This past spring I spent several evenings in my upstairs neighbor’s apartment watching the new miniseries Dead Ringers, Alice Birch’s retelling of David Cronenberg’s 1988 film. The show reconceives the film’s male identical twin protagonists as queer sisters, both played by a magnetic Rachel Weisz. This latter detail appealed to my nonbinary gay neighbor, who is the latest in a series of queer friends I have acquired since I belatedly came out five years ago.
omg have you watched that gay twin show with rachel weisz? a text arrived from upstairs in early May.
who is rachel weisz? I replied.
There was a pause during which I sensed a sigh of impatience dissipating through the rafters. It turns out that 50 percent of being a lesbian is being attracted to women and the other 50 percent is having a crush on Rachel Weisz. Someone needs to write a manual!
I am a gay twin, with a gay twin sister, writing a book about twins, so my neighbor’s recommendation of Dead Ringers made sense. We had only recently been talking, in fact, about the odd connections between twinhood and queerness I had been tracking in the mass of material I had been sifting through for the book.
There is, of course, the evergreen straight male threesome fantasy involving female identical twins (immortalized in the decades-long ad campaign for Doublemint chewing gum, which starred a series of hot identicals and featured the slogan “double your pleasure”). More surprising were two cases I had encountered where even incestuous twins of different genders were coded as queer. In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), Roderick Usher plays emo music, makes haunted house fan art, and stresses about his pallid twin Madeline, who wanders their ancestral manor in a trance. In Thomas Mann’s novella “The Blood of the Walsungs” (1921), Siegmund Aarenhold takes an hour to dress for the opera, wears pink underwear, and clasps his twin Sieglinde’s hand under the dinner table while she studiously ignores her fiancé. Both men—artistically inclined, decadent, idle—have effeminate characteristics, whether it is slim hands, soft hair, a delicate nose, sensuously curved lips, or a tremulous voice. Somewhat paradoxically, they are both classically camp and hot for their sisters. In the climax of Poe’s tale, Roderick falls to the floor in a deathly embrace of Madeline’s revivified corpse shortly before their family estate collapses into the lake, a scene that does not scream “platonic.” In the climax of Mann’s story, Siegmund goes further, actually ravishing his twin on a bearskin rug after they attend an especially riveting Wagner performance.
Roderick and Siegmund seem not only gay but sick, weird, and creepy. In the latter respects they are textbook examples of the pathologization of twinship that has recurred in Western culture over the past two centuries. We see it in the horror trope of one estranged twin murdering the other (as in the 1964 Bette Davis film Dead Ringer) or the other’s partner (as in Brian De Palma’s 1972 film Sisters). We see it in yet another horror trope of overly attached twins wasting away, as if they have morbidly turned in on themselves. (The twin zoologists in Peter Greenaway’s 1985 film A Zed & Two Noughts become obsessed with rotting flesh and co-organize the filming of their own decomposition.) We see it in the ubiquitous “twincest” trope, which spans straight and gay porn, mainstream TV (the long-running HBO show Game of Thrones), and first-rate literary novels (Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize–winning debut The God of Small Things). And we see it in the new version of Dead Ringers.
Unlike the twins of Poe’s and Mann’s fiction, Weisz’s Elliot and Beverly Mantle manage to leave their childhood home and establish successful adult careers. But they give off a similar air of arrested development in their failure to “individuate” and take up marital and parental roles beyond their twinship. They live in the same apartment and work at the same hospital, and when one attempts to develop a romantic relationship with a third party, the result, as my Gen-Z–adjacent neighbor put it, is “super chaotic.” Suffice it to say, the finale involves extreme quantities of identity confusion and blood.
“All of this,” I said to my neighbor as we wrapped up Session One of our binge-watch, “the portrayal of twins as permanently immature; as selfishly and immorally refusing to reproduce normative social structures; as mentally ill, violent, and sexually deviant; as destined for relationship meltdown, usually with at least one of them dying . . . I don’t know, does it remind you of anything?”
