• 'Shahs of Sunset' follows a group of wealthy Iranian-American friends through the day to day dramas of their lives (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Do shows like the Shahs of Sunset challenge stereotypes or create new ones?
By
Bianca Soldani

5 May 2016 - 3:32 PM  UPDATED 6 May 2016 - 3:40 PM

Television - particularly the paid variety - is rife with reality shows depicting the outrageous exploits of the wealthy and wild.

But one particular program featuring both of the above has continued to prompt discussion and not for those reasons.

Described as a cross between Italian-American series Jersey Shore, and the Real Housewives franchise, Shahs of Sunset follows six 30-something socialites in the day to day dramas of their affluent lives in Los Angeles.

What distinguishes it from the masses however, is that it stars children of Iranian nationals and between their high-rolling escapades and impassioned cat fights, they walk viewers through some of their cultural traditions and grapple with the expectations of their families as well as their immigrant pasts.

Does Shahs of Sunset perpetuate a stereotype?

The issue many have with the show, which airs in Australia on Arena, is that it portrays a stereotype of rich Iranian-Americans as frivolous, vulgar, materialistic and boozy.

And Los Angeles ought to know better as the city is home to the largest community of Iranian nationals and their families outside of Iran.

The population of Iranian-Americans in California is estimated between 300,000 to half a million, with many settling there after the revolution in 1979 and during the Iran-Iraq war in the years that followed.

They have even established the affectionately named “Tehrangeles” - an amalgamation of the Iranian capital Tehran and Los Angeles – in an affluent area neighbouring Beverly Hills.

On one hand you could argue that the so called “Shahs” of the show are simply being portrayed as your standard TV brand of spoiled rich brat (regardless of their ethnicity) while on the other its reducing a rich culture to an extremely superficial stereotype that potentially taints the remainder of the community by association.

And then of course there’s the “at least they’re not playing terrorists” argument, which while seemingly silly on the surface, may actually carry some weight.

"As long as they’re not terrorists…"

Widespread news coverage of the strained diplomatic relationship between Iran and the United States paints a grim picture to members of the public who are otherwise uniformed about the Iranian cultural and everyday people hidden beneath.

In fact, a visit to the US Department of State will tell you that they have “long-standing concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, sponsorship of terrorism, and human rights record”.

Adding to the picture, they go on to criticise that the “current Iranian government still has not recognised Israel’s right to exist, has hindered the Middle East peace process by arming militants, including Hamas, Hizballah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and continues to play a disruptive role in sustaining violence in the region, particularly Syria”.

Muslim comedian Azhar Usman put it interestingly in his Allah Made Me Funny tour when he joked, “Iranians don't like to be called Iranian, they like to be called Persian. Because Persian is associated with nice things like cats and rugs, not nuclear bombs.

“But truthfully when was the last time you saw them in the media show a normal Iranian family just hanging out. No, it’s always a big mob, pissed off. They don’t like America and there is a big sign, ‘death to America’.”

As Usman notes, representations of Iranians and particularly Iranian immigrants on the small screen are far and few between, and many of those that do make it fall into the political category that perpetuates and appeals to existing prejudices.

In their third season, Homeland prominently featured two Iranian characters - an intelligence officer who doubles as a terrorist and a CIA agent who is killed by terrorist.

Meanwhile Person of Interest also stars an Iranian special agent who works with the US Army’s intelligence unit to fight terrorists after she and her mother were smuggled out of Iran in the wake of a terrorist attack.

Political thriller 24 has been criticised for being racially insensitive in its portrayal of Americans of Middle Eastern descent with Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo playing one such character, an undercover terrorist with a family in suburbia.

After the show went to air in 2005, Aghdashloo felt the need to specify that her character was not Iranian, saying, “In fact the family’s nationality is never revealed and I should hope that the audience would look beyond my ethnicity.”

Film is another medium that hasn’t been too kind with titles including Argo, Alexander, 300, Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper and Not Without My Daughter all vilifying Iranians.

