Do you have someone you were mean to in high school?
For me it’s this girl named Jenny. We were at a party and kids were being mean (as kids are wont to do) and instead of defending her or trying to deescalate the situation, I took the path of least resistance and piled on. To this day, I still feel awful about it. I apologized to her at our ten year high school reunion and she was more gracious than I deserved. But all these years later I still feel terrible about my behavior.
Professionally, that’s how I feel about Shannen Doherty and her most famous, iconic character Brenda Walsh. I started watching the original Beverly Hills 90210 as a fan and began my nascent career as a TV critic towards to end of the show’s run. When the show aired its series finale, I wrote a retrospective which included a paragraph about how many different tragedies Kelly Taylor had been put through as a character: she joined a cult, was shot at, had an alcoholic mother, survived a fire and (I wrote) … she had to work with Shannen Doherty.
It was a cheap joke. My editor loved it. Everyone thought it was hilarious. But why did I think it was okay to make such a nasty joke about an actress who had been off the show for six years by the time of the series finale?
Let’s back up. By now with TikTok, Instagram and whatever the next thing will be, we are familiar with stars, social media influencers and the like being under the glare of the media spotlight. These days, in many ways, celebrities can choose how much they want to share with the world and how much attention they want to invite. Yes paparazzi are still everywhere but it seems like most celebrities have more control over their own narrative.
IMDb tells me that Doherty was just 19 years old when 90210 premiered. No one could have possibly fathomed what a massive hit the show would become. It’s the kind of hit we will never have again. Today there are so many networks and streaming platforms that no singular TV series will ever capture that amount of pop cultural attention. There were mall stampedes. (I would not have been able to handle a mall stampede. Would you?) There were dolls. Reports of Doherty’s so-called bad behavior were soon everywhere. Can you imagine if how you were at 19 continued to define you?
Somewhere along the way Doherty and Brenda Walsh became intertwined. Years after the show ended, many of her co-stars have written about Doherty’s “bad behavior” in their own memoirs. From being demanding of publicists to showing up late to set to her partying ways to her quick marriages and even quicker divorces, Doherty made headlines. Honestly, I don’t think anything she did then would even catch our attention now. But remember the “I Hate Brenda” newsletter? Before the Internet, over 7,000 copies of the newsletter were mailed out to subscribers. There was an entire album called “Hating Brenda.” People even complained about her bangs and her eyebrows.
Why did we hate Brenda? The show began with Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) as the bitchier character, the entitled blonde used to getting her way. “Socially it’s really intense. You make one false move and you’re history,” she tells Brenda in the show’s pilot. Brenda was the sweet, innocent, “normal” one from Minnesota stunned by all the Beverly Hills wealth. She was a loyal sister who defended her brother and was a kind, respectful daughter.
But as time progressed, Brenda became the character to hate and Brenda and Dylan (Luke Perry) went from the show’s It Couple (remember what a huge deal it was when they slept together?) to a love triangle with Kelly. Eventually, Kelly and Dylan became the show’s central couple. (That would soon morph into a Dylan/Kelly/Brandon love triangle.)
Brenda’s desire to fit in became one of her defining characteristics that first season. Then came the pregnancy scare in Season 2 and the ongoing conflict between Dylan and Brenda’s father Jim Walsh. She lies to her parents and continues to see Dylan in secret (I mean really who wouldn’t?) She spends the summer in Paris (Emily in Paris has nothing on Brenda Walsh). In one of the show’s most iconic moments, Kelly and Dylan confess to Brenda that they got together while she was in Paris. “I thought you guys were my friends. I loved you. I trusted you both,” she screams. “I hate you both! Never talk to me again.”
I mean can you blame her? Her best friend and her boyfriend got together behind her back. I think she gets a major pass, don’t you? But fans didn’t give Brenda one. Brenda became even whinier and increasingly full of bad decisions. (Remember when she wanted to marry Stuart??)
And the gossip pages never let up on Doherty. Critics like me made easy jokes they still feel bad about (or should). How much of our collective dislike of Brenda Walsh was steeped in sexism? Were the male stars of the show subjected to such scrutiny? Or was their bad behavior dismissed as “boys will be boys?”
I’m trying to think of a time when a character and the actor who played her were so intertwined. That the characteristic of one fed and defined the other and vice versa. I’ve come to love Shannen Doherty and by extension Brenda Walsh. As she was in her youth, Doherty continues to be a fierce force to be reckoned with. She has been open about her breast cancer diagnosis in a way that has probably helped so many women. She’s a loyal friend (if you want a few moments of pure joy check out the Instagram posts between Doherty and her BFF Sarah Michelle Gellar). She had a great time gently mocking herself in last summer’s BH90210.
If West Beverly ever had a high school reunion, I would totally crash it so I could apologize.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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