What Our View Of Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen Says About Our Expectations Of Women

Photo: Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.
The following is an excerpt from Alana Massey's recently released book All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers.

The first time I had (and likely the only time I’ll ever have) a penthouse address was from 2004 to 2005 during my sophomore year at NYU. The student housing on Lafayette Street boasts several penthouses that are mostly reserved for fraternities and sororities, but my unaffiliated friends and I lucked out in the housing lottery when we landed a two-floor, four-bedroom penthouse overlooking the Hudson River. We promptly decorated it in oversized posters featuring a zoomed‑in image from The Garden of Earthly Delights painting by Hieronymus Bosch and David Bowie’s album cover for Ziggy Stardust.

Greek life at NYU was something of a joke to those of us who did not partake, but the memo seemed to have been lost in the mail to those young men and women who did. Members of the fraternity who lived on our floor swaggered through the hallways and looked at us like outsiders in our dark blazers and silk camisoles, when they were the ones wearing Lacoste and popped collars in downtown New York City. But a night of drunkenness crumbled the barriers between our two camps, and some fraternity brothers invited a friend and me over to their penthouse for drinks and some low-quality cocaine.

I don’t recall what we drank exactly, but I can assume it was some variety of middle-shelf liquor (any would do) mixed with Diet Coke. The fact that these young men kept Diet Coke on hand for female company charmed me, even if it was mostly for the purpose of intoxicating girls for nefarious ends. I recall how our decorating tastes differed: Their living area was bare save for some football paraphernalia, and the shared boys’ room we entered was decked out in wall‑to‑wall photos of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. This would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that the two were enrolled at NYU that semester, making the shrine to the famous teens more unsettling because they were not just celebrities now, they were our classmates.

In the year prior to their enrollment, somewhere far from NYU, an enterprising man with a pervy streak named Chase Brown started a countdown clock to the girls’ 18th birthdays that referred to when they would be “Playboy legal.” Brown’s adorable little shrine to predatory imaginary coitus was picked up by the E! network, and then several entertainment outlets followed suit. The web was soon littered with men on forums and comment sections frothing in eager anticipation of June 13, when the girls would reach the age of consent. They wrote as though the only thing in the way of unbridled passion between ordinary sleazes and billionaire teenage performers and entrepreneurs was a pesky statutory rape law that would soon be irrelevant.

The boys I knew who partook in the countdown were not more ghoulish than any other undergraduate men I knew. They were no older than 22 and most were younger still. Their desire for Mary-Kate and Ashley was age-appropriate, and though the countdown to legality was vulgar, I am not especially precious about the consent of 17-year-olds to give to partners two or three years their senior. But the anonymous hordes of much older men awaiting a Playboy shoot to which neither of the Olsen girls had given any hint of participating in, much less sex with strangers, was something more sinister. There was something darker than sexual attraction in it. The whole spectacle carried with it a sense that these men had been waiting for these girls to grow into adults since they debuted on television as infants on Full House in 1987.

Though we did not yet have our generational moniker, millennial childhoods were marked by frequent interactions with the faces of Mary-Kate and Ashley, though which one we were seeing at any given point remains mysterious. The casting of the twin infants as Michelle Tanner on Full House simply because they did not cry at their audition has become part of their legend in the entertainment industry. The viewing public of the show adored the bright smiles and good natures of the baby girls so much that they were not recast in later seasons, an almost unprecedented move in a television environment that likes to expedite the growth of infant characters into affable preschoolers to keep them interesting. Michelle Tanner was America’s beloved little sister, feisty and stubborn but always good for a one-liner. However, the real sisters who played one do not recall the time with as much warmth. Mary-Kate referred to herself and Ashley as “little monkey performers” in Marie Claire in 2010. Watching Full House again as an adult makes her meaning even more clear. Watching them perform with a more mature eye, their acting talent appears primarily rooted in the ability to mimic and obey rather than to improvise or emote. This was the price of not crying.

Long after Full House ceased production, Mary-Kate and Ashley could be found starring mostly in straight‑to‑video movies of the two engaging in twin hijinks and shilling merchandise imbued with power by association with them. Their company, Dualstar Entertainment, turned the onetime performers into adolescent moguls, businesswomen whose brand was not to be dismissed. It was something of a shock, then, when they both completed high school and chose to pursue higher education at NYU.

Despite the excitement at their arrival, Mary-Kate and Ashley seemed to treat their NYU experience as little more than an afterthought to their otherwise glamorous new move to New York’s West Side. While the unwashed peon masses waited for NYU shuttle buses to schlep us to and from our dorms, the girls were whisked directly into Yukon SUVs from their classes. I recall the strangeness of seeing Mary-Kate this way. The ritual of celebrities rushing into vehicles was familiar to me at this point, but I realized that though the world was introduced to the twins as the fictional and decidedly singular Michelle, outside the context of the show, I had never seen Mary-Kate without Ashley or Ashley without Mary-Kate. They came as a unit. The separation of their bodies seemed an affront to the natural order of things. Even writing their names out again and again instead of relying on the shorthand of “the Olsen twins” remains difficult as I try to actively empathize with so foreign an experience of sisterhood, childhood, and privacy.

