Double the Fun, Half the Character? A Critical Look at Twins in Pop Culture

In the last few days of the star sign Gemini, I wanted to talk a bit about twins in pop culture. I think television writers struggle with how to portray twins, and that’s putting it lightly. Identical twins seem to be the ones featured most prominently—why bother making two characters twins if they don’t look alike? Never mind the hundreds of fraternal twins actually out there who get less representation on TV because they’re less of a curiosity. Identical twins tend to be used as visually striking additions to TV shows, typically in sort of a gimmicky way: “oh look how kewl, they look exactly like each other!” However, the line between novelty and fetishizing, and even dehumanizing, is terribly thin. It contributes to what is honestly a freak show mentality, which leads to poor writing, poor character development, and overall less than ideal portrayals of twins. Spoiler alerts for Teen Wolf Season 3 and Heroes Season 2 below.

Identically adorable.

Identically adorable.

The biggest problem with twins in fiction is that they tend to come as a packaged whole; it’s as if “the twins” as a unit are a single character, not the individual siblings. (Think the Weasley twins, Fred and George, from Harry Potter.) I don’t know about you, but I’d feel pretty damn dehumanized to be perceived as only half a person. Often this is displayed in what I call a yin-yang twin scenario. I suppose in an effort to make sure the twins are not just complete carbon copies of each other (that would be truly horrible writing), writers attempt to make sure the twins are different by making them opposites in certain ways. Before Season 4 of Teen Wolf starts up and everyone forgets about the Wonder Twins, Ethan and Aiden, let’s take a look at this duo.

From the Teen Wolf Memorial website -- all the other characters get their own little bubble, the twins only get one

From the Teen Wolf Memorial website—all the other characters get their own little bubble, the twins only get a joint one. #atwinisnothalfaperson

Ethan and Aiden join to form this guy. Just like people always ask twins, "omg can you read each other's minds?", I hope people don't start asking twins, "omg can you merge into one super form?"

Ethan and Aiden join to form this guy. You know how people always ask twins, “omg can you read each other’s minds?” I hope people don’t start asking twins, “omg can you merge into one super form?”

Ethan and Aiden were physically identical, right down to their sculpted bodies and perfectly coiffed hair, but there was a bit of the yin-yang going on. Aiden was straight and Ethan was gay; Aiden was more aggressive and hot-headed, whereas Ethan was shown as capable of more sensitivity (though both twins actively engaged in Alpha-level werewolf violence). All possible character traits shouldn’t be polarized and separated, giving half to one twin and half to the other. And if this yin-yang business wasn’t bad enough, Ethan and Aiden had the special ability to merge into one super-Alpha werewolf. That’s right, they literally were each only half of the super-Alpha. Goodbye, autonomy! So long, individuality! This is “a twin is only half a person” tropiness in the worst way.

Then again, it can be challenging to add depth to any character when they're objectified as much as this.

Then again, it can be challenging to add depth to any character when they’re objectified as much as this.

I think there were some good parts to the twins’ stories, however. Although Teen Wolf didn’t really have time to make either twin very interesting—Season 3 exploded with new characters and convoluted storylines that left little time for character development for anyone except the very main characters—they at least tried a little. I think there was at least one episode each where one of the twins was featured without the other (Aiden tagged along sans Ethan for Lydia’s banshee detective work once, and Ethan was solo in the bus ride and motel episodes. Let us never forget Dethan’s sexy motel scene). Ethan’s romance and relationship with Danny was very sweet, and was focused on a pretty decent amount. It contrasted nicely and organically with Aiden’s fuck buddy situation with Lydia. Rather than simply mirroring the same situation, just one gay and one straight, each twin had a relationship more fitting to his own personality and outlook.

The original Wonder Twins! While they didn't have identical abilities, they had similar powers of transmutation, which could only be activated by physical contact. Form of a codependency trope!

The original Wonder Twins! While they didn’t have identical abilities, they had similar powers of transmutation, which could only be activated by physical contact. Form of a codependency trope!

