Multiple Personality Disorder: Shannen Doherty’s Image Through the Years


MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER by Shari Weiss

SHANNEN DOHERTY’S IMAGE THROUGH THE YEARS

( from December 2008 )

In 1990, Shannen Doherty, a brown-haired, fresh-faced 19-year-old actress, went from Little House on the Prairie to a big house on the hills. Beverly Hills, to be exact. What followed was a rebellion of epic proportions, beginning shortly after Doherty joined the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 as Brenda Walsh. The girl who played Little Jenny Wilder now starred as a teen in high school, as innocent as ever and unprepared for the fast life of the rich and famous. In reality, she was as innocent as ever and unprepared for the fast life of the rich and famous. Though she was introduced in early 90210 press coverage as the all-American girl next door, by 1994 Shannen—and Brenda—had become the resident “bad girl.” Every step in her fall from grace—in the eyes of her employers, audiences and fans—was captured by the print media. The discourse surrounding Doherty focused on the change in her image, as well as how her on-screen persona Brenda had a similar trajectory. Audiences began seeing Shannen and Brenda as one and the same. This inability to distinguish between where a character ends and the real person begins plagued Doherty’s career for years.

Though no single event marks the exact turning point, Shannon‘s star image from that time can be broken into two distinct categories: Shannen as “Brenda” and Brenda as “Shannen.” Shannen as “Brenda” consisted of a time where Shannen’s off-screen life was much like her character’s on screen. They were both mature, respectable and sensible young adults. A purity existed in both Shannen and Brenda. But as Doherty’s lifestyle began to change—out were quiet nights at home and in were partying and fist-fights—changes were made to the character of Brenda, as well. Once the show’s heroine, Brenda was now considered the bitch or the rebel, much like her real-life counterpart. These mirror images were captured in the media coverage of the early 90s.

2008 marked a third transition in Doherty’s image. As she signed-on to join the spin-off of the show that made her so (in)famous, she showed a different side of herself to the press. Gone were the accusations and flippant comments, replaced with honest introspection and reflection. Shannen, for once, was being “Shannen.” But who Shannen was turned out not to be so different after all.

SHANNEN AS “BRENDA”

When Shannen Doherty was cast as one-half of a set of twins making the cross-country move to Beverly Hills, she wasn’t new to television audiences. A childhood role on Little House on the Prairie, followed by two seasons on another family-oriented series, Our House, set Doherty up as the ideal actress to play a teenager struggling with the aches and pangs of growing up, all while remaining the apple of her parent’s eye. Despite a role in the 1989 black comedy Heathers, where Doherty played a member of a high school clique of spoiled mean girls, Doherty was regarded as squeaky-clean, just like Brenda Walsh. There was no bad press surrounding Doherty at this time (fall of 1990), and on-screen, Brenda was hardly a problem child. The extent of her early “mistakes” included a dye-job gone awry (“Higher Education”) and failing her drivers’ test multiple times (“One on One”), and they’re all chalked up to either her naiveté or being beyond her control. Reprimands are half-hearted, primarily because something else soon happens that takes precedence. One episode after she tells her parents she wants to quit school (and even moves out for a short time), she’s undergoing a breast cancer biopsy and there’s no mention of the hijinks from just a few weeks ago (“Stand (Up) and Deliver,” “It’s Only a Test”). Brenda and brother Brandon were set up to be “wholesome foils to [the] faster-track kids” found in Beverly Hills (Brennan).

Doherty herself wasn’t much different at the time. A 1991 interview with The Washington Post largely fails in proving its thesis: “Get one thing clear: Shannen Doherty is not Brenda Walsh.” But isn’t she? In the interview, Doherty praises then-president George Bush and exclaims how much she loves similar-minded Republicans. She tells of stellar grades achieved in private school and a solid home life. It doesn’t get more wholesome than that, does it?

