At first glance, the impending premiere of Bravo’s Shahs of Sunset would seem to herald that Iranian Americans have finally achieved melting pot bliss in the cauldron of American multiculturalism. After three decades of villainy, cultural essentialism, and protagonistic invisibility in American media, six youngish southern Californian (SoCal) adults—who party, shop, and date(!)—are poised to catapult Iranians into the American mainstream as ethnic bon vivants.
A short while ago, such an about-face would have seemed like an impossibility. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, being Iranian onscreen was limited to grim news stories detailing the religious fanaticism of post-revolutionary Iran, Iranian enmity for all things American, tragically terrible movies, and the exploits of memorable wrestling villain, The Iron Sheik. Real life did not seem to offer much respite from what was being shown on television.
When my parents were graduate students in Michigan during the early 1980s, these tropes were more enduring than even living in the United States. And the unfolding of the Iranian revolution resulted in the overthrow of a vital American autocratic ally in the late Shah, severed diplomatic relations, and an unforgettable hostage crisis—to name but a few of the earlier hits of US-Iran relations. Incessant American news coverage of these events, notably in Ted Koppel’s Nightline, did its part in introducing a terrified American audience to the now-familiar spectacle of hysterical hijab-clad women and angry bearded men loudly denouncing the United States in the streets. This imagery became an enduring leitmotif in media portrayals of political opinion throughout the Middle East. The hostage crisis—and in a broader stroke, the revolution that caused it—created a lasting swell of American hostility towards Iran and Iranians living in the United States.
My parents were idealistic, energetic student-activists who had taken to working in a popular college eatery to be able to continue their educations and pay their bills. Their visa status was in question, and they were experiencing financial hardship after their government-funded scholarships were abruptly cut amid Iran’s revolutionary upheaval. As an avid reader, my dad would bring Persian-language newspapers and pamphlets to work with him to catch up on the news during his shift breaks. One day, he returned to the break area to find that his reading material had been thrown in the trash. Asking around, he soon learned that the restaurant owner had thrown them away. When my dad confronted him, the owner was enraged and exclaimed that he paid my father to work, not to read “that shit.” Never mind that my dad was reading on his break time; the owner followed up with a timeless “patriotic” truism, telling my father if he did not like his job, he was free to leave it. Our family’s precarious situation did not allow for such luxuries, so my father continued working there—enjoying his reading despite his boss’ bigotry until he finished graduate studies several years later.
Around the same time, my mother was trying to balance the competing demands of being a new parent, working, and going to school full-time in a tensely charged atmosphere. At the height of the hostage crisis, her faculty advisor chided her for registering for a high number of semester credits, and wanted her to drop her course load in half. When my mother told him she was trying to graduate sooner due to the uncertainty of her situation, he told her that she should not feel any pressure to finish her studies. After all, was it not “the men who made decisions and provided in Iranian society?”
It is tempting to say that these were isolated incidents of Midwestern provincialism in a bygone era. However, if you speak with enough Iranian Americans, you will hear many similar anecdotes from those who experienced them firsthand, or have seen their loved ones subject to discrimination, undue surveillance, and harassment. Yes, even in California.
It was these experiences, and the ongoing demonization of Iran in the news, that became productive in certain representational strategies of many Iranians living in the United States—brilliantly captured in the 2010 online public service announcement made by Iranican: an Iranian American volunteer-based organization. In the video clip, a young female census worker interviews different Iranians—all played by the comedian Maz Jobrani—who resist to participating in the 2010 US Census as “Iranians.” One respondent, a young Iranian male named Kambiz, tells the census officer to put down “white” for him on the form. “Veer vite, just put vite,” he says. When asked about how they self-identify racially, all of the Jobrani-characters decide to identify as Italian.
The punch line of the video highlights an unspoken but widely understood practice among many Iranian Americans to deny their ethnicity or categorize themselves in ways that do not call negative attention to themselves. This is facilitated by the construction of racial categories in the United States that encourages the underreporting of Iranians. According to the 2010 American Community Survey (ACS), there are a total of 448,772 Iranians in the United States, a number thought to be much lower than the actual population by several Iranian American civic organizations. Add to this fact that all peoples of North Africa and the Middle East are generally considered to be “white” according to US federal guidelines, and it makes sense why Kambiz and many other Iranian Americans would not think twice about ticking the “white” box on government forms. Still, claiming that being Iranian is being white remains problematic, because of the ways in which the Iranians are typically imagined and represented in very non-white and “un-American” social roles. (The same can be said of Americans of Arab descent).
While the Census provides the opportunity to pick the least imperfect race box to check once every ten years, Iranian Americans make choices about how to position themselves ethnically every day. Importantly, the “Persian” moniker so popular among some Iranian Americans is often used to highlight either a non-Islamic or a secular Iranian identity, which permits a nationalist respite from the messy connotations of calling the Islamic Republic of Iran “home.” Being Persian does not eliminate the difference between being Iranian and being white; it anesthetizes it.
