Television is the great pacifier, a true switch on/switch off experience. But what if there’s a character in your favourite fictional escape you absolutely cannot stand? These days, whole communities have sprung up online, massive groups dedicated to the phenomenon of ‘hate-watching’. The internet has allowed us to connect over our shared hatred of fictional characters. Back in the early ’90s, the method of communication wasn’t the digital information super-highway. Instead, we had something cooler. We had ‘zines. Widely circulated self-published little sheets full of crudely typed text and grainy photographs, these ‘zines were nonetheless affectionately put together by hand and thrown at the world.
This was the basis for one of the weirdest pop cultural moments of the ’90s. It helped form an obscure scene around a fictional character from a popular teen TV series. Beverly Hills, 90210, like all teen drama, dealt with all the topical subjects you’d expect of the genre – but it did so with fabulous hair and Colgate advert teeth. The main character was Brenda Walsh, a girl from Minneapolis whose parents found a change in fortune thanks to the economic boom of the previous decade. Obviously, they’d want to move to Beverly Hills. Why care about forest fires when you have a swimming pool in the garden?
Brenda, along with her brother Brandon, is enrolled at the local school, which is full of teens with bank balances bigger than the Baltic Sea. Once there, they need to fit in with their cliquey classmates while learning to navigate their strange new world.
Shannon Doherty had already played a teenager in the ultimate teen movie. Heathers was bitchy brilliance that didn’t just come in the wave of the John Hughes movies, it was the wake, the kind you go to after a funeral. Heathers was the logical, vicious conclusion to the melodrama of the ’80s teen melodrama. It might also be one of the funniest movies ever, the writing so sharp it cuts until blood sprays and spurts. From Westerberg High to Beverly Hills High, Brenda starts off as a meek, slightly uninteresting Bambi with bangs. Heather Duke is also meek, struggling daily to deal with the corrosive effect of bullying, resorting to bulimia in order to assert control. Heather eventually finds her power and abuses it, becoming a bully in the process. Brenda Walsh likewise finds her power, but instead of upsetting the fictional teens of Westerburg High, instead of bothering just Kelly, Donna, and Dylan, she enraged an entire subculture into action. They literally bashed effigies of Shannen. Or was it Brenda? At some point during Beverly Hills, 90210, the character of Brenda and Shannen Doherty’s real-life persona seemed to become one in the minds of fans. When people bashed Brenda for being a bitch, they were really attacking Shannen, who always seemed to be dealing with innuendo about her ‘difficult to deal with’ ways. In hindsight, there’s obvious misogyny at work, a gleeful dismantling of someone for publicity and monetary gain. Unfortunately, Shannen didn’t help herself when she arrived at the Republican National Convention in ’92 to pledge allegiance to the flag.
The infamous I Hate Brenda Newsletter arrived soon afterward.
Darby Romeo was already highly-regarded on the ‘zine scene as the creator of Ben Is Dead, which served as a lifeline of the underground to hip kids, the sort too far from the action. A useful window, they were able to read about the coolest bands, enjoy acute well-honed writing, and just…find their kind on the pages of a magazine. Before the internet, magazines mattered. But Darby was more than a punk, an editor, graphic designer, writer, or performer. She was also a fan of Beverly Hills, 90210. And she absolutely despised Brenda Walsh. She didn’t care much for Shannen Doherty either, who was now planning to launch a new band called Uncle Velvet. They were going to be a cross between Pearl Jam and U2, apparently. My fantasy band – because Shannen’s band was a complete fantasy – would be a cross between Juliana Hatfield and Prodigy. We’d be called Tesco Chainstore Massacre and we’d flop.
Alongside Kerin Morataya, Darby launched the I Hate Brenda newsletter, which featured an interview with Eddie Vedder, whose band I’ve always hated. Shannen, clearly a fan after citing them as a formative influence, was apparently obsessed. God only knows why. The newsletter was an immediate underground sensation, selling over seven thousand issues. But what next?
An album, of course.
Yes, Brenda Walsh became the subject of an entire album.
And I’ve got it. Oh, it’s brilliant. Stupid, ridiculous, over the top in its hatred…but I enjoy it a lot. Rump, a band put together by Darby and Kerin, released Hating Brenda in 1993 and was an immediate flop. These days, it seems like such a weird curiosity, an entire album about Beverly Hills, 90210. It would be like putting out a record about Jen from Dawson’s Creek, a similar figure of hatred back in the ’90s. You only had to mention her to a classmate at school and their immediate response was always, “that fucking bitch!”
Hating Brenda is a mixed bag of style without substance. Electronic pop, hip hop, a faux grunge anthem of the sort that might close out an episode of 90210 (alongside a shot of a pensive Dylan finally ready to make his choice), and even spoken word poetry. What a strange ride. My favourite track is Brenda Can’t Dance To This, a weird concoction of funk and whispered chanting. Who Is Brenda is less a song, more a sketch with breakbeats.
It seems like the weirdest fad looking back, but what strikes me now is how much people cared, how intense it was to love and hate a show so much that it inspired you to go out and print off a newsletter, record an album, write a book as well. And it also shows the power of this silly show that you could do all three and get advances from major labels and publishers. I can’t imagine any publisher offering me money for a bitchy book about Betty from Riverdale. It seems unthinkable. Pop culture has changed, moved away from a place where a scene could be built from hating a fictional character (and an actress who made the character so essential in that scene). Scenes on a TV show helped build actual scenes outside in the real world, fads that drove content, fuelling a small cottage industry for a short time.
The Hating Brenda scene eventually faded giving everyone permission to move on, including the creators of the fad. Shannen left the show too. Remnants of Hating Brenda exist as screenshots, old YouTube clips, and music on iTunes/Spotify. Years later, the whole furor over Shannen Doherty is being reassessed. How would I feel if my nineteen-year-old self defined me? I don’t even want to associate with my thirty-year-old self. It took me a long time to become who I am now, but I didn’t have the mechanism of pop culture fighting against me. Shannen did. Whatever bratty behaviour she exhibited, that had to have been tough. At some point, I want to rewatch 90210 and reassess it from the distance of adulthood. I might enjoy it. I might even like Brenda Walsh. Or not. But somehow, I think I’ll understand her a little better. Time, like television, is also a great pacifier.