Let’s take a detour to the question of fraternal twins. When fraternal twins are featured, it tends to be male-female pairings. In reality, this could be seen as sort of an extension of the yin-yang scenario I mentioned. It plays into a sort of cis/heteronormative view of male + female equaling some kind of “complete” microcosm in ways that a fraternal pair of same-sex twins wouldn’t, because a same-sex pairing would be lacking in symbolic wholeness and only representing an “incomplete” microcosm. This idea of “complimentary completeness” (I love making up terminology) often means that the pair of twins is unable to be separated and function independently. The clearest example of this that I can think of is Maya and Alejandro from Season 2 of Heroes. Also dubbed the Wonder Twins, by some online commenters, the twins’ powers are intimately connected. Maya has the ability to generate and project some sort of unspecified illness or poison upon others, a power she does not at first have control over and often unintentionally triggers in times of heightened emotion. Alejandro’s power is the ability to stop and reverse Maya’s power… what? Not even the ability to influence/manipulate any person’s power, Alejandro’s ability seems limited to only affecting his sister’s power.

I'm crying because I'm sad at the portrayal of twins in pop culture media.

I’m crying because I’m sad at the portrayal of twins in pop culture media.

What the hell kind of power is that? This sort of connected power might make more sense for identical twins, if the usual “powers are tied to genetics” is a factor, since identical twins started as one zygote and all that. When fraternal twins (or identical twins, really) have such connected abilities, all it leads to is codependent situations. Why couldn’t the writers have given them completely unrelated powers such as telekinesis and super strength? The writers completely eliminated any hope for Alejandro having independent superhero adventures of his own by giving him such a limited and specific power. If he had a generic ability to manipulate or simply dampen anyone else’s ability (think Marvel’s Leech, for example), he could’ve still served the same plot purpose (i.e. stop Maya from killing everyone every time she panicked) with more opportunity for independent agency. The final nail in the coffin so to speak was that Maya eventually learns how to stop and reverse her power herself; with that cleared up, did Alejandro and his power have any point? Apparently not, cuz the character was killed off right around then. Once one twin started to achieve self-actualization of a sort, the other was deemed unimportant enough to die.

This scene was SO fucking sad. Mad props to the Carver twins for their acting chops.

This scene was SO fucking sad. Mad props to the Carver twins for their acting chops.

Curiously enough, Ethan and Aiden’s storyline also ended with the death of one of the twins. The actors were on the way out anyway, but Aiden’s death during battle functioned as a sort of redemption, something that would’ve made sense in his narrative regardless. It’s unclear where Ethan is going, but I would’ve loved him to stay; not just for more sexy Dethan scenes, but because it would have been compelling to watch a character deal with the loss of his twin. How would this impact his identity? The writers would certainly be able to give him more autonomy now, but would the character feel guilty about a sense of autonomy since it came at the price of his brother’s life? We will never know, since Max and Charlie Carver are leaving Teen Wolf to reprise their identical twin charm on HBO’s The Leftovers. We’ll have to wait and see which tropes follow them over. (That’s why I’ll be watching The Leftovers, to keep critically examining twin tropes, not for hopefully plentiful Carver twin shirtless scenes…)

So where does this leave us? Well, hoping for better portrayals of twins. Writers must move beyond using twins just for their side-show curiosity or symbolism of duality. Surely there is a middle ground between total copies who are identical in personality and body versus yin-yang opposites who just share a face. There must be a way to write more independence and autonomy for twins besides killing off one of the pair. Sharing a genetic code and/or being womb-mates shouldn’t have to completely define a character, and certainly should never make them seem to be merely an incomplete half of a whole when alone. Aurora and Northstar of Marvel comics give us faith that it can be done: these two are a pair of male/female fraternal twins who have powers that can be used in tandem or individually, and they have gotten lots of independent storylines and autonomy without the death of one of the twins. What other pop culture twins can you think of, and can you even think of any same-sex fraternal twins in media? Let me know what you think of their portrayals and storylines in the comments below!

17 thoughts on “Double the Fun, Half the Character? A Critical Look at Twins in Pop Culture

  1. Well, lets wait and see how Avengers: Age of Ultron plays out the Maximoff fraternal twins. Because X-men: days of erik and charles, just deleted The Scarlet Witch and only showed Quicksilver.

    • omg I cannot believe I forgot about the Maximoff twins!! although I suppose the fact that they escaped my twin radar is precisely because they do not at all suffer the tropes I examined; their powers are not interlocked or entwined in anyway, their powers aren’t even related to each other/in the same category or anything! and the two have in fact primarily independent adventures and storylines. aside from their old days in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, they have been doing their own thing (as far as I am aware). thank you so much for bringing up this excellent example!!

