This new film deep dives into Mary-Kate and Ashley’s cultural legacy
Zara Meerza’s ‘The Twins’ explores the iconic sisters’ relationship with each other and the media, their ascent to stardom and subsequent silence, and the ways in which they guided her as a first-gen British Indian teen growing up in the West
In her new documentary The Twins, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Zara Meerza leaves the audience with one lingering question: “are you a Mary-Kate, or are you an Ashley?” Those of us of a certain eye cream-wearing age will have an immediate answer. Meerza – who, despite wishing she was an effortlessly bohemian Mary-Kate, says most of her friends would describe her as an Ashley – is asking which of the Olsen twins you identified with during their inescapable reign of pop culture: Ashley, the girly goody-goody, or Mary-Kate, the chaotic, artsy, tomboy.
Throughout their dozens of films, television shows, and public appearances, the Olsens contrasted the frustrations women feel when shoved into stereotypical categories with the joy of living life with a built-in best friend who knows exactly what they’re going through. We were left to wonder: were the twins’ duelling identities developed for their characters, or did they mirror their actual personalities? As the Olsens grew up, it became harder to distinguish. They settled into their archetypes and eventually eclipsed the spotlight all together, sans the occasional cigarette break paparazzi shot.
In The Twins, Meerza fuses a deeply personal story with an exploration of society’s longtime fascination with twins. As a first generation British-Indian girl, she looked to Mary-Kate and Ashley’s adolescent exploits to guide her when her family had no point of reference for growing up in the West. While she and her family looked nothing like the twins, she was able to see herself in their films and felt embraced by the community of girls their products and brand cultivated. Now in her 30s, Meerza is still obsessed with the Olsens, enamoured by their inextricable bond and the palpable solidarity that has extended into their private adult lives.
Whether you’re a fan or not, their impact is undeniable. In the nearly two decades since the Olsens’ last film, there has yet to be another set of twins with such a lasting impact on culture. Piecing together what made their films, fashion, and cult of personality so inviting and unique to such a wide range of girls, The Twins reignites conversations around the twins that for so long, we could not shut up about.
Here, we speak with Meerza about her Olsen-obsession, teen idols before social media, and how surprisingly, but thankfully, she was able to find a universal throughline in the lives of two blonde, American, superstar twins.
Hey Zara! When did you get the idea to make a film focused on the Olsens, and when did you begin actually working on The Twins?
Zara Meerza: The question behind the film came to me about five years ago. I was at a film festival in Toronto and talking to some friends about the Olsens. Being a fairly international festival I was really intrigued to discover how many people from around the world had a deep affinity for them and their films, even though they weren’t readily accessible. We started discussing why that might be and none of us could put our finger on it – so the exploration began.
What was your favourite Mary-Kate & Ashley film or show?
Zara Meerza: As a teen it was Holiday in the Sun – the Weezer opening track, a young Megan Fox as Breanna Wallis, the blatant advertising for the Atlantis resort that I then begged my parents to take me to. I also have to acknowledge that despite these elements I loved, it’s definitely among their more problematic films – the representation of the local population is quite disturbing to revisit as an adult, and the market chase scene particularly. Passport to Paris is my current favourite. The film opens by framing Mary-Kate and Ashley as your almost-guides to Western adolescence. As a first generation Indian-British girl, you didn’t have any family to help you predict what growing up would be like.
“Passport to Paris is my current favourite [film]. The film opens by framing Mary-Kate and Ashley as your almost-guides to Western adolescence. As a first generation Indian-British girl, you didn’t have any family to help you predict what growing up would be like” – Zara Meerza
Given Mary-Kate and Ashley are both American and white, why do you think you were still able to connect so deeply? Do you think that would still be the case for young girls today where there is more of an emphasis on representation on television?
Zara Meerza: I think the connection really comes from the dual belonging and otherness of twins. They are often centres of attention from the moment they’re born of no choice of their own, and yet that feels less frightening for an introvert like me due to their always having a companion through that experience. I think I envied the belonging that the Olsens projected. Why them and not other twins? I think the fact that all of their media was more or less made to be consumed at home lent itself to a more personal and easy-to-revisit connection. Plus, there was so much to engage with as I grew up alongside them year after year.
I still think there is SO much to be desired [in terms of representation] and that’s why younger women turn far more to TikTok to find their more intimate communities of comfort. There’s an assumption South Asian women are box checked simply because [Netflix’s] Never Have I Ever exists. I feel sometimes I’m meant to be grateful for any media with representation and it’s really not that simple – that expectation doesn’t leave room for personal connection beyond social or national elements. I’m happy that shows like that exist, but there’s not nearly enough out there to speak to the breadth of teenage experiences we have.
In the film, you discuss culture’s obsession with the dynamics and aesthetics of twins, citing Tia and Tamera and the Voskamp twins. There hasn’t been a famous set of twins for the Gen Z generation. Why do you think that is?
Zara Meerza: I think there might be, but I just may not be plugged into them. I’m aware that TikTok has a handful of popular twins, but I think that the nature of media now has so much more turn over that it’s hard to locate figures to hold on to the same way as when I was growing up. Once you had a video it was yours to revisit until the tape wore out – the materiality is just different now.
