When women speak back: Why Miley Cyrus’s new single is a more than a breakup anthem

Disclaimer: I use the words women and men throughout this article for clarity. However, these terms refer to how someone identifies andorients themselves within societal power structures; it has nothing to do with biological mechanisms. 

Ever since Miley Cyrus released her new single Flowers, the internet has been ablaze with support and admiration for Cyrus and the song. While it isn’t exactly Franklin’s Respect and I am pre-emptively cringing at myself for even taking it so seriously, I think it speaks to something more profound than just another generic pop-song.

Specifically, with a backing track that sounds eerily similar to Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines, this song is one of many circulating the internet, each with a similar backing track and message. Within them, something remarkable is happening: the male gaze is being turned onto men. As Cyrus’s song is the most well-known and influential, I’ll focus on it alone.

The story behind the song
For those with the mental resilience and inner peace needed to not spend hours a day stuck in the TikTok vortex, here is a run-down of events: Miley Cyrus was in a relationship with Liam Hemsworth for a decade or so. They broke up, and amid rumours about affairs with other women, he dedicated Bruno Mars’s ‘When I was Your Man’ to her on a radio station, amongst various other ‘I’m really sorry’ acts. In response, Cyrus released her new single Flowers, which samples the Bruno Mars song and turns the lyrics around.

For example, in Mars’s song, the chorus goes, ‘I should have bought you flowers / should have gave you all my hours / When I had the chance.’ In Cyrus’s song, the lyrics are ‘I can buy myself flowers / talk to myself for hours / say things you don’t understand.’ In the music video, there are also countless ‘easter eggs’ that suggest the song is directed towards Hemsworth. For example, rumour has it the house she uses for the video is the same house he had affairs in, the suit she wears is the same suit he wore at an event when he told her to‘behave’ and on the list goes.

Okay… and what is the male gaze again?
The male gaze theory first gained popularity in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 text Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Mulvey argued that art forms depict the world from a masculine point of view. Because the dominant perspective is that of a heterosexual man, women are typically presented as passive and submissive objects. From The Wolf of Wall Street to Led Zeppelin songs or Orwell’s 1984, art as we know it is typically told from the male perspective.

While Mulvey is usually credited as the term’s inventor, its origins lie in the psychoanalytic works of Freud and Lacan. Specifically, it is the psychoanalytic understanding of how gender informs our experience that enabled Mulvey to theorise the gaze as involving psychoanalytic concepts such as scopophilia (the pleasure of looking). Scopophilia focuses on the aesthetic joy and unconscious sexual pleasures derived from looking at someone or something. So, the male gaze enjoys turning women into mere objects to look at, so that their subjectivity (which is inherently anxiety-inducing because if we are both subjects, you cannot control how I perceive you) is excluded from the image. The pleasure is narcissistic, found in being the only subject and creator of the image.

And… how does this relate to Miley Cyrus?
Firstly, the easter eggs and references to Hemsworth are integral to your experience of the song. So, as a spectator, Hemsworth is presentin your mind, but he-as-subject is absent. He exists as simply an object, unable to comment or speak, just a passive presence. But more than that, by reframing the lyrics he dedicated to her (which were already loaded in male-gaze material), the gaze here is distinctively different from the the male’s; it is not about sexualising Hemsworth but about speaking back to his objectification of her.

Thus, in a sense, Flowers is a song about a woman declaring her subjectivity; a man dedicates a song to a woman about how he failed to meet her needs. In other words, he is the subject, and he realises that, being the main character, he should have done more. But she responds by saying, no, that was not the point, I can meet my own needs, thanks. Cyrus subtly shattered the illusion of being a mere object within his control, and with that, she poked at that male narcissism saturating popular art.

The best part
What I love most about this whole saga is that every single theory out there is almost entirely concocted by fans; Cyrus has affirmed nothing. So, in other words – if celebrity exists for us mere mortals to use as inspiration, I think we love this song because, in a sense, we are creating its meaning. Women across the world are using it as a way to express the fact we are starting to gaze back.

Written by Molly Fitz