an underground predatory nature, it has now been shifted. The women have lost their power as the final image is of the men watching and ‘flashing their teeth for more’.
The consonance of ‘c’ across ‘crocodile’ and ‘camera’ echos the sound of the cameras clicking as they take photos. The sound could also be a representation of the jaws of a crocodile snapping as they ‘flash their teeth’. Sheers uses sound to compound this sense of animalization, binding the paparazzi against the image of ‘crocodile[s]’.
The demanding sense of paparazzi relates to the theme of male dominance over women. Sheers explores the interrelations between genders, focusing on the male gaze and the predatory nature of the male sex. The paparazzi, commonly known for their disrespecting of social boundaries typifies this theme.
Part Two – Stanza Five
I leave you sitting to the mirror
to paint your lashes from fine to bold.
This part focuses on an individual woman, Sheers’ girlfriend, as opposed to the mass of ‘models’. He is stunned by the artistry of makeup, referencing the professionalism of a ‘pianist’ in the act of his girlfriend ‘painting’ on her makeup.
The emboldening impact of makeup is explored within this stanza. Sheers suggests that makeup can enhance a certain look, focusing on the movement ‘from fine to bold’. The word ‘bold’ can at first be understood as a reference to the thickness of his girlfriend’s eyebrow. By simultaneously, it could be a suggestion that makeup empowers women, giving them courage and confidence in social situations, turning them ‘bold’.
Pulling the door on this scene
And when you do, it happens once more;
Sheers leaves the private scene of his girlfriend getting ready, retreating to a more masculine environment. Sheers presents himself as ‘wait[ing]’, with the insinuation that the woman has power in the scene being extended from this point onwards. For once, the male figure is stagnant and ‘wait[s]’ for the female figure – a reversal of the typical conventions within which Sheers writes.
The suggestion of ‘once more’ insinuates that this is a common occurrence, Sheers being enamored by his girlfriends’ beauty. She is able to capture his attention, drawing him in with her mastery of female sexuality. His girlfriend is the one which has power in this segment of the poem, contrasting against the models from part one. This could be Sheers discussing something about public and private shows of beauty. In one, the public models, Sheers argues that the commercialization of beauty actually leads to the disempowerment of women. Yet, in the private sphere, his girlfriends’ embodiment of this same beauty gives her power, elevating her in the scene.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
The fall of the dress, the jewellery,
early stars against the dusk of your skin,
one shoulder bare,
setting the room about you out of focus.
These stanzas, taking up 1/4 of Show, focus on the impact Sheers’ girlfriend has upon entering the room. The eroticism that the woman projects is what Sheers focuses mainly on during these stanzas. The suggestion of her body under ‘the fall of the dress’ is the first aspect which he describes.
The artificiality of the moment is palpable. Sheers projects the illusion through ‘jewellery’, makeup ‘dusk of your skin’, a ’spell’ which ensnares the poet. Sheers is arguing that empowerment can come from something artificial, women gaining confidence and power from their sexual nature.
The poet ‘surrenders’ to her beauty, leaving him stunned as she walks in, the room ‘out of focus’. In Show Sheers elevates his girlfriend solely due to her beauty, a method of empowerment but again with a situation that is dominated by the male gaze.
This is an incredibly masculine-centric way of empowering women, being much more shallowly focused on beauty, rather than the true strength of women.
The final rhyme of ‘hocus-pocus’ and ‘out of focus’ compound this reversal of the domination of women. In this ‘scene’, Sheers’ girlfriend has all the power. The spell of her sexual attraction has encapsulated the poet, ensnaring him. The conclusion on a rhyme is a mechanism to represented this ensnaring ‘spell’, with Sheers captured by her beauty. She has the power in the scene, but this final reference to the semantics of ‘camera’ with ‘focus’ echos back to the male gaze of the first part. It seems that the male gaze is everywhere, a predatory feature that follows women wherever they go, despite the gaining of power.