Waving my grief-stricken, codependent cocktail cherry by its twin-less tail, I felt that I was on to something. But what, exactly?
Kath Weston’s 1991 queer classic, Families We Choose, points to one compelling explanation for this association of twinhood with queerness, and both with psychological dysfunction. Weston does not make the twin connection herself: what interests her is the way that members of gay couples have tended to be read as mirrors of each other. They are assumed to “participate in a relation of sameness,” Weston argues, with the result that their relationships are seen as “ties that primarily reflect back upon the self.” This mirror metaphor “reinforces stereotypes of gay men and lesbians as narcissistic, self-absorbed, irresponsible,” and implies that, in contrast to straight couples, who unite their differences into a generative whole, gay couples bring “little new into the world.”
The mirror is also a classic metaphor for twinhood. Like queers, identical twins are often seen as partaking in “a relation of sameness” and therefore as courting narcissistic implosion. The connection goes back to the very root of the word narcissism. On an alternative telling of the myth of Narcissus, advocated by the second-century Greek geographer Pausanias, the boy was not merely a twink but a twin. He stares at his reflection not because he is in love with himself but because it reminds him of his adored dead sister. Same same but different?
That this mirror metaphor misrepresents queer relationships should be clear. What might need more emphasis is that it also misrepresents twinship. My identical twin and I looked very alike as kids and shared similar obsessions, talents, and flaws, but our many differences were obvious to all who knew us well. I was the quiet one, the reader, half philosopher and half nun; Julia was the loud one, the artist, leader of women, seducer of men. When spending time with my twin, I have never once felt that I was gazing into my own captivating eyes.
Mirrors do not merely replicate; they also invert. And when it comes to twinhood and gayness, the standard mirror metaphor gets things exactly the wrong way around. Twins and queers participate not in a shared relation of sameness but a shared relation of difference, with respect to the majority singleton and straight worlds. In our heteronormative culture, the pervasive expectation is that highly intimate adult couples will be romantic partners of different genders. People in same-gender romantic relationships violate this injunction. But so do many adult twins: if they are close, they partake in an intimate nonromantic relationship, and they can also share a gender.
We are all depressingly familiar with the impact that this failure to conform has on the lives of queers. We are less likely to think about the more subtle ways it impacts twins. People love to see child twins acting like soulmates. But when the time comes, conventional wisdom dictates that twins shove aside their sweet bond so that the serious business of marriage and parenthood can take center stage. When twins fail to do that—when their twinship seems too close, too central to their adult lives—the affection and admiration that singletons lavish on them twist into alarm and censure. The different-gender twincest trope reads to me as a way of wrangling twins into half-fitting the relational norm they flout (“If you have to be so attached to Sieglinde, Siegmund, you can at least fuck her!”). The twin murder-suicide trope, on the other hand, reads as narrative punishment for the same failure, presumed by this point to be irremediable.
There are clearly a lot of singletons out there who cannot stand the sight of twins just hanging out and having a nice time together. The infraction is even worse when there is no man in sight. Happy female twins, feminist or not, represent an indirect threat to the patriarchy. It is almost as if they are lesbians.
Almost, because when you really think about it, queerness is a red herring here. What close twinships depart from is not fundamentally heteronormativity but what philosopher Elizabeth Brake calls “amatonormativity,” the widespread assumption that centering your life on a single, enduring, sexual-romantic relationship is the best way to lead a healthy, meaningful, and ethical life.
A variety of identity groups flout amatonormativity in their very definition: most obviously, asexuals, aromantics, people in polyamorous relationships, the divorced, and the persistently single. Many queer couples, though, do not. Consider, for instance, the type of queerness that poses the least threat to the existing social order: an affluent cisgender white gay couple in a monogamous marriage with kids.
