The mystery of the Olsen twins—solved!

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 29 2004 3:55 PM

All Those Teen Actresses

Where did they come from? Why are there so many of them? And how can you tell them apart?

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Spring is in the air, and a young man's thoughts turn to love, or at least to the Olsen twins, and all the other taut-tummied, shiny-maned, doe-eyed teen girls gracing multiplexes across the nation.

The teen actresses seem interchangeable to the untrained eye, but keep looking. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen premiere their film New York Minute at the Tribeca Film Festival next week, then celebrate their 18th birthday on June 13—an anniversary anticipated eagerly by a disturbing number of men. Jill-of-all-trades (singer, designer, actress) and mistress of none Hilary Duff stars in the Cinderella update A Cinderella Story this July. Mandy Moore, the actress-"musician," parodies Christian youth subculture in the upcoming Saved! Amanda Bynes somehow isn't releasing a summer movie, but you can catch her Friday nights on the WB's What I Like About You. The class star of the cutie-pie harem is Lindsay Lohan, best known for her work in last summer's sleeper hit Freaky Friday. Her new movie Mean Girls opened Friday.

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What's most remarkable about all of these girls is that they're really girls. Moore, the grandmother of the group, clocks in at 20; Bynes is newly 18; Lohan and the Olsen twins are 17; and Duff is a mere 16. Twenty years ago, they would have been relegated to after-school specials or minor, forgettable roles as the cute girlfriend. Today girls can become leading ladies and millionaires before they finish high school.

Why the sudden proliferation of girls? As untalented as they may be as actresses, the Olsen twins largely paved the way with their (or their advisers') business acumen. The twins first shared the role of baby Michelle in the sitcom Full House as 1-year-olds and have been on camera practically every minute since. In the mid-'90s, the prepubescent twins shamelessly dominated the least glamorous niche in the entertainment industry—the straight-to-video market. The success of their early videos alerted studios and TV networks to the consuming might of the tweens, the aspiring teenagers ages 8 to 12. Market research firm Packaged Facts estimates that the buying power of the 29 million kids ages 8 to 14 will be $43.5 billion by 2007. Tween girls have gone crazy for their girl icons. They have richly rewarded the Olsens, whose offerings now span from dolls and video games to magazines and books to a mary-kateandashley clothingbrand. The clothing line alone brought in at least $400 million at Wal-Mart last year. According to media reports, the twins together are worth approximately $300 million.

The Olsens' rise coincided with the success of a handful of girl-oriented movies, notably 1995's Clueless, and of TV shows like the popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When The Princess Diaries, based on the best-selling books by Meg Cabot, unexpectedly grossed more than $100 million at the box office in 2001, Hollywood recognized the formula: Take an established book, cable TV show, or actress popular with the tweens and teens, and repurpose for the movies. Amanda Bynes, known for the Nickelodeon program The Amanda Show, starred in What a Girl Wants; Hilary Duff's TV hit Lizzie McGuire became her hit The Lizzie McGuire Movie; Raven, star of her own cable show That's So Raven, crosses over to the big screen this summer in All-American Girl, based on another book by Cabot.

The girl movies are low-risk, high-yield box-office plays. They can be made cheaply, because they have simple plots, few special effects, and inexpensive talent. To studio executives, these girls are a cheap date with a big payoff.

Just as Scream dictated that every studio needed its own youth-oriented thriller, today's Hollywood requires every studio to make its own girl movie. It's easy enough to do it. Here, let's make one ourselves. The main themes of our movie: girl-power and self-esteem. Our plot: An idiosyncratic, but pretty female protagonist outfoxes her more popular, blond archrival—think The Karate Kid meets Little Women!Let's hire hunky boy-toy Chad Michael Murray for eye candy and a little—but not too much—romance. Hey, and how about a pop ballad sung by our lead actress during a particularly emotional or triumphant moment (on-screen dancing, optional)? Studio bosses, please call my agent.

Today's teen actresses are lucky to have been born when they were. Though actresses like Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland starred in movies as teenagers, the teen movies of the late '70s and '80s saw girls taking a backseat to the male leads. Only one teen actress, Molly Ringwald, could carry a movie. Leading roles belonged to young men in their 20s (and sometimes 30s) masquerading as high-school students, like Ralph Macchio (22 when The Karate Kid came out), Matthew Broderick (24 when Ferris Bueller's Day Off came out), Michael J. Fox (24 when Back to the Future came out), and Tom Cruise (21 when Risky Business came out).

The girls are thriving in part because Hollywood has realized they don't need boys to come to their movies. As Ella Enchanted producer Jane Startz remarked to the Los Angeles Times, "The time I was growing up in this industry, the conventional wisdom was girls will watch something that has a boy [as the lead character], but the boys won't watch something that has a girl. That may or may not be true. ... But I think what people are realizing is it really doesn't matter that much if the boys are going to come or not because there is such a faithful following for some of these girl projects."

As a result, the market accommodates all kinds of girl stars, and our young nymphs have divided up the market with surprising precision. Amanda Bynes is the funny one: Lucille Ball is her inspiration, and she enjoys physical comedy—tripping, falling, and all-around clumsiness. Hilary Duff champions the wholesome girl-next-door image while still offering the underage sexuality that Britney Spears so memorably employed at the beginning of her career. (Sometimes it's tough to differentiate Duff from Spears, with their orangey tan, fake blond hair, too-trendy fringe, and football-player eyeliner.) By touting her chaste ways and baring her cleavage, Duff has made herself a much more illicit object of young men's desire. Mandy Moore is best suited to after-school special-style movies—melodramatic renditions of teen life involving first loves, sex, pregnancy, divorce, death, God, and general teen angst, all wrapped up in 103 minutes. Mary-Kate and Ashley offer a particularly uncultivated teen entertainment. Their movies guarantee the attendance of every girl age 8 to 14 in America, as well as a select crew of older men cultivating their inner Humberts. No matter how popular the twins are, though, their influence is limited to those two groups—even adults who've rented What a Girl Wants and The Lizzie McGuire Movie don't opt for Olsens.