  2. I actually forgot Alejandro and Maya were twins at all – I loved their relationship, honestly, as I really was a major Heroes fangirl and all of the family themes on the show went straight to my heart lol… but you’re right about all of the problematic portrayals of twins they brought.

    I think the original UK version of Skins (generation 2, aka seasons 3 & 4) did one of the best jobs giving identical twins autonomy and not making either one “half of a person” without needing to kill off either one of them – SPOILER WARNING for Skins UK through Skins Fire (s7) – Katie and Emily have a lot of similarities to Aiden and Ethan, as Katie is wilder and has tons of boyfriends and dresses sluttier and does end up getting hit over the head with a rock at one point (so injured, not dead like Aiden) while Emily, like Ethan, is gay, quieter, more sensitive. The thing is, Emily and Katie aren’t just recurring guest stars. There’s no supernatural morphing into one another or literal feeling of each other’s pain. Emily and Katie get their own independent storylines, friendships, etc. Katie doesn’t get an “endgame” romance at all while Emily gets one of the most epic romance storylines out of all 7 seasons of the show, and when her girlfriend comes back in season 7 to die of cancer, Katie is not relevant, only Emily is brought back to the show to say goodbye and cry.

    Interestingly, Jeff Davis, the creator of Teen Wolf, answered a question about the twins at Comic Con by admitting that he himself is a twin. So the fact that he made one gay and the other straight might be reflecting his own actual life experiences, and it seems odd that he made Ethan and Aiden so much token “twins” of the “ooh look, twins!” variety… and kind of made them each only half a character and everything else. You’d think when you’re a twin yourself you’d work hard to avoid all of the negative things portraying twins in media can man, but maybe that’s what he was trying to do. Maybe he wanted to make them polar opposites in an over-the-top way because he has grown up hated being assumed to be identical to his own twin. I don’t know.

    You’re right about Fraternal twins on TV shows ALWAYS being male/female. The Originals has Cami and her dead twin brother Sean, The Fosters has Mariana & Jesus. I can’t think of too many at all, in general, though.

    The only example I can actually think of with same-sex fraternal twins is Sam & David on 7th Heaven!! And I think they probably meant for these babies to be assumed to be identical twins, but because for single babies twins are often cast to play the prop babies, with twin baby characters they found a family with quadruplets to provide the prop babies (3 boys and 1 girl all interchangeably looked like Sam and David for a while).

    Then once the babies got old enough that they looked distinctly different from one another, they decided to pick two (Nikolas & Lorenzo Brino) to play the two, clearly fraternal, twin boys. They were practically non-characters on the show, very little kids that were largely used as props even as they reached age 7 or 8 on the show! Although they began to have small storylines sometimes, always together, always doing the exact same thing. I can think of just one example of one twin being sick and the other twin wanting to pretend to be sick because he was jealous of the special treatment – getting to eat pudding, etc – this was one of the only times the two twins had to actually be separate people for a moment, and even then their storyline was directly related to one another. These twins were definitely fitting the “Half a person” trope, unfortunately.

    • Hi! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. and thanks for finding possibly the only same-sex fraternal twins to ever exist in pop culture media! (even if they did end up suffering from the “half a person” trope :\ ) I legit was starting to think there simply weren’t any

      I’ve never watched Skins (US or UK), but the example you provided sounds wonderful! How great to see twin characters written as not defined by their twinhood, having independent adventures and storylines, and best of all, achieving autonomy and independence without one of them having to die! I hadn’t thought about it much until writing the end of this article, but it is truly disturbing how often twin stories have one of the twins die. Maya and Alejandro, Ethan and Aiden, you mention Cami and Sean, even Fred and George Weasley in HP — what is up with that??? super creepy

      huh, I had no idea Jeff Davis is a twin! that makes his somewhat shallow portrayal of Aiden and Ethan all the more disappointing. (though Teen Wolf is practically dripping with tropes…) however, given that Jeff Davis is gay, I have also been expected more, or at least better, LGBTQ+ representation on the show, and have still been left wanting (though to be fair, Ethan and Danny’s relationship was given a pretty decent amount of screentime). maybe I’m just still bitter over the queerbaiting fiasco with Stiles lol

      thanks again for commenting and the great examples!! 🙂

      • Yeah. Emily & Katie also had wonderful scenes with each other, and a great sisterly relationship, despite a majority of their scenes not relating to one another, and I think it was done really really well. They’re close, they love each other, but they also have complicated storylines with lots of other characters.

