deep dives

A Very Close Reading of the Olsen Twins’ Ashley Benson Birthday Video

Photo: Ashley Benson/Instagram

In 1929, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí collaborated on Un Chien Andalou, a surrealist, free-associative short film in which, among other things, a cow’s eyeball is cut in half. Exactly 90 years later, two famed artists would again join forces to create another densely layered, absurdist short film that stunned the globe and defied all attempts at analysis.

On the morning of December 18, Pretty Little Liars star Ashley Benson posted an Instagram video in which Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen wish her a happy birthday. Without any context, the video is simple enough: Just two girls in coats and sunglasses wishing another girl a happy birthday. This is deceptive. In reality, it is worthy of Zapruder-level examination. Let’s unpack it together, piece by piece.

1. Aesthetics first. Ashley and Mary-Kate, though dressed similarly in all black, seem to be in wildly different moods, perhaps hinting at a gentle disagreement over whether or not to film this video. Ashley is offering complimentary air-kisses while Mary-Kate looks quietly pained. Both have wet hair, which means they’ve showered recently, perhaps at the same time (though theoretically in different showers). Whose idea was it to grant Ashley Benson her birthday wish? What happened between the showers and the filming of this video?

2. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen rarely leave their Row offices, except to smoke surreptitiously while pressed directly against the building. They shun all forms of social media. The last time they appeared in public was to promote the inexplicable relocation of their second fashion line, Elizabeth and James, to Kohl’s department stores. This appearance took place in a private, closed meeting attended only by Kohl’s employees. The idea that they would casually film a video that they knew would end up on Instagram is absolutely mind-blowing. This raises the question: What the fuck is going on?
A. Were the Olsens kidnapped?
B. Whose house is behind them?
C. Who is the woman who appears briefly in the background, holding what appears to be a pile of laundry?
D. Whose dog scampers behind the twins, making a distinct jingle-jangle sound?
E. If it’s cold enough to wear coats and a massive scarf, why is the door wide open?

3. Mary-Kate and Ashley rarely socialize with anyone famous, outside of Jonah Hill and, apparently, Jennifer Lawrence (Ashley only, in both cases). Their exclusive social circle includes other wildly rich people, old French people, and horses. Ashley Benson is none of these things, and in fact, the Olsens confirm at the end of the film that they have never met her (“can’t wait to meet you soon”). Which wildly rich person, old French person, or horse convinced the Olsens to film a video for Ashley Benson?
A. The only explanation here is that Cara Delevingne, Ashley’s girlfriend, somehow found her way into the Olsen twins’ inbox and made this request of them.
i. But how would Cara Delevingne know the Olsen twins? It’s possible they’ve met at fashion-industry events, though the Olsens rarely attend those, either. It’s possible that, because Cara is also a wildly rich person who knows old French people, they’ve crossed paths at some sort of private event at which there were bowls of cigarettes. 

4. Why did the Olsen twins agree to this, and not thousands of other birthday-greeting requests that must reach their doorstep day after day after day? What is it about Ashley Benson, specifically, that led the Olsens to say to each other, “Yes. We will take a front-facing video wherein we not only wish her a happy birthday, but send her lots of love, and also wish that her year is super magical”?
A. Is it because her name is also Ashley?
B. Does Cara Delevingne have some sort of blackmail scheme going here?
C. Is this some extremely exclusive version of Cameo?
D. Are the Olsens turning a new leaf and becoming more engaged with their lesser celebrity peers? Is this the interpersonal iteration of the twins selling their line to Kohl’s?

5. The script is its own dense text.
A. Why do the twins begin in unison, only for Mary-Kate to drop out suddenly upon the word “Ashley”?
i. Did Mary-Kate forget Ashley (Benson’s) name? Is she bound by a Robert Thorne contract to never speak the word “Ashley” unless it relates to her sister?
B. Where did the twins pick up the phrase “super magical”?
i. Jonah Hill?
ii. Clash Royale?
C. When they say “we hope this year is one of the best ones yet,” is it an indication that they have prior knowledge of Ashley Benson’s other years?
i. If so, is this an admission that they’ve been following Ashley Benson’s career and know who she is? Or is this the first time they’re being confronted with the concept of “Ashley Benson,” and they’re merely pretending to have a previous awareness as not to make her feel as if the birthday wish is disingenuous?
D. When they say, “Can’t wait to meet you soon,” does this mean that the twins have a meeting planned with Ashley Benson? Or is this an invitation being extended for the first time? Alternatively, is this something the twins just say to people whom they have no intention of meeting?

One thing is clear: the Olsen twins are reviving their long-dead tradition of surrealist films. If you or your loved ones have any information about how Mary-Kate and Ashley came to make a front-facing Instagram birthday video for Ashley Benson, please contact Vulture immediately.

A Close Reading of the Olsen Twins’ Ashley Benson Video