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Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?
Over the years, I’ve heard countless variations of the following questions asked about my sister and me: Who’s the older one? The smarter one? The nicer one? All of these questions stem from the one big question: Are you two twins?
For 21 years, strangers have approached my sister and me and blurted out this question, usually without even saying “hello.” This is usually followed by several more questions, usually regarding our birthing order (who’s older/who came out first?), our DNA (identical or fraternal?), and if our family could tell us apart (yes…they can). Other common questions are tied into tropes found on television and in media, such as if we’ve ever switched places or pretended to be each other (we tried once…it didn’t work), if we could read each other’s minds, and who was the ”good” twin and who was the ”evil” twin.
What is the reason for all these ridiculous and invasive questions? For my sister and me, being twins is something we were simply born as—it’s as natural as breathing for us. Yet for some reason, this normal fact of our existence is a fixation for many people, so much so that they are obliged to ask questions. After 21 years, my sister and I have developed a thick skin against the incessant prying. Now that we’ve grown up a bit, we realize that much of the public’s obsession over twins comes from the media, where the same old tropes and jokes are played out over and over again.
My sister and I grew up on sitcoms like Full House, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and Sister, Sister, looking for something to entertain us, and maybe even represent us somehow. Yet the stories that played out on screen—the media’s portrayal of twins—didn’t quite match up to our own life together, our personal reality.
On Full House, both Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen portrayed the famous ’90s character Michelle Tanner. At the time of their portrayal, the sisters looked so alike that they were both interchangeably used for the same role. To this day, the Olsen sisters still seem to be synonymous with all twins, which apparently motivates others to tease my sister and me by calling us Mary-Kate and Ashley, or asking if we’re identical like them (a question which doesn’t even make sense as the Olsens are fraternal twins).
The Suite Life of Zack and Cody is a show about twin brothers living in a fictional hotel called The Tipton and all the wild, hilarious shenanigans they get into. Zack and Cody Sprouse are a mischievous, fun-loving pair of brothers who constantly get into trouble by pulling pranks on other people, such as switching their clothes and pretending to be each other.
Unlike these sitcom characters, my sister and I were raised in a loving but strict immigrant home, unable to get into (too much) trouble under the watchful eyes of our parents and grandparents. Moreover, the one and only time my sister and I did try to switch places, our peers around us immediately knew we were faking it.
Sister, Sister is a show about two twin girls who were separated at birth, only to miraculously reunite several years later and live in the same house with their adoptive parents. Sister, Sister purveyed many recurrent twin tropes as well, such as the Twin Switcheroo as well as wearing matching clothes.
Yes…my sister and I did wear matching clothes growing up, sometimes even the same color; however, I find this stereotype of twins matching outfits hilarious—as soon as my sister and I were old enough to start dressing ourselves, we never wore the same clothes again. However, the show also presented each twin as a young, multifaceted woman who had her own unique interests and personalities, which provided good role models for my sister and me growing up.
Of course, twin stereotypes aren’t limited to sitcoms. Movies such as “The Shining” depict a pair of twins that are constantly speaking in unison, which has since influenced other horror movies in portraying twins as demonic or disturbing.
The notion of “creepiness” in twins extends to other unpleasant stereotypes was the idea of the “Good Twin” and “Evil Twin,” a trope often used in soap operas and other fictional mediums. The concept seems so ridiculous to me—how could twins be polarized according to simplistic concepts of “good” and “evil,” when they were each two individual humans, who made a series of good or complicated choices on a daily basis like any other human beings. Of course, this mode of thinking did not sink into the minds of people who kept asking us who was the “good” twin and who was the “evil” twin.
After 21 years, my sister and I felt as if we existed purely as entertainment for other people. I remember playing a game in elementary school where I stood next to my sister, and we switched spots, asking for people to tell us apart. Or even now, when my sister and I are sitting together, we have a party trick where we take off our glasses to let people see the similarities of our faces, or try to spot the differences.
When someone approaches me with invasive questions about being twins, or references media tropes like the doppelgänger, the ”evil” twin vs ”good” twin, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee, I feel myself raging inside. My sister and I have been boxed into two categories all of our lives, a never-ending compare and contrast game, a game of who’s smarter, louder, better, worse, or more significant than the other. My patience for these frustrating questions has worn down over time, and now it’s dreary being paired with my sister, compared to her, treated like a doll in a twin seat—something to play with, always interchangeable.
I have often wondered if the media will ever truly portray what it’s like to be a twin. Will the media ever evolve beyond portraying my sister and I as a stereotype or gimmick for laughs?
Would I always be just a stock character, who was never more than a physical reflection of my twin, a piece of fiction with no complexity or soul? Surprisingly, I have found a single instance in media where the portrayal of twins wasn’t a cookie-cutter stereotype.
I was in high school when I discovered an anime and manga series called Ouran High School Host Club. The series focuses on several high schoolers who find themselves in comedic situations, exploring themes such as gender performance and other tropes found within pop-culture. Two of the main characters are twins, Hikaru and Kaoru Hitachiin. The Hitachiin Brothers, as other characters refer to them, seem to fulfill many twin clichés: wearing the same clothing, acting mischievously, constantly playing games with each other, and trading identities.
However, over time the show provides more depth to the Hitachiin twins, exposing the cracks of sadness and loneliness underneath the always-happy twin façade. The series explores the unique struggles of being a twin, and how, because of Hikaru and Kaoru’s similar appearances, people constantly mistook one for the other and eventually treated both of them as one. Due to this loss of their individuality, the brothers become increasingly hostile and disappointed with life because they believe the world will never be able to tell them apart.
A quote from the show resonated powerfully with me, and captures my personal experience as a twin:
“We’re always contradicting ourselves.
We want people to tell us apart….
…yet we don’t want them to be able to.
We want people to get to know us…
…but we also want them to keep their distance.
We’ve always longed for someone to accept us…
But we never believed there’d be anyone who would accept our twisted ways.
That’s why we’ll stay locked up tight…
…in our own little private world…
…and throw away the key, so that no one can ever hurt us.”
As soon as I heard these words, I realized that I had found something that truly recognized my experiences as a twin: the incredible bond of codependency and camaraderie of growing up with someone who looks almost like you, and also the isolating fear that I would never be recognized as an individual. In this show, I found pieces of my reality portrayed authentically in a way that most of the world would never know or understand.
Ouran High School Host Club ventured to look at what the media often ignores: the twin’s perspective. The show explored not only the general public’s reaction to twins, that is, curiosity and fascination with look-alikeness, but it also examined the twins’ reaction to the public’s repeated and predictable prodding. The show touched upon one of our greatest fears—being someone else’s entertainment, and never being recognized as two individual human beings. The first time I saw this scene, it struck the core of my person.
Of course, being a twin isn’t all about fending off the rabidly curious public. Being a twin has strengthened my desire to form my own unique personality as well accelerate the process for individualization. For example, my sister has cut and dyed her hair many times over the years, experimenting and growing into her own style, while I grew into mine.
As we grew into adulthood, our interests, tastes, and appearances diverged until the only way that anyone could still mistake us for the other was if they were incredibly lazy, or ignorant. My sister has since gone into fashion journalism and explored the ways that makeup and clothes can create a bold appearance and iconic style. I’ve become interested in literary fiction, navigating the ways I can use my words online to create an identity that no one could link to my sister.
Looking back at growing up in school, the idea of belonging to a clique made no sense to me; why would I want to look like or act like anyone else? Why would I want to be anyone other than myself? Shows like Ouran High School Host Club let me know that my sense of “twinness” is valid, and now my sister and I are fighting to knock down stereotypes about twins by simply being us—ourselves.
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