One picture shows Shannen Doherty completely bald, a bloody cotton ball in her nose as she stares straight at the camera, looking almost confrontational. Another is more playful: the 50-year-old actor is in bed wearing Cookie Monster pajamas and a Cookie Monster eye mask. She confesses to how exhausted she is, how the chemotherapy she has had to undergo for stage-four breast cancer has left her plagued by bloody noses.
“Is it all pretty? NO but it’s truthful and my hope in sharing is that we all become more educated, more familiar with what cancer looks like,” Doherty writes on Instagram.
The images are unsettling to any member of Generation X who remembers her as Brenda Walsh, the feisty, polarising teenager she played for four years on the hit 1990s show Beverly Hills, 90210, which brought her international fame and infamy.
Doherty says she is posting the images as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the United States in the hope that they will jar people into getting mammograms and regular breast exams and help people cut through “the fear and face whatever might be in front of you”.
The unvarnished photographs align with the frank nature of an actor who never seemed interested in being universally liked and are likely to resonate with a public that is reconsidering how women celebrities were treated in the 1990s and early 2000s, says Kearston Wesner, an associate professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut, who teaches celebrity culture.
“The photos aren’t touched up,” Wesner says. “They’re not presented in any way than the reality she’s going through. There is some feeling that when she is communicating with you, she is coming from an authentic place.”
Doherty says she learned she had breast cancer in 2015. Since then she has had a mastectomy, as well as radiation and chemotherapy treatment.
The photos, which have been viewed about 280,000 times, have elicited comments of sympathy, admiration and praise on her Instagram account, which has more than 1.8 million followers.
“Love you Shan,” wrote Ian Ziering, one of her former costars on Beverly Hills, 90210.
“You are a force, Sister!” wrote Kelly Hu, another actor.
Doherty did not often get such adulation when she was younger. In the early 1990s, Doherty, who was 19 when she started acting on 90210, was eviscerated by the press and many in the public who criticised her for smoking in clubs, her tumultuous love life and reports that she was difficult on set.
Her character was an outspoken, headstrong and temperamental teenager who had sex with her boyfriend, fought with her friends and rebelled against her father.
Brenda Walsh was “relatable in an uncomfortable way”, says Kat Spada, a host of The Blaze, a podcast devoted to discussing 90210.
In hindsight, the backlash from fans against the character of Brenda Walsh, and by extension Doherty, may have been a result of seeing themselves in both women, says Lizzie Leader, the other host of the podcast.
“We always ask guests about their 90210 journey, and we ask which character they most relate to or identify with,” Leader says. “Everyone is almost always a Brenda.”
But back when the show was airing, some fans became so consumed with vitriol for the character that they began calling for Doherty to be fired. They formed an “I Hate Brenda” club. MTV News dedicated a three-plus-minute segment to the sentiment, quoting people who mocked her looks and her decision to attend the Republican National Convention in 1992. One clip in the MTV segment showed a group of partygoers hitting a “Brenda piñata”.
Doherty left Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1994, then went on to appear in the 1995 movie Mallrats and several television movies and shows. In 2019 she appeared in a brief reboot of the original 90210, called BH90210.
In an interview with the New York Times in 2008, Doherty said that the bad publicity around her was often based on exaggerations or “completely false” stories. “I really could care less about it any more,” she said in the interview. “I have nothing to apologise for. Whatever I did was my growing-up process that I needed to go through, that anybody my age goes through. And however other people may have reacted to that is their issue.”
If you were a fan of Doherty, the headlines hurt, says Wesner, who is 45, and watched Doherty grow from a child actor in Little House on the Prairie into roles such as Heather Duke in the 1988 movie Heathers, and Brenda Walsh.
“She meant a lot to me,” Wesner says. “I myself was an outspoken girl, and I’ve gotten slammed for it, too. For me, seeing someone who was also outspoken and also a ‘difficult woman’ was satisfying.”
The coverage of Doherty was reflective of a time “when publications would attack, would fat shame, would ugly shame, would anorexia shame”, says Stephen Galloway, dean of the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University in Orange, California, and a former executive editor of the Hollywood Reporter. “There was no line between taste and vulgarity. It was anything goes.” And it severely damaged Doherty’s career, he says.
Her decision to document the effects of cancer is “a great step toward redemption and meaningfulness” that could help people, says Galloway, who says he learned about a week ago that he was in the early stages of cancer.
He says Doherty’s openness has made him feel more comfortable talking about his own diagnosis. “I looked at her and I thought, What courage.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times