Is there no other alternative?

It’s clear why some in the Iranian community (and the public in general) would prefer any mass media representation that doesn’t carry an association with terrorism or nuclear war, but why does it have to focus on frivolity rather than a more positive trait?

While it is impossible to categorise all Iranian-Americans under one assumption, they have been shown to be among the best educated people in the country and prove it through their entrepreneurial prowess and commercial success.

And there are a couple instances where the intellectual and business mentality of Iranian-Americans is front and centre in their TV portrayal.

Iranian actress Mozhan Marnò plays a Wall Street journalist in House Of Cards, while Pejman Vahdat is a forensic anthropologist in Bones and Necar Zadegan portrays a world-famous cardiothoracic surgeon in short-lived series Emily Owens MD – with all characters introduced as accomplished Iranian-Americans.

The Australian trend

Back in Australia, the ABC also took a more normalised approach to an Iranian-Australian character in their 2014 drama The Code.

Adele Perovic plays the daughter of Iranian refugees who are adapting to their new lives in Canberra, with her character Hani, being a young student and hacktivist who befriends a fellow hacker with Asperger's syndrome. 

The 2011 Australian census recorded 34,500 Iranian born people living in Australia, with almost half of those living in New South Wales, followed by Victoria with a close to a quarter.

And similar to the United States, the census found that 67 per cent of Iran-born Australians had some form of higher education compared to 56 per cent in the remainder of the Australian population, with the difference ballooning still further when looking at University degrees.

In other representations, a 1987 episode of comedy series The Dingo Principal looked at Australian and Iranian relations through a different lens by staging a mock interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini - the supreme religious leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran - that ends in increased diplomatic tensions between the two countries and the expulsion of two Australian diplomats.

More recently, a 2009 short Adelaide made film My Tehran for Sale by Iranian-Australian poet  and filmmaker Granaz Moussavi, explored the contemporary art scene in the Iranian capital by following the story of an actress banned from performing in theatres.

It was shrouded in controversy two years later however, when copies were leaked in Iran leading to the arrest of lead actress Marzieh Vafamehr, who was sentenced to one year imprisonment and 90 lashes for her connection to the film. She was later released on appeal.

Meanwhile, the Shahs of Sunset has been airing in Australia for a number of years with little complaint. 

Fans of the series praise it for providing a small insight into Iranian culture while those in the Iranian-Australian community who are against, distance themselves from the representation.

Shahs and controversy

The response was more polarising in the US.

At the time of its launch in 2012, various petitions were circulating with the intention of axing the Shahs of Sunset but to no avail.

One change.org campaign with 800 signatories labelled the show "racist" and stated that "we as a country should celebrate our many ethnic minorities, not mock them". Meanwhile another circulated through the Iranian-American community called the program "exploitative".

With the Shahs continuing unabated, some people took to creating platforms that share other aspects of Iranian culture in an attempt to better inform the wider American community of their traditions, cuisine and way of life outside of the narrow lens of the show.

One such Facebook page is called Beyond the Shahs of Sunset, but although it has a following of 45,000, it is nowhere near the audience numbers tuning into the actual show which regularly draws in around a million American viewers each episode.

One of the shows lead stars Reza Farahan - an openly gay real estate agent - addressed the controversy in 2012, saying, "The Persians that are complaining now, they would be complaining no matter what.”

“If we were all tall, they’d say, ‘You’re too tall.’ If we were all short, they’d say, ‘Oh, they’re all short, they don’t represent us.’ You can’t make everyone happy, and I’m not trying to.”

MORE FROM THE GUIDE:

Middle Eastern representation on Australian TV: A brief, slightly depressing history
It’s not all bad news – but we still have a long way to go…
A thousand stereotypes and zero laughs: A review of Here Come the Habibs
She’s actually seen the show now… but Candy Royalle’s opinion hasn’t really changed.