Whether we like it or not, amatonormativity structures our social, political, economic, and emotional lives. In the United States, it determines tax breaks, housing preferences, hospital visiting privileges, and retirement and health insurance benefits. It informs how most of us raise our children, what we teach them to approve of and aspire to. It is likely built into the plot of your favorite movie or novel, and it may have loomed large in conversations with your friends and family or in dark nights of your soul, when how well your life was going seemed to depend on it. Intimate adult twins violate the view of the good life that amatonormativity prescribes; unsurprisingly, social sanctions follow.
The Dead Ringers series helpfully clarifies that the cultural panic over twinhood is not fundamentally about queerness. Given the gayness throughout the show, though—one Mantle twin will fuck anyone in sight; the other is trying to get pregnant with her girlfriend; Rachel Weisz is present—the point can be easy to miss. A woman I went on a date with this spring told me that she could not get past the first couple of episodes because the show felt pathologizing to her.
“That scene where she’s crawling over the counters stuffing food in her face and looks completely insane?” she said. “I’m so over it. I want to see queer people just looking normal.”
I reported this to my neighbor when we settled down to watch Episode 4. They agreed that Elliot Mantle did not come across as normal in that scene—or in any scene, for that matter—but they resisted my date’s take.
“Something is being pathologized here,” they remarked. “But it’s not queerness.”
True enough. While the catalyst for Elliot’s and Beverly’s final meltdown is Beverly’s budding gay relationship, the gayness is incidental. The root cause of the drama is that Elliot and Beverly, a nonromantic adult couple, are so unusually enmeshed that there can be no room for anyone else in the scene until at least one of them is gone. To press that point, the show enlists Beverly’s girlfriend, Genevieve (Britne Oldford)—a super-normal lesbian—in the role of scandalized singleton, waving the “individuate or die!” banner at her very-not-normal twin girlfriend.
One description of what is going on here is that Beverly is refusing to confine her love for another woman in the narrow space mainstream society has allotted for her merely because a new, more socially accepted form of love has presented itself. Seen in this light, the progressives in the audience would call her resistance beautiful and brave. But since the underprivileged relationship is between twins, not queers, we are inclined to call it sick and cowardly instead. In the world of Dead Ringers, queerness is the sanctioned, and twinship the deviant relation. One gets the impression that twins are too messed up even for the gays.
Twins who are tired of this persistent singleton prejudice can take some advice from their fellow relationship outlaws, the queers. As many have suggested, straight people are only trying so hard to prevent LGBTQ+ liberation because they are aware that their own program is doomed. If queerness did not appeal to many people, there would be no need to mount such a vigorous campaign against it. And there are many things about queer culture that attract people who are and always will be straight. The writer Robin Podolsky suggests that “queers are hated and envied because we are suspected of having gotten away with something; of not anteing up our share of the misery that every other decent adult has surrendered to.” Respecting and desiring your wife, rather than seeing her as a nagging ball and chain? An equal distribution of emotional and parenting labor? Ditching the hair removal? Female clothing with pockets?
Maybe we twins can pull a similar move. The demonization of twinship sometimes smacks of envy. Contrary to our reputation as psychopaths, we twins seem, on average, marginally happier and healthier than the standard human. We are at lower risk of depression and suicide than singletons and have a higher life expectancy, once we get past our vulnerable first year. Is there something about sharing a lifelong entanglement with another human being, about having a permanent social lifeline outside the constraints and oppressions of traditional marriage, about seeing deep platonic connection as a blessing and not a deficiency, that is actually quite attractive?
Not all of us can have a twin, just as not all of us can be queer, but we can all work to broaden our conception of what a healthy and fulfilling social life looks like. We can realign our reigning relational ideals with how many of us—straights and gays, twins and singletons—already live: in varied, flexible networks of supportive bonds that are not in competition. There is no lawn sign specifically for the twin liberation movement—yet—but I can think of one we could steal from the neighbors. “Love is love,” no?
Here for it and queer for it, as my creepy gay twin might say.