While not twins, do you think a similar dynamic to the Olsens is at play with culture’s obsessed with the Kardashians? A large, intertwined family, full of sisters, with a missing father figure? It seems like their desired through-line for the show is that despite all their drama, they are always there for each other.
Zara Meerza: I think you’re spot on. With their shows they create a distanced space in which a complicated family dynamic plays out, underscored with the safety of the relationships at the heart of it. I do think there’s an almost mythic fascination with the image and dynamic of sisters – it feels the same with Haim to a degree. When watching sisters on screen, we want to belong.
“There probably aren’t many of us who would like to have our freshman college photos rebroadcast today. That aspect of their lives – which I really think so many of my peers also had experiences with – are not outside of the norm of growing up in a major city or elsewhere, we all just had the privilege of privacy in those moments” – Zara Meerza
In the film, you highlight how a huge part of Mary-Kate & Ashley films focus on how they are divided into two stereotypical categories: the girly girl and the funky tomboy. While most of their films don’t position one as good and one as troubled, the world positioned them that way, with Mary Kate’s struggles with anorexia and messy tabloid moments highlighted as they got older. Was this something you considered touching on?
Zara Meerza: I thought about it a great deal. When you’re making a film about a public figure my instinct is to think about how they might feel about the imagery or footage you share and interpret. There probably aren’t many of us who would like to have our freshman college photos rebroadcast today. That aspect of their lives – which I really think so many of my peers also had experiences with – are not outside of the norm of growing up in a major city or elsewhere, we all just had the privilege of privacy in those moments.
What do you think the modern day entertainment industry can learn from Mary-Kate & Ashley? How do you think the path of child stardom has changed because of them or in spite of them?
Zara Meerza: I don’t think it’s changed much – if anything, because social media is such a large part of branding now, it seems the children in the entertainment industry have even less space to themselves. I think what we can learn from Mary-Kate and Ashley as incredibly successful business women is to retain as much ownership of your own creative output as possible. We can also see from their trajectory with The Row that it is possible to elegantly reinvent your career while also shifting your life from one so public, to one with greater privacy.
Mary-Kate & Ashley have intentionally left the spotlight almost as successfully as possible, which is in its own way, as aspirational and chic as their lifestyles were in their prime. They choose not to be on social media and seem fulfilled by their own pursuits. Was this the outcome you could have anticipated?
Zara Meerza: I imagine it’s very hard work for them to have the level of privacy that they do – it requires enormous amounts of trust, confidence, and consistency. I don’t think I’ve seen many child stars with their level of fame and success manage to transition with as much grace to a second career. What surprises me more than their ability to do so is the media largely respecting this move – I personally feel it’s due to the fact that they’ve already given so much of their lives to their fanbase and that is part of why there’s a mutual respect there.
From your own experience and the perspectives highlighted in the film, it feels as if the general tone when looking back on MK&A is extremely positive and almost immune to the criticisms we often apply to other teen idols and worshipped celebrities. Why do you think they were able to skirt past that, even through today’s lens?
Zara Meerza: As they were in the public eye from the age of nine months, it’s hard to accuse them of ever really seeking fame themselves. As most of their audience grew up with them I think we feel deeply protective of them, and other than their NYU period they seem to have very consciously avoided celebrity life – there is so little to take out of context when you live privately and are not on social media, which is why I think their silence and consistency has so much power. It’s also why images like Ashley in the woods with a machete end up in the New York Times rather than just on gossip sites. Unlike most celebrities they are so rare to see that we only feel grateful when they appear – we don’t ask for more.
“I imagine it’s very hard work for them to have the level of privacy that they do – it requires enormous amounts of trust, confidence, and consistency. I don’t think I’ve seen many child stars with their level of fame and success manage to transition with as much grace to a second career” – Zara Meerza
There is such a demand, mostly by and for millennials, for content focusing on nostalgic content from the 2000s and 2010s. Do you see this film as nostalgic? What is your goal for the film for an audience that didn’t live through the Mary-Kate & Ashley era?
Zara Meerza: There’s definitely a way of viewing the film as nostalgic – the materiality of the footage itself shows the distance of time. This was truly the VHS era, and it was the VHS that built the Olsen empire. Nostalgia is only as reliable as its source material, its authors and interpreters. We referenced music from the era for our score by Eliza and Jack (Purr) as I wanted the film to be transportive, so that any audience member of any age could question their relationship to the media that made and surrounded the Olsens.
You have mentioned using this short as a jumping off point for a feature. What are the plans for that? If you do make that, what other topics do you hope to dive deeper into?
Zara Meerza: My producers Tabs, Yesenia, and I go into production this summer on the feature. I want to dive deeper into how twins from around the world view the tropes that exist in the Olsen cinematic universe, and how that differs to that of non-twins. I want to look into the narrative that their fashion provides, and I want to look more into the myth of the twin and how that’s changing in a world where the twin population is rapidly growing… and a little bit more too.
Watch the film, presented by WePresent, here.