Given the right amount of Orientalist historical cherry picking, “Persianness" is nearly synonymous with being white (being empire-builders rather than imperial subjects). The term “Persian” is ostensibly evocative of exotic culture and grandeur, whereas “Iranian” is usually redolent of less glamorous associations. In this curious “post-racial” age where diversity is celebrated—yet xenophobia is on the rise—being Persian is the seemingly sexy way for the Iranian Americans to be ethnic without sticking out amid growing Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Not sticking out is pretty important, when one considers that Iran has remained entrenched as one of the United States’ most indomitable bogeymen for over thirty years running. Iran is routinely denounced by the United States as the most active state sponsor of terrorism and a regional troublemaker. President Obama and his bevy of Republican challengers are falling over themselves to proclaim that “no option is off the table,” when it comes to dealing with the perceived Iranian nuclear threat. Lest we think that a defiant Iran only poses a threat to American national security, critics unfailingly remind us that Iran is considered to be an existential threat to Israel too, and “the mullahs” also regularly commit human rights atrocities against their own restive populace that Western journalists delight in telling us who long for more “Western” lifestyles. Put it all together, and Bravo’s central casting could not have dreamed up a better foil for self-congratulatory American morality.
In light of this political history, a reality TV series starring wealthy Iranians is bound to attract some notoriety. In fact, Ryan Seacrest and the Bravo Network are betting on it. They are not even the first to come up with the idea; Doron Ofir’s Persian Version never came to pass, but was the first show that proposed to cast glamorous Persian party people with no credit limits and no problems. It is fair to say that Seacrest knows a TV hit when he sees one. The enormously successful entertainment personality has built his considerable cache by hosting American Idol and supplying us with an endless diet of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. With Shahs of Sunset, he now turns his entrepreneurial gaze crosstown to Tehrangeles, to follow the lives of several Los Angeles (LA)-based “Persian-American friends” who “try to balance their social lives and work lives.”
Shahs of Sunset has cast a very specific young adult cohort to personify what Bravo TV personality Andy Cohen calls an affluent community. “[It] exists all over the place…If you live in LA, you know that the Persian American community is really strong… It is really family-oriented. And it is really affluent.” Cohen also reminds us that these Persian princes and princesses do not just “spend a lot of money.” He goes on to tell us that “this is a group of people that does not exist on television anywhere, and that is another reason that I am excited to do the show. It is new and different.”
In a sneak preview show, the cast tells their viewers that they do not “work in buildings, they own them.” They add that their lives are all about “cash, flash, Cristal, gold, cars, and houses with big columns.” They are also well-integrated model immigrants who apparently partied and slept their way through 9/11 and the resurgent xenophobia of the last decade. As one cast member gushes, “Who does not love America? This place is fantastic. It is really the land of milk and honey!”
It is no secret that Seacrest, like Bravo, are in the business of making addictive TV and oodles of money. They are not out to educate audiences, and it is likely that they had no problem casting for the show in “Tehrangeles.” The LA area boasts the largest Iranian population in the United States, and very wealthy individuals among them live the many cultural clichés that Shahs of Suncrest will showcase. But lest we forget, Iranian Americans are not all rich real estate playboys and trust fund divas who bleed red, white, and blue. They come in all stripes. They are rich, poor, liberal, conservative, gay, straight, Muslim, Jewish, Baha’i, and atheist, among other things. As an ethnic community in the United States, while they tend to be very well educated, not all are super-rich. According to 2010 ACS data, the median family income among Iranian Americans is $83,375—higher than the national average to be certain, but hardly in the “one percent” stratosphere that Bravo is selling as typically “Persian.”
In other words, Shahs is not a show that examines Iranian American issues as they are lived by most Iranian Americans. Its aim is to entertain by marketing lithe bodies and big personalities who have no major problems other than who to date, how to please their parents, and where to spend lots of money. By dispensing with the diverse realities of being Iranian in the United States—notably the multiple ways in which Iranians articulate, enact, and experience race, citizenship, and community—and by instead magnifying a shallow Persian party scene, the Shahs of Sunset appears guilty of replacing one cultural stereotype with another.
Building a show around a specific Persian party scene embodies a neoliberal multiculturalism of sorts, in which members of an ethnic group—even those from countries considered to be “enemies”—can be made socially acceptable through their hyper-consumerism and engagement in familiar reality TV hijinks.
It seems for now that Iranians can be in the American public imagination predominantly as still-scary fanatics or approachable ethnic party people who can shop, hook up, and drive fast cars with the best of them. You all know they have made it in America, however, when they can stand for more than just as party people in the public eye.