The Olsen twins and the discomfort of capitalism

David Shankbone, Flickr
Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen (David Shankbone, Flickr).

Indian-British director Zara Meerza grew up in a crowded house with three generations of family under one roof. As a first-generation immigrant in nineties London, no one in her life had grown up in The West. She tells this in the introduction of her documentary “The Twins” about the influence of the Olsen twins on millennial women like her.

Seeing beyond skin color

The film shows short clips from movies Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen played in, and from interviews on television. In almost thirteen minutes Meerza takes us through their career path and reflects with her voiceover on the mystical way the twins gave her a feeling of belonging in culture.  

It is the typical American – Dream – story of two young actresses who gradually became more successful in the public eye, eventually turning into mini moguls and CEOs of their entertainment company Dualstar. It wasn’t so much the success though that Zara Meerza was attracted to. In one movie scene that is highlighted in the documentary, the twins test if their boyfriends are able to differentiate them based on something deeper than their appearance. In the voiceover Meerza shares:

“I remember thinking, as one of the few people of colour in my school, how much I wanted that. I felt invited into this dynamic believing that some people were going to see beyond my skin.” 

The American Dream is also the epiphany of capitalism, an economic system Meerza has ‘deep discomfort’ with. At the same time, she cherishes the products she bought from the Mary-Kate and Ashely world:

“They made me feel confident and capable”.

Decoloniality and cracking homogenous culture

It is this dichotomy that makes it difficult to navigate today’s world where questions about decoloniality are raised and the movement of anticapitalism is getting heard more and more. The Olsen twins clearly guided Meerza as a first-generation British Indian teen in growing up in The West. The director even states that her love for the sisters created a deeper bond with her own family because relatives would send her Olsen magazines, her father would bring videos back from business trips in the US, and during summer holidays in Canada where she stayed with her grandparents, her grandmother would drive to several Wallmarts so she could buy the Olsen merchandise. In the documentary, the director says: 

“For me, all of this was about being a citizen of a global community of girls who were looking for a space to be vulnerable and curious together. It didn’t matter that Mary-Kate and Ashley didn’t look like us, they made us feel welcome.” 

At the same time, it is a typical aspect of capitalism to create a homogenous global culture and it is exactly this that decoloniality thinkers want to crack. It might give a feeling of belonging at first to take on a global identity but the reality of this one-size-fits-all approach to lifestyle is that it silences and even wipes out everything that doesn’t fit. It creates therefore a false sense of belonging. Or, a sense of belonging only for those people who are willing to be part of the group.

sisterhood as a way out of capitalism

The question Meerza raises toward the end of the film is important in that regard:

“In revisiting all of this, I wonder, who controlled the narrative?”

The answer isn’t easy because young girls were under the impression that Mary-Kate and Ashly controlled their own success stories. Whereas, they actually were ‘a living brand, serving the audience’. As a money-making machine and public property, one could ask if it is possible to control a system in which you are seen as sexualized objects because that’s how men looked at their bodies.

Meerza’s film ends with a comfortable conclusion, related to the fact that the superstars are twins. Mary-Kate and Olsen seem nowadays in control of their own story by keeping themselves consciously out of the public eye and yet are still frequently seen together. This sisterhood is something Meerza admires the most of the Olsen ladies and her film actually gives us a subtle way out of capitalism: through a human support system that lasts forever.

You can watch Zara Meerza’s documentary on Youtube.

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