California's Iranian-American community is getting its very own reality TV show – exposing millions of viewers to the culture, trials, and antics of six Iranian-American men and women who either immigrated to the United States with their families after Iran's 1979 revolution, or were born and raised in America.
At a time when reports on Iran and things Iranian focus primarily on the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear program, the prospects for war, and sanctions, much of the Iranian American community is asking whether “Shahs of Sunset,” which debuts Sunday night on Bravo, could help improve American perceptions of Iranian culture.
Some, though, are also asking whether the show trades in one stereotype for another, and whether it presents a face of the community that Iranian-Americans want to show.
“It's introducing people to the idea that Iranian culture even exists,” says Shadi Gholizadeh, a researcher on Iranian politics from the San Francisco Bay area. “It's showing a face of Iranians that's not related to terrorism or nuclear weapons.”
Produced by Ryan Seacrest, host of “American Idol” and producer of “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” which depicts the family life of Armenian-American socialite Kim Kardashian, “Shahs of Sunset” will take place in Los Angeles, a.k.a. “Tehr-Angeles,” home to the largest population of Iranians outside of Iran's capital, Tehran.
“Shahs” certainly marks a shift in the stereotypical portrayal of Iranians, which was dominated by the frightening images of Americans held hostage in Tehran after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. Even in the 1990s, films such as “Not Without My Daughter” (1991) branded Iranian culture as narrow-minded and provincial.
But these entrepreneurial Iranian-Americans aren't the types “Shahs” is following. Rather, the show will be a fusion of Bravo's “Real Housewives” franchise – which depicts wealthy suburban housewives – and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
All the Shahs portrayed in the show went to Beverly Hills High School and enjoy ultra-rich lifestyles: they live in plush homes, dine at high-end restaurants, drive luxury cars, and only wear designer fashions.
Some Iranian-Americans are advocating a boycott of “Shahs” as they think showcasing the lives of Iranian-American socialites who flaunt their status as part of the country's moneyed “one per cent,” will merely worsen public views of the Iranian-American community, especially as the rest of the United States is still painstakingly climbing out of an economic recession.
“The people taking part in this show are a small percentage of our community and nothing like the rest of us. They're pushing stereotypes,” says 26-year old Sheeva Javid, a student at the academy of arts in San Francisco.
That said, if “Shahs of Sunset” had a more realistic, intellectual slant, would Bravo viewers watch the show? Probably not.
“I'll watch one episode out of curiosity,” says Azita Mashayekhi, who moved to the United States at age 18 after Iran's 1979 revolution and works at a Washington-based non-profit. “But I just don't connect with them, in the same way I wouldn't connect with the Real Housewives.”
The purpose of reality television is to entertain, but by putting the show’s Iranian-Americans on public view, “Shahs” will inevitably push the community to acknowledge some realities that are rarely discussed. By casting an openly gay Iranian-American, for example, “Shahs” will shed light on the very real and vibrant Iranian-American gay community.
“The fact that it shows there's a gay culture among Iranians in the US and also in Iran is huge,” says Ms. Gholizadeh, the Bay-area based researcher.
“Whatever you may think of the show … you must admit it's quite brave to be 'out' in such a public way.”
Will “Shahs” reception by American viewers ultimately be much different from that of other reality shows? Probably not.
“The show is an evolution of the Iranian-American into truly being American,” says Tehran SoParvaz, a 26-year old comedian and entertainer from Washington, DC.
"The show ... is simply the next step in assimilation, and will hopefully make the Iranian-American a more stable mainstay in