Twins in Media: Yubaba and Zeniba

Screenshot from ‘Spirited Away’ (2001). Copyright goes to Studio Ghibli and Toho.

Hi! It’s Annie!

For the last couple weeks of twins in media in October, we actually have Halloween themed twin characters! ‘Spirited Away’ is definitely one of my favorite animated films and I absolutely love Haku and Chihiro. I’m just a sucker for those two characters. But so many of the characters in this movie are so adorable! Unfortunately, this description doesn’t really fit either Yubaba or her sister Zeniba. Yubaba is made to look kind of creepy, and they made Zeniba to look exactly like her. You actually spend most of the movie completely unaware that Yubaba even has a sister. In the end, neither of these characters are necessarily fan favorites from this movie, but nevertheless, they were presented to the audience as twins so they’re fair game.

The Good:

  • Different lives. Yubaba and Zeniba have different personalities and live very different lives. While this movie probably takes that too far (I’ll get back to that later), it’s still very noticeable that they act differently and have different relationships with the other characters in the movie.

The Bad:

  • Long-lost twin. Now you might argue that Yubaba knows that Zeniba exists; but I would argue that this trope still applies when the audience doesn’t know the other character has a twin sibling until most of the way through the movie. Yubaba doesn’t even mention Zeniba for most of the movie, to the point that I thought Zeniba appearing came out of absolutely nowhere. What’s more, Zeniba doesn’t truly have a whole lot of bearing on the over-all plot. She’s more used as a nice presence to help guide the main character, kind of like a good fairy though she’s more like a witch. The long-lost twin trope is only ever used to add drama into a situation. It is never presented as natural and feeds into this idea that twins are weird, unnatural, and dramatic occurrences. This is the more extreme version of separated at birth, and it’s never used for realistic purposes. These large twists of drama in shows or movies have never been my favorite, and they definitely aren’t good for the portrayal of twins in media.
  • Evil twin. I don’t think we’ve covered this one yet, and I’ve been DYING to talk about this trope. I don’t think I’d be able to count how many times my sister and I have been asked which one of us is the evil twin. Both not seriously and…actually seriously. There’s this immense love of supernatural twins in the media, probably because we’re born on the same day but I’m honestly not sure how this got so big. A lot of supernatural views on twins insist that one twin must be a lot of one thing and the other a lot of the other (or at least not a lot of the first thing). Again, this is a more dramatic version of the opposites trope. In this case, one of the twins got all the goodness leaving the other to be completely evil. Obviously, this does not exist. We’re not weird experimental humans. Twins are all regular human beings with equal capacity for good or evil. Me being nice to you and getting along with you doesn’t mean my sister will hate your guts. (In the same vein, just because I like you doesn’t mean my sister will.) As much as everyone really wants to see my sister and I (and all twins) as a Yin and Yang situation; that’s not realistic. We are both complicated human beings. We have similarities and differences and we aren’t two sides of the same coin or two halves of a whole. We are each our own whole person.
  • Sibling dislike. This isn’t necessarily indicative of twins completely, but it’s still something I want to point out. How many shows have the storyline of one sibling being a good guy and having to put a stop to the actions of their other sibling? Sometimes it feels like there are very few wholesome depictions of siblings in the media between the sibling-that-needs-to-be-stopped trope and the constantly-fighting trope. I mentioned this a little bit in my post on Dipper and Mabel, but I really want to see more depictions of siblings that are actually supportive of each other.
  • Exact Same Appearance. This didn’t have to happen. In some live action portrayals of twins they’ll use the exact same person. While I’d prefer these to actually use twins or even just use two actors that aren’t related, it makes sense here that the twins would look the exact same. This is an animation. They could have drawn them to look different and they could have cast two different people to voice the characters. Because, yep, in every version Yubaba and Zeniba have the same voice actress. Even little differences would have been nice, but there is purposefully no difference in their appearances or voices. I guess this is to emphasize their twin-ness? Which makes no sense considering, like I’ve mentioned before, my sister and I aren’t the same at all. We look different, our voices sound different, we like a lot of different things. If you spent time with us in real life it probably wouldn’t take you long to be able to tell us apart. I really wish the media wouldn’t teach audiences to treat twins like a weird hybrid creature. We’re regular siblings that just happened to be born on the same day.

So, is this a good example of twin representation in media?

Definitely not. I will admit that these two have very different personalities that aren’t exactly opposites, which is good. But that doesn’t erase the fact that they are a great example of the evil twin trope. There are many other representations of twins that did the evil twin trope in a way that was so much worse, but this one hits home for me because I love this movie so much. My main comfort with these two comes from the fact that them being twins is kind of pushed into the background. It isn’t focused on, so the massive flaws remain hidden through most of the movie and don’t take away from the enjoyment I get watching this movie. But, it’s still there and I always dislike seeing it. When the best thing I can say about a pair of twin characters is that I’m just glad they were pushed into the background; it isn’t great. It doesn’t feel great. Really, I would like to see twin characters that are a focus but are actually treated like other human beings and regular siblings. For a movie that I have begun using as a comfort film, it’s disappointing to have such a bad depiction of twins in it.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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