BRENDA AS “SHANNEN”

But in the same interview, there are flashes of what would later be deemed Doherty’s holier-than-thou attitude. She blasts teen magazines for their “stupid interviews” and calls out other actors of her generation for being more caught up in the celebrity of it all than the art. Just two short years later, Doherty was being accused of the very same things. (Hi pot, meet kettle.) A 1992 PEOPLE article takes up Doherty’s new reputation as a “bitch” with the actress herself. While she blames the tabloids for “mak[ing] stuff up,” she also admits to bringing some of it on herself:

I’m not saying I don’t have my moments of bitchiness,” Doherty says, not

defensively at all, “because everybody has them. But it’s never for no reason. I

think that life is short, you should live it and be happy. I’ve always been a ballsy

kid,” she adds. “I know it pisses some people off, but isn’t the end result much

better? (Gilatto, 79-80)

The end result actually wasn’t much better, as all the press surrounding 90210 came to focus on Doherty and her increasingly rebellious ways. Cause a scene outside of a nightclub? Check. Back-out of public appearances at the last minute and have a fist-fight with your significant other? Check, check. Co-stars who defended her at the time, particularly Tori Spelling, have since revealed accounts that only support what the media reported at the time. In her memoir sTORI Telling, Spelling wrote “I knew she was a ‘bad influence’” (43), and that she realized Doherty was “on a downward spiral” (70). Reports that surfaced in the media at the time—that Doherty would repeatedly be late, etc.are all confirmed in Spelling’s book.

But at the time, confirmation wasn’t needed for Doherty to be considered guilty. A 1993 PEOPLE cover calls Doherty “out of control.” The accompanying article details relationships gone wrong, checks gone bad and an attitude gone way beyond acceptable. A story in The Advertiser chronicles Doherty’s journey from “humble beginnings” to becoming “loathed” within and outside of the entertainment industry. Coincidentally, it was around this time Doherty’s Brenda started to become loathed as well. Mirroring a real-life feud between the actresses, in season three, Doherty’s Brenda and Jennie Garth’s Kelly were pitted against each other as they both tried to win the affections of heartthrob Dylan McKay (Luke Perry). When she failed to get the guy and settle in at college back in the Midwest, Brenda spent the following year struggling to find a purpose. She eloped with a man she only knew for a few weeks (“And Did It…My Way”), got arrested for helping a group of radicals free caged animals (“A Pig Is A Boy Is a Dog,” “Cuffs and Links”), and alienated her friends (“Acting Out,” “Truth and Consequences”). Her character, much like the actress herself, was no longer lovable. And to prove it, two former fans drafted the “I Hate Brenda Newsletter.” What followed were mild profits, a Brenda-bashing CD and a flurry of media attention. The newsletter, though it had only one edition (but countless printings), best exemplified dislike for who the character had become and who people held responsible—Doherty herself. On YouTube, a clip from 1993 shows a MTV news segment that has the newsletter as its main story. In it, one of the newsletter’s authors comments, “What it is I think is the line dividing Shannen Doherty and Brenda Walsh has been completely erased and they’ve now melded into each other.” Doherty even agreed with that assessment, telling the Herald Sun

I think one of the main problems is that the character I play in the series, Brenda Walsh, started off very sweet, and gradually she became sappy. She takes everything too seriously and feels like she’s being put down all the time…People don’t separate Shannen and Brenda. They hate the character, so they automatically hate me. (MacMichael)

In his book Stars, Richard Dyer called the tendency on the part of an audience to associate a star with their character a “gullibility” (20). Characters, he wrote, are “taken as revealing the personality of the star (which then was corroborated by the stories in magazines, etc).” This seems to be precisely what Doherty faced: a struggle “between the authenticity of [her] own life…and the authenticated life of the character” (Burns qtd in Dyer, 21, emphasis original). And sometimes, and in Doherty’s case, this distinction “collapses.” But for her fans, what was real or reality didn’t matter. “The audience doesn’t need to believe or disbelieve the hype, just to enjoy it” (Gamson 49).

