Two Minute Warning: Analyzing The Shahs Of Sunset Preview

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.

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Fatemeh is currently finishing her master's degree. She currently runs a website dedicated to critiquing how Muslim women are portrayed in both Eastern and Western media.

  • Anon

    Also not to mention that these people are refugees who benefited from the Shah (King of Iran) NOT the thousands of refugees and people who were displaced after the 1979 revolution because they were actively working to take down the Shah’s regime and then continued to resist the newly instated Islamic Republic — many, many, many, political refugees were working class and still ARE working class living in the diaspora


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  • k.eli

     Oh where to begin? I really think that you’ve misunderstood the point that I, nicthommi, and Charlotte86 were trying to make. We weren’t suggesting that all immigrants (or specifically Iranian immigrants) have such an easy road to the US. My comment was specifically in response to the cast member in the video and his ilk who claim their parents came to this country with nothing when in fact their parents were often part of the educated elite in their home countries before their respective uprisings/revolutions/etc.

    I did not nor would I ever suggest that this is true for ALL immigrants. My issue with that particular phrase, however, is that in my experience, it has almost always been used as a manner of chastising poor black and Native American (and Latino) people in this country. The implied message is “these people have become successful in so short a time; what’s your excuse? It must be because you’re inherently lazy.” But as I (and the other 2 commenters) pointed out, there are different histories at play here which is why such comments irk me – and why I absolutely agree with you that you can’t play the comparison game. But unfortunately SOME people do anyway and it’s these people I have an issue with, not you.

    But I absolutely have to disagree with your assertion that the US has been a harmonious place, as you put it, for people from different cultures prior to 30 years ago (If that was truly the case there would be no need for this website). I don’t have to go to high schools in France to understand what open hostility toward those who are different looks like; as a black/Latina female I’ve experienced it first-hand throughout my life at my own schools here in the US. There were schools that up until the 1990s(!) were still punishing Native American children for speaking in their native language. Yes, America is a great place and it’s certainly better than most but that doesn’t mean it’s without its faults.

    • Anonymous

      Actually, there are schools TODAY that are punishing Native American kids for using their native languages…a girl in Wisconsin was suspended from her basketball team for teaching a classmate some phrases in Menominee…

      Totally agree but just wanted to add in that we aren’t even evolved past that either…

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  • KAT

    k.eli : “Uh, no. You’re family had the freedom to choose to come to this country in the first place. That’s certainly a lot more than my ancestors had.” 

    In response to your post, I do need to clarify that most Iranian-Americans did not have the “freedom to choose to come to this country.” A lot of them, namely Jews, were severely persecuted during the revolution and were “ghettoized” in Iran when the Islamic regime took over and outcasted them, denying them privileges to good educations and jobs. Many who were once engineers for the shah’s companies, etc. (people who I know personally) were relegated to low-income positions with all their education and hard work put behind them for the Ayatollah’s extremist and sometimes uneducated and inexperienced followers. Many were actually killed, stoned, and sent to jail for being Jewish, Homosexual, Bahai/Zoroastrian, or for speaking up against the regime. These also make up the majority of the people moving out of Iran and yes, they were denied access to such an education. Actually, most Iranian-Americans I know had to seek education in England or America, where they did not know the language too well and were subject to a lot of prejudice just because they had not assimilated. Further, many who had studied in Iran had earned degrees that were of no value in the US, and they had to start all over again. So they really did come here with nothing. 

    And Nicthommi: “even for some people who were forced to leave money and/or property behind, they are frequently coming with some pretty strong academic or professional credentials.”

    – Yes, but most of them had all of their land and money reclaimed by the Ayatollah’s regime and had property stolen by them as well. I don’t think your point is any justification. Coming here with no money, no property, and no knowledge of the culture or native tongue is incredibly difficult, and the academic or professional credentials they have were earned as a survival tool for them to be able to prosper in hard times. I don’t see anything wrong with that, nor do I see it as an unfair advantage, as certain people very close to me started with these credentials with absolutely no money and all student loans to pay off, who paid them off successfully and now live comfortable lives. I also know those who came from Iran with absolutely NO credentials, money, or degrees, who, bit-by-bit, built their own companies and became highly successful. Oh, and they were not able to come and go as they pleased. Most of them sought asylum in the US and could never return to Iran or else they would have been imprisoned for leaving and killed. So no, they didn’t have a choice. That is a very small privileged group of Muslims who you are talking about who had ties to the government and who were not persecuted.

    I don’t think it’s right to debase a culture for being successful with justifications in light of other cultures’ disadvantages. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Yeah, this show is terrible and is going to emphasize the extremities and stereotypes of a certain culture, but it doesn’t mean should feed into that. To each his own. You cannot compare a culture that has immigrated to America in concentration thirty years ago to, say, Native Americans or African Americans, who have been here from the founding days of the country. There is a huge difference. Not to say they are not systematically oppressed, but my point is one cannot compare the two. 

    “In many cases, people of means who are highly educated are targeted/purged during certain kinds of revolutions(e.g. Iraq or Iran), or they flee because the scales are being tipped in favor of the have-nots (e.g. Cuba), and the people who would likely come here and remain poor and struggle even in the U.S. with its “streets of gold”  are left behind in the mother country.”

