It was a proud moment for Iranians in the U.S. when A Separation, a family drama set in Tehran, won the Oscar for best foreign film in March. That cultural pride may soon be overshadowed by Shahs of Sunset, a new reality show focusing on the lives of rich, bratty Iranian Americans in Beverly Hills. Already, the show has Los Angeles’s large and influential Persian community up in arms. This spring, West Hollywood’s city council passed a resolution condemning the show for “perpetuating negative stereotypes about Iranian Americans.”
The new Bravo series—American Idol host Ryan Seacrest’s latest TV gambit—focuses on a group of thirtysomethings who met in high school in Beverly Hills. While some of its young female stars have yet to find gainful employment, their lavish spending habits include personal makeup artists and stylists, all of whom are dragged along to wild house parties. “Charge it to my daddy” is a catchphrase made famous by GG, a vacuous 29-year-old with a fiery temper. Four cast members are realtors, and the men—one is openly gay—spend copious amounts of time in front of the mirror, preening and boasting of their good looks. They share an aversion to “ugly people,” adore booze and Las Vegas, and claim to love family and friends above all.
Gina Nahai, an Iranian-born professor at the University of Southern California, finds the show “racist” and “embarrassing.” Shahs of Sunset could be about anyone who grew up in Beverly Hills, says Nahai, but the characters constantly refer to themselves as representative, somehow, of Iranian-American life. “Hello? We’re Persian” is another of its many catchphrases. (“Haven’t we suffered plenty?” moans L.A. blogger Orly Minazad, who is of Persian descent. “Aren’t unibrows and Ahmadinejad enough of a stigma to overcome?”) Of course, Shahs of Sunset is not alone in racial stereotyping. Jersey Shore is essentially a celebration of tanning, drinking, hair gel and other stereotypes that Italian Americans have long tried to shed.
Just under 500,000 Iranian Americans live in the U.S., almost half in California. Many are Jewish, and moved in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when Muslim clerics took over the republic, replacing it with a theocracy. Entire neighbourhoods of Tehran moved to L.A.’s Westside, now colloquially known as “Tehrangeles.” Many of these newcomers were professionals and business people who quickly rebuilt their lives in L.A. Still, Jimmy Delshad, the two-term Iranian-American mayor of Beverly Hills, says he’s afraid Shahs of Sunset will bring back negative stereotyping of his community, to a time when their kids were called “camel jockeys” and worse.
Some, however, do see positives in the show. “While it wasn’t the most ideal way of introducing the Iranian-American community to the American public at large, it piqued people’s curiosity and has people asking questions about our culture,” says Nobar Elmi, director of community outreach and programming at the National Iranian American Council. Or, as a recent sketch on Saturday Night Live put it, instead of depicting Iranians as terrorists, the cast is proud to portray them as human—just as “annoying and terrible” as any other.