By Fatemeh Fakhraie
Welp, we knew it was coming and now it’s here. It only took a little more than two minutes for Shahs of Sunset to pique my interest – and make me nervous.
Producer Ryan Seacrest’s “Persian Version” of Jersey Shore will follow MJ, Reza, Asa, Sammy, Mike, and GG through their fabulous lives as Persian-Americans in Los Angeles (known as “Tehrangeles” in the Persian community). I’m interested because it’s hitting the air at a time when saber-rattling between Iran and the U.S. is ramping up again and because the show features an openly gay cast member (Reza), when homophobia is just as rampant in the Persian community as it is any other.
While Reza’s inclusion doesn’t behoove him to break every gay stereotype in the book, his visibility alone could be encouraging and comforting to LGBTQ Persians. There’s a chance that he could shore up gay stereotypes, but there’s also a chance that we could see some honest intersections of sexuality and culture. However, I realize that this is asking a lot from a Seacrest reality show, especially given that Ryan has a history of using Middle Eastern characters to boost his show’s ratings.
How will a program featuring first- and second-generation Iranian-Americans (or Persians, as they prefer) affect public opinion on Iran? On one hand, Iran is presented as evil, nuclear, and menacing in news reports and pop culture. On the other hand, Shahs features a bunch of vapid, rich Americans with Iranian ancestry—many of whom are refugees from the 1979 revolution. In the opening credits, cast members relate that, “When the revolution happened, we all had to pick up and flee the old country,” and “I’ve been a refugee since I was eight.”
The contrast itself is interesting, but the likely outcome won’t be positive. Just like Sara Yasin wrote about the differences between herself and her cousins last week, this group of Persians couldn’t be more different from people in Iran—the very fact that they volunteer their private lives for television consumption would never fly in “the old country.” Especially since Iranian censors actively works against things the regime considers criminally sinful, like booze, sex, and ostentation.
I worry that the show will set up this cohort of Persian-Americans as “good” Iranians (i.e., Americanized ones without traces of religious or cultural baggage) and “bad” ones (the ones “over there”). If this happens, the show will likely stress the disconnection between the two on a regular basis. And while it may be politically beneficial in the short term to distance themselves from Iran, it’s harmful in the long-term—not just for politics’ sake or for these kids’ individual “branding,” but for the sake of every Iranian-American or Persian-American who still visits Iran, who still has family there, and who identifies his/her ethnic heritage publicly.
Instead of improving Persian-Americans’ image, it seems likely this show will instead subject viewers to more examples of the “Persian Princess” stereotypes W magazine featured in an article on Persian Jews a few years back. It looks like GG has made it her mission to embody the trope, and I’m sure we’ll be taken along on her husband hunting expeditions and temper tantrums. In fact, several of cast members revel in it: “To outsiders, it probably looks like we live a very glamorous life,” she says at one point. “And, in fact, we do.” Reza explains that “We’re all about cash, flash, Cristal …”
I’m also worried that this will turn out to be a terrible mash-up of Jersey Shore meets Keeping Up with the Kardashians, with a more ethnic spin on privileged, rich jerks. While Kim Kardashian has a vague ethnic “otherness” about her, it’s just that—vague and non-threatening. Snooki has harnessed her vague Italian-ness into a successful narrative, but a hollow one with no substance.
In the sneak peek above, the only ethnicity used in the show is superficial: the santoor plays over shots of incense burning that are intended to elicit a “look at those kooky ethnics!” from the audience. I doubt that any Persian culture will seep in – Reza’s point about how “we’re always there for each other” may hit on some of the collectivism and closeness in Persian culture, but will more likely be chalked up to vague “ethnic-ness” and get discarded in a show of who has more designer sunglasses and wears more cologne.
Given that most Americans already have Snooki and the Kardashians to go to for dramatic behavior and wealth without the ethnic baggage, the Persian-American community may be the only one to have interest in a show like this. But by solidifying Persian stereotypes, Shahs of Sunset may likely alienate the only audience that could keep it on television.