    In the Iranian revolution, the Ayatollah did not “tip the scales in favor of the have-nots” it may seem that the Iranian revolution was this kind of a revolution, but you are mistaken. Like Nazi Germany, it started out with a promise of populism, but ended up just screwing everyone over. And they were not “purged” because they were highly educated or had means, they had to flee because if they did not, they would never be able to escape. Actually, many of them had no money to flee since everything was taken from them, and anything they could scrape up, people would use to flee and to illegally have their children snuck out of the country. The people left behind were either the ones who were not persecuted, or the ones who believed that the revolution would make the country change for the better. Unfortunately, this did not happen – hence the constant protests and revolts by the Iranian youth, who are the majority of the Iranian population today (most are under the age of 30). 

    I truly feel upset about this show and the image of Iranians it will spread nationally and globally, and the fact that Ryan Seacrest – who I know is personally friends with many Iranians in LA – is exploiting a group of people for more money. And yes, these people – who, mind you, are obviously going to be ostentatious people anyway since they signed up to put themselves on display on reality television – are also responsible, but as a person who controls what the public perceives in many ways, Ryan Seacrest holds more responsibility on this, and he should be chastised for targeting such a specific “un-vague” group of people who thus can so easily be mocked and put down. 


    I feel even more upset that I am seeing comments such as these that have undertones of “yeah, they’re successful people, but it’s because they had it easy. They didn’t have it like my ancestors, or like Native Americans or African Americans,” because, no – they did not have it easy at all. Iranian-Americans are statistically the most successful immigrant population in the United States, proportionately and chronologically (achieving success in a span of three decades), and there is no reason to put this down and to compare. Accept it for what it is, be proud that you live in a country that allows people to achieve, and, as cliche as it sounds, celebrate the differences in diversity. There is no other country in the world where so many different cultures and ethnicities have lived in peace and have coexisted as the catalysts for innovation, civil rights, and democracy. 

    • Anonymous

      Yes, there is a choice to leave one’s country in these situations. The alternative may not be pretty, but unless they are forcibly expelled immigrants are making a conscious choice to leave.

      You seem to not realize we are in agreement with you. We are criticizing those who use their immigrant status to condemn certain groups in this country because their family was able to become successful. We are saying that the immigrant experience and, as noted above, the indigenous and African American experiences should not be compared because they each have different backgrounds and different experiences in this country.

      Please check anywhere in the comments where we said immigrating to another country was easy. You will not find it. But yes, having an education, even if all of your degrees are not transferable, gives you an advantage in a new country. You are certainly better off than someone illiterate or with a fifth grade education. It will be easier to pursue an education because you are familiar with the rigors of school or academia. If you were involved in some kind of business in your home country, those skills would be transferable, especially if there is a local ethnic community to depend on. Your knowledge doesn’t fall out of your head because your degrees don’t count.

      On your last paragraph, I suppose if one is only counting the past 30 years, you may see the US as a country where all the ethnicities and cultures live in peace and harmony, but beyond this time frame that just isn’t so.

      • KAT

        You know what else I find interesting? Most people in this thread, seeing the comments and the “likes,” seem to be biased towards only one shared view, and it is funny that you cannot see the other side of a situation only because you do not agree with it. Don’t you think saying things that you are saying (“you are certainly better off with an education…there is a choice to leave one’s country”) is undermining Iranian-Americans? Isn’t it a bit negative on your part? It seems as though this thread is the epitome of reverse liberalism, where it comes to the point of blind liberalism, which is another form of conservativism. I am a political activist for ethnic groups and politically and socially a liberal, but what I see lately in my groups, as I am seeing here, is this kind of adherence to “everyone defend the underdog” without considering both sides of the situation. Things are not so simple, not so black and white. 

    • Anonymous

      You’re right, there is NO comparison.  There is no comparison at all for being enslaved, raped, killed off, and allowed to accumulate NOTHING even though this nation was literally built using the blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors.   For the first 2 centuries of this country’s existence, we were BY LAW, only 3/5 human beings, which is still more than our Native American brethren were considered.  

      So tell me again about how our people are lazy and had opportunities that yours did not? To quote Malcolm X, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, the rock landed on us!!”

  • k.eli

     Oh I can’t stand the “my grandparents came to this country with nothing …” argument because it almost always is used as a tactic to chastise the poor (especially if they’re minorities) in this country. Whenever I hear someone say that I just want to reply: “Uh, no. You’re family had the freedom to choose to come to this country in the first place. That’s certainly a lot more than my ancestors had.” And the thing about that comment is that it completely ignores the systemic oppression that black and Native American peoples have long endured throughout the history of this country. From the promo video above, it’s pretty obvious that their parents weren’t being denied access to a decent education before the revolution.

  • Anon

    “Snooki has harnessed her vague Italian-ness into a successful narrative, but a hollow one with no substance.”

    It should be noted that Snooki is Chilean. She was adopted by a family
    in New Jersey.  So her vague Italian-ness is based more on the American
    culture she grew up in??  Just a thought.

  • Briar

    Yep! Well said.

  • tas

    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”).”
    That is exactly what will happen. I am so sick of the media portraying everything that isn’t white American culture as weird, strange, or something dangerous that needs to be fought against. Either way the people who are already racist and hate “A-rabs” will just continue to hate them more. 

    • Keith

      Persians aren’t Arab, but I get your point.

      • Anonymous

        I could be wrong, but I think he/she knew that which is why they put “Arab” in quotes.  You that to most people, Persians, Turks, Daris, Uzbeks, etc. are all “Arabs”…and all “Arabs” are Muslims and vice versa.  

        A good portion of American do not understand at all who is or is not Arab, and I recently had to explain to someone that the Arab Jewish man that she had met was not in fact “half-Muslim”…