Doherty left 90210 at the end of season 4, which finished airing in May 1994. To this day, the details surrounding her exit are in dispute. Some accounts say she quit, others say she was fired. Gamson would argue that the path she took to get to this point is in line with the three stages of stardom, as laid out by TV Guide. The performer goes from eager to temperamental to completely exiting the spotlight (52). This is exactly the trajectory Doherty’s stardom took—until, more than 10 years later, Doherty was ready to revisit what exactly happened.

SHANNEN AS “SHANNEN”

When rumors surfaced in 2008 of a Beverly Hills, 90210 remake, critics and fans alike wondered which original cast members—if any—would return for the new incarnation. Surprisingly, online petitions were made in hopes of luring Doherty to the show, and perhaps even more surprisingly is that they were made by the very fans that had abandoned her nearly 14 years prior. Everyone was anxious to see if Doherty would return and insisted it wouldn’t truly be 90210 if Brenda wasn’t on it. (Apparently these people forgot that the original show lasted another 6 years after Doherty left!) As written in Radar,

Brenda was the heart and soul of 90210. Brenda was the one we tuned in for, the one we couldn’t quite figure out, the one who somehow always just demanded attention…Many of the best episodes were carried along on the blustery jet stream of her moods, which tended to start out chirpy and sarcastic before building to a fit of pique and climaxing in a punishing emotional shitstorm, which then inevitably gave way at the last possible moment—and here was the key point—to warm Brenda sunshine and smiles and hugs all around. (Gell)

In July of ’08, Doherty gave the fans what they had been asking for: she signed on to reprise Brenda Walsh in what was now a spin-off simply called 90210. As the show’s September premiere date loomed, the media coverage around Doherty intensified once again. And, of course, no pre-show coverage with Doherty would be complete without rehashing what went down on the original. An Entertainment Weekly cover story with Doherty and Jennie Garth (Doherty’s former frenemy was also returning to the show) revealed Doherty’s apprehension in signing on to the remake.

I was kind of like, Why would I play Brenda Walsh again? There was an “I Hate Brenda” newsletter. Why would I possibly get myself back into that?…I didn’t want people hating me. At some point it hit me that this is what the fans wanted,” she said. “If there’s one way to possibly say thank you, it is to go back and play a character that you never even liked yourself (Shaw 30)

In the interview Doherty admitted she didn’t like the direction Brenda went in during her final seasons and you have to wonder if she’s also talking about her own life. When asked about that tumultuous time, she says

The best thing that ever could have happened to me was I got off 90210 when

I did. It let me find a little bit of peace and discover who I was as a person.

Not the person who the press made me out to be because I’d had a few bad

experiences in my life…I was doing it under the spotlight, so I wasn’t reacting

well to any of it. I really wasn’t. And I know that. (34)

While this response suggests a change and maturity in Doherty, in the very next sentence she passively trashes Spelling for what she wrote in her memoir. She claims a lot of it was “incredibly exaggerated” and that she doesn’t “believe you write personal on-set experiences in a book.” Perhaps the harshest insult: “Maybe it’s a difference of how I was raised.”

A US Weekly cover story, also published right before the spin-off’s premiere, offers Doherty’s “side” of what happened during the original. The story sums Doherty up today as “fiercely guarded about her past, content with her present and wistful about the future” (Reinstein 53). In reflecting on her past, Doherty said she doesn’t think she let fame “go to my head,” yet her actions at the time suggest something different. And when asked to comment on her former co-stars, Doherty snaps. “Didn’t I just say I would never comment on another cast member? Don’t ask me about the cast,” she says. “Just don’t.”