Mary-Kate and Ashley retained all of their conventional beauty but chose the art of high fashion, even when it meant sacrificing conventional sex appeal.

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Mary-Kate was the first to drop out of NYU. She told W magazine, “I need to be able to go to yoga and work out and just read scripts and go on auditions, because that’s what makes me happy. You know? Like, papers don’t really make me happy.” This quote was widely ridiculed for its alleged vapidity rather than acknowledged for its more quotidian explanation that teenagers from Los Angeles speak a certain way and don’t especially love schoolwork. Ashley would follow suit not long after so the two could embark on careers in fashion. As is so often the case when performers turn to fashion, the public cast their glance askew at the change of heart. That they pursued careers in fashion and adjusted their aesthetics to match was the ultimate betrayal against their lusty male admirers. Mary-Kate and Ashley retained all of their conventional beauty but chose the art of high fashion, even when it meant sacrificing conventional sex appeal. At least when objects of desire gain weight, they forfeit the possibility of being desirable to the sort of superficial man that might ogle and fantasize about pretty, femininely dressed teenagers. But the twins were instead photographed in witchy, drapey, and decidedly unsexy clothing over their slight frames. And while their exorbitant wealth has never been a secret, as adults, they began to obscure it less and less as their vocal affects went from giddy girlish sounds to sophisticated inflections. They have become the eccentric millionaires it never occurred to their adoring public they might become.

The reality that these were never America’s little sisters grows more and more evident with each new luxury collection they deliver from their line, The Row, and in every ultra-stylized look they don. It would seem odd at first that Mary-Kate and Ashley chose to go into business with one another after a childhood spent tethered to each other’s side, expected to smile and perform the brightest parts of sisterhood on command. But their lived realities are so foreign, so entirely other, that it is difficult to imagine they can find anyone with sufficient empathy for that reality. Knowing that their vast fortunes and international fame would never have materialized if just one of them had burst into tears on audition day is a strange and very particular burden to bear. But they share that burden, appearing alongside each other on red carpets and catwalks and at interviews, supporting each other with words more than physical strength as they remain small like girls even as they are settled fully into adult life. That support is much needed as the public resists allowing them to be the adults they have become.

Mary-Kate and Ashley made a rare national television appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to promote two fragrances in 2014. In the segment, even the affable Ellen DeGeneres could not resist a nostalgic trip to the Tanner house. “It’s really amazing that y’all started out on Full House,” Ellen starts but is unable to finish her sentence because there is uproarious applause from the audience at the mere mention of the show. She goes on to note that it was rare for child stars to turn out well- adjusted, much less wildly successful. It is meant as a compliment, but the more grim subtext is clear: We never expect types like you to make it. She mercifully omits the period during which their birthday was declared a national holiday by a horde of lecherous sexual deviants or when Mary-Kate battled anorexia and alleged heroin addiction and was the first person Heath Ledger’s masseuse called when he died of an overdose in 2008.

Ellen asks the sort of softball questions that are typical of these daytime shows, mentioning a BuzzFeed article that went over things the twins are tired of hearing and proceeding to ask what they are tired of being asked— tedious but generally innocuous questions like “Which one is the oldest?” and “Can you read each other’s mind?” Mary-Kate and Ashley are not asked these ordinary questions because they are not ordinary twins. They are the most famous twins in the world and have been for close to thirty years. The show proceeded with a game wherein photos of them as infants on the set of Full House were put on a screen behind them and they were asked to identify which one of them is in each photo. As if all infants don’t already bear striking resemblances to one another, they make clear early on that it is easier to tell once they get older on the show. As they flounder at the game, Ellen realizes its cruelty and says, “Yeah, it’s not fair. It’s a ridiculous game.” But not before the girls have been subjected to a question they are likely haunted by every time one of them alone is referred to in the plural: Do you know who you are?

The show is one of many sprinkled throughout the archive of their interviews that feature Mary-Kate and Ashley being asked to revisit a childhood they would not have picked for themselves. “I look at old photos of me, and I don’t feel connected to them at all . . . I would never wish my upbringing on anyone,” Mary-Kate told Marie Claire. There is a bittersweetness in that they had each other to rely on during that childhood but also that they had to watch one another’s suffering through it.

As the cruel game draws to a close, an image of the two of them as toddlers appears on the screen and their befuddled stares give way to recognition. Ashley points at the photo and declares, “Mary-Kate’s on the right!” to which Ellen replies, “How do you know that?” Ashley says, “Because Mary-Kate still makes that face today,” much to the amusement of the studio audience. It seems a charming sisterly jab. But it is also a declaration that her sister is and always has been her own person— despite rampant insistence that the two are fused into a single unit as they inhabit separate bodies and minds. In the end, only the sisters themselves could bear meaningful witness to the peculiar marvel of the other, a lesson learned only by those who have felt what it means to be merely half of something.
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