By Kristen Lopez
The state of girlhood changed wildly in the early-aughts. Catherine Hardwicke's gritty 2003 drama Thirteen depicted young girls not as sugar and spice but as they really are: messy and complicated. The next year, Tina Fey's Mean Girls continued the trend, albeit toning down the horror and upping the comedy, but still reminding us the kids were not alright, especially if they were bombarded with the sexualization and societal expectations that come with being a woman in America.
And sandwiched in between those two extremes were the Olsen twins and their final on-screen pairing, New York Minute. Millionaires by the time they could drive, the Olsen twins were synonymous with cute, wholesome family entertainment. But by 2004, the girls were seeking something different. Having just turned 18, their latest movie needed to be a gamechanger, the transition from their lives as tweens into adulthood. Released on May 7, 2004, just one week before Mean Girls, New York Minute was the first of a three-picture deal with Warner Bros. But what was originally planned as a film meant to launch the Olsens into adulthood instead became their swan song and the end of a brand that had profited off innocence and feminine purity.
As screenwriter Emily Fox tells MTV News, New York Minute’s goal was “to be a closing of the door” on their chapter as children, “undeniable” proof that the girls who had starred as the cute moppets of kiddie fare like It Takes Two and Full House were adults. Fox initially wrote New York Minute based on the twins’ interest in the city — they would attend NYU after high school — and drew inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and the 1970 comedy The Out-of-Towners to tell a story about two very different sisters forced to spend a day together in the Big Apple and fix their fading relationship. Fox, as well as script doctor Roger Kumble, agree the girls were “keen” to do something different, with their main inspiration being the 2002 coming-of-age story, Igby Goes Down.
The finished product held little in common with Igby Goes Down or Fox’s original inspirations. Sisters Roxy and Jane (played by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, respectively) are starkly-defined opposites; Roxy the gregarious drummer of a band and Jane the makeshift mother figure with dreams of going to Oxford. Fox’s madcap New York-set story was retained, but the hijinks run wild, complete with 2004 plot devices involving pirated music (with Andy Richter talking in an Asian dialect Fox declares she didn’t write) and a Simple Plan music video.
Compared to Mean Girl’s barbarous humor and charismatic leads, New York Minute failed to bring in audiences, earning a total domestic gross of just $14 million. The Olsens had staked their careers up to that point on being innocent and cute, with a highly-controlled private life that didn’t necessarily let people in. Unlike Mean Girls’ leading lady, Lindsay Lohan, the Olsens weren’t perceived as approachable and fun, but safe. Fox says Mean Girls was more in line with what she wanted to write for the Olsens because Fey’s feature was more in line with how young women saw themselves. But the studio wasn’t interested in letting the girls shatter their maintained identities. In fact, Fox says one of the notes attached to her rewrites was that she’d “written a Woody Allen movie starring the Olsen twins.” The studio didn’t want the Olsens, associated with sweetness and light, to be edgy or grown up.
For their part, the Olsens’ ambitions for the film also seemed to diverge from Warner Bros. Though Fox explains there was an inherent attractiveness to young girls about having a “built-in best friend” — long the foundation of the twins’ appeal — it was obvious Mary-Kate and Ashley wanted their own lives, to be perceived as two individuals and not a unit. Thus, a key component of New York Minute’s plot lies with Roxy and Jane detesting each other. The two “haven’t spent the day together” in months, as Roxy says in the movie. During the film’s climax, Mary-Kate’s Roxy almost speaks to what the Olsens hoped this movie would accomplish, that they should be celebrated for being different, not punished. But the need to bind them to being adult-ish kept them as one brand, not two young women.
Watching New York Minute today shows the power of the “Olsen machine,” as Fox calls it. Like the Spice Girls, audiences could clearly identify with a specific character; you were either a Roxy (hence a Mary-Kate) or a Jane (an Ashley). Their adventure through New York City emphasized their own personal goals; Jane’s dream of winning the McGill Fellowship and thus a semester abroad in England, or Roxy’s rockstar dreams. Boys were a nice bonus — one of whom is played by Gilmore Girls’ perfect boyfriend, Jared Padalecki — but never came at the expense of their individual goals. Roxy and Jane, like the twins themselves, knew what they wanted and went for it.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen at the Tribeca Film Festival's 'New York Minute' premiere.
This driven and determined attitude is what made the Olsens themselves such heroes for a generation of girls. Now, the Olsens’ corporatization of themselves is no longer a novelty. Actresses are far more open about starting their own production companies, going behind the camera to direct, and having the autonomy to create their own projects.
Watching them navigate the industry at such a young age and creating an empire that allowed them to be their own bosses was empowering in a world where teen girls didn’t have a lot of role models their own age. The Olsens never presented themselves as wealthy moguls, but rather princesses who lived charmed lives yet remained down-to-earth. For better or worse, they sold the idea of authority and determination as being appealing. If you wanted to be like them, you didn’t just have to wear cool clothes, you had to have a clear-cut vision and means of achieving it.
New York Minute was a valentine to the legion of fans who’d grown up with the Olsen twins, according to Fox. While not necessarily the movie the girls wanted to make, their final pairing emphasized their need for individual autonomy yet celebrated them for the brand they’d created. It was a fairytale, but for young girls already torn in so many directions by the sheer nature of growing up, there was a comfort to be found in the Olsens’ patented brand of good clean fun — and one that, for a minute, let them shine.