Realty TV, Race & Culture: Shahs of Sunset

I've never hidden my affinity for pop-culture- which is saturated with 'Reality' TV these days- and my enjoyment for offering snarky commentary about the insta-fame that creates the celeb-reality machine. Lately, however, my brain began to short-circuit from the overwhelming number of Reality TV shows that have seemingly replaced legitimate television programming. The all-or-nothing behavior that guarantees more camera time, a bigger paycheck, and an inevitable spin-off show, 40-year-old women with college age daughters channeling Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and jumping off of conference room tables… it’s all too much, even by trash TV standards.

That some Black women are willing participants of the combative behavior that’s encouraged by producers, prompting folks to lambaste and hold all of us accountable, isn't lost on me. I wrote about my unwillingness to shoulder the heat (particularly since I’m not, personally, cashing any reality TV checks) for how a certain segment of Black women choose to act in front of a national TV viewing audience, and especially since white women don’t feel any sense obligation to shoulder the burden for how their sistren act on these shows. 
That aside, another group of brown people are being taken to task for daring to deviate from the social mores and norms expected of their community and its image... 

Shahs of Sunset, a new reality show (courtesy of Ryan Seacrest) featuring a group of well-heeled, Los Angeles-based Persian-Americans (whose families settled in America to escape the 1979 Iranian Revolution), has caused some folks to sound off following its debut; which I decided to watch this past Sunday. The Persian community have deemed the show racist and embarrassing and have started a series of online petitions in hopes of getting the it yanked off the air. One of the surefire breakout cast members of the show, Reza Farahan, is openly gay and has been making the media rounds since Shahs... aired. Farahan's sexual orientation is not widely accepted in the Iranian/Middle Eastern community, but he makes no apologies for who he is. 

I must admit, during a segment of Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, I did find Reza’s candor and unwillingness to shoulder or placate the demands of his community, refreshing. When asked if he was worried that his lifestyle and appearance on the show would potentially depict Iranian-Americans in a negative light, Farahan said he didn't care what the Iranian community at large thought, as he only sought to represent himself... 
“I have an important message, all the bling and Mercedes aside: I’m an openly gay Persian man. According to the country I was born in, I don’t even exist.” He said during a recent interview... his comments, perhaps, a pointed dig at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim, "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country," during a 2007 Columbia University appearance.
Farahan also said... "I don't mind being stereotyped as materialistic. Middle Easterners have many stereotypes, and materialism is one of the better ones. We're usually viewed as evil terrorists, so if you're going to stereotype me I'd prefer it be because we love gold and Mercedes instead of Uzis."
30 year old unemployed, easily rankled and spoiled "Persian princess" Golnesa "GG" Gharachedaghi, another seemingly volatile and catty standout on the show, made it known in an upcoming episode promo that she “hates ants and ugly people”, and was incited to wrath after being accused by another cast member of wearing an ensemble purchased from H&M. Golnesa was also unapologetic about bragging that her father paid the bulk of her living expenses and funded her lavish social life. 

One other interesting element is that the group of socialites consist of Jewish and Muslim Iranian-Americans. In the premiere episode, they engaged in a spirited discussion during a gathering about religion, marriage, and cultural expectations...
“I can’t believe we’re having this stupid conversation, in this day and age, about religion. There’s Persian Muslims, Persian Jews, Persian Christians, there’s Bahais… How much more of this bullshit do we have to talk about?” a cast member complained.  
While I understand the frustration of the Iranian-American community, at yet another show that's poised for popularity due to its over-the-top perpetuation of racial tropes for ratings, would it be fair to posit that the decadent and capitalist behavior being showcased on Shahs of Sunset is seemingly more American than it is Iranian? Is it also a stretch to believe that Reza's appearance and experiences as an openly gay Middle Eastern-American man, may be the one grain of good that can come out of this reality TV show?

The notion that most or all Black women engage in combative behavior and act gregariously in upscale social hubs and are prone to tantrums a la Nene Leakes from Real Housewives of Atlanta, is absurd (contrary to what Brian White, VH1, or any other critic may think). In much the same way I believe Black women shouldn't be saddled with the weight of the Sapphire stereotype that's been heaped on us, Iranian-Americans have every right to dismantle the racist stereotypes ascribed to them; but they shouldn't take what they see on Shahs of Sunset as a personal affront. Mainstream society's narrow views on marginalized groups in this country is their issue to work through and correct, not ours. I'm personally sick of being expected to teach the ignorant and to explain away how Black women are portrayed on reality TV to people who should know better than to think that black and brown folks function as monolithic communities. 

Is petitioning for a superficial TV show to be taken off the air and accepting responsibility for how a specific segment of Iranian-Americans act really effective? Honestly, I'm not sure. Reality TV programming isn't meant to create teachable moments or be political, as much as it is meant to entertain and create ratings. None of this is meant to dissuade the Iranian-American community from holding Ryan Seacrest or VH1 accountable for these depictions, as much as it is me opining that those petitioning against the show shouldn't accept responsibility for how this particular group of Iranian-Americans choose to act on TV. As Farahan suggested, they represent themselves. 

No comments