        Every 2 seasons was a different “generation” of Skins and each season had a set of siblings starring – seasons 1 & 2 (Gen 1) had Tony & his little sister (approximately 2 years younger) Effy, seasons 3 & 4 (Gen 2) had twin sisters Katie & Emily, and finally seasons 5 & 6 (Gen 3) had 1-year apart brothers, Matty & Nick. They also had a gay boy in gen 1, a lesbian girl in gen 2, and a genderqueer Franky (girl?) in gen 3. Season 2 deals with a main character now having a major disability after the events of the season 1 finale and seasons 3 & 4 has a starring character with Asperger syndrome where he is treated respectably. They had one main character die in all 3 generations, and also a pregnancy related storyline in all 3 gens – in season 1 abortion is the solution, in season 2 Katie (one of the twins) finds out she can’t ever have children when her she goes through premature menopause as a teenager, and in season 3 a girl goes through with a pregnancy and birth. Etc. 😉 I love the show for a lot of reasons and think they did representation of all sorts of things well, including representation of twins. Emily was one of my favorite characters from the start of Gen 3. 😉 Katie grew on me over time.

        It’s weird that Jeff Davis isn’t more vocal about the fact that he’s a twin, since he did incorporate twins into the show. He probably is gay and his (maybe identical) twin is straight, so that’s why he included them? To prove it can happen to twins? Just randomly speculating here. And then he forgot to flesh out his own characters. Lol. Who knows? He seemed heavily influenced by heteronormative culture when it comes to his writing so maybe he’s also heavily influenced by twin tropes. 😉

  3. This is really interesting! I hadn’t thought much about the portrayal of twins in fiction, but now my wheels are turning. Thanks for this!

    • Hi thanks for reading and commenting! aww yay I’m so glad you liked it/it got you thinking 🙂 it really is a pretty curious concept that isn’t examined too much. check out some of the other commenters for some other examples of twins in pop culture!

  4. As soon as I saw the topic of this post, my mind wandered to Star Wars — and throughout the article I was thinking “well, Luke and Leia are never treated as a package unit, and seem to be unique characters”

    …it of course, then, occurred to me that this is likely true because we don’t realize they’re even siblings for two whole movies. May lend something to your point — that it’s the idea of that constant “togetherness” that keeps twins from being their own characters to writers.

    • Hi thanks for reading and commenting! I agree — I think it is a combination of independent storylines and lack of knowledge of being siblings that kept them from suffering tropes like theses. They had no joint destiny to fulfill, but rather each had their own adventures and plots. To be honest, I had forgotten they were twins; I remembered they were brother and sister, but the fact that they are twins I suppose doesn’t even affect the story — they could have been siblings of different ages, and it would’ve been the same storywise. Glad to see they are not entirely defined by being twins.

    • I would absolutely love the input of some twins on these issues of portrayal, and continue to hope that twins will find, read, and comment on this post. Until then, I don’t think I have to be part of a group to call out when they are being fetishized and/or subhumanized in pop culture media. If you know any twins, please pass this article along, so I can hear thoughts directly from the group that is affected by these tropes. Thank you

  5. Hallo, just thought of two same-sex fraternal twins that you didn’t mention, (but who happen to be scarily co-dependent): Connor and Murphy McManus of The Boondock Saints…

  6. The novel ‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell features identical twins as main characters–it’s not in any supernatural context like the examples you used here, but it does explore the idea of twins being inseperable in the minds of other people from the perspective of one of them, who’s experiencing terrible anxiety over her sister wanting to branch off and do hugely different stuff, leaving her in the lurch when they’ve relied on each other for emotional support their whole lives. It’s a pretty cute book, and deals with a lot of issues well (like young carers and mental illness, anxiety, university life, a non-sterotyped character who writes fanfiction…) too, so I’d recommend a look!

  7. The manga Sket Dance has fraternal twins who don’t know each other, but clash every time they meet because they are so different – later realising that they are actually pretty similar and fighting over the same role in a sense. But they both have a lot of nuance and their twin-habits all stem from quite simple, minor body language, like left-right handedness. And they neither stay enemies or become inseparable as the manga goes on, because they are quite estranged with a rivalry, but also willing to make an effort. In terms of characterisation and realism, they really shone for me.

  8. I really like how Carter & Taylor are handled on Finding Carter. Fraternal twin sisters who were separated at age 3 because Carter was kidnapped. 😉

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