Elsewhere in the interview Doherty claims she chose to leave the show for personal reasons (namely her father’s declining health) but also admitted it was “exhausting” to play Brenda and deal with the press. As she first suggested in 1993,

People perceive you as the character. I guess that means I did my job. But what did I do?! I went out. I was 18 years old! I just did it in the public eye. I certainly wasn’t showing my crotch. Just because I was on 90210 didn’t mean that I didn’t get to have my own real-life experiences. You have to live somewhat normally. (56-57)

In her interview with Radar, Doherty also blames Brenda for her own shortcomings.

Doherty readily admits she entered a somewhat adventurous phase during the first few seasons of the show, for which she places the blame squarely on that nutjob Brenda Walsh. “I actually think she had a bad influence on me…I think when you’ve been very sheltered and protected, and suddenly you’re on a show, you’re 19, and you’ve got the red carpet rolled out for you, and you’re playing a character that’s going through all this teenage angst, there’s a part of you that’s like, What have I missed out on? This crazy bitch is going through all this stuff and I haven’t experienced anything. So you try it. You go to a few clubs and see how it is…And the difference is, now that I’m older, I never have to do any of that crap. I can live vicariously through my character, and when they call ‘Cut,’ I’m me again. And that’s kind of cool.

After being “raked over the coals” in the press, Doherty said she would cry “myself to sleep.” And yet, she went on to say it was “rewarding” to be hated because it meant “you’re evoking emotions in people.”

For all the grief Doherty received, then and now, for how she presented herself and how she was being perceived, the challenges she faced with stardom weren’t atypical, at least according to Dyer and Gamson. What the recent interviews show, when compared with the ones from the early ’90s, is that Shannen is Brenda and Brenda is Shannen. Doherty, in all of the recent interviews, claimed that, even back then, she was simply being herself. Turns out, being herself had a lot in common with her on-screen character. “Why live your life with regrets,” she asked in her US Weekly interview. “Every experience is a learning experience. And you move forward” (57). It isn’t clear, though, what exactly Doherty learned or how far forward she’s moved. She claimed in these interviews that she would only come back to 90210 if Brenda had displayed growth and still wasn’t fighting over boys with Kelly. But right before the spin-off went on its December hiatus, Brenda dropped a bombshell on Kelly: “I slept with Ryan,” Kelly’s love interest. You know what they say: the more things changes, the more they stay the same.

8 responses

28 02 2010
alex

Very cool article. Interesting. A good girl always has to go bad. Also, I hope u don’t mind my commenting on all these entries–im obsessed lol

14 08 2011
Shannen_obsessed

Very good, why is there no mention on her problems during Charmed ?
I mean, it was part of her carreer…

19 03 2012
Nick

Nice piece… I got the scoop

7 06 2012
Kat

Shannon Doherty is a whining hag who’s had every opportunity to be a decent person and has passed. Just seeing her makes my skin crawl. If there was any doubt about whether she had issues or it was her surroundings just tally how many surroundings she’s had issue with.

9 08 2012
Mel

Brenda was my favorite character on BH 90210. Yes, she got into trouble on the show, but was that stuff really that bad? And as for Shannen, a lot of famous actors now do a lot worse and are still loved.

26 11 2012
Jo Ellen Hathaway

I don’t think that all the things that Shannen Doherty does is bad. There are alot of actors that are selfish and concieded and i don’t see doherty as one of them. Everyone has a rebellious stage that they go through in life. Can you really blame her for that and hold i against her in the future when she is an adult? Just because you don’t like the character doesn’t mean you can hate the actor in return. The past is the past no use for crying over spilled milk.

6 10 2015
Megan

Shannon is a total bitch!!!

16 01 2017
rebex eden

This is what I think.And I was an extra on the show.There were a few characters replaced on 90210, not just Shannen.I truly do not believe the actress and the Brenda character are one.Suffice to say alot of people tuned in to see what chara ter Brenda would do next and that got ratings up.Spelling cast her 2 times on 90210, and then again on Charmed.The press talked shit, excuse my french but yeah they did!!! Then, instead of casting matters it’s what press says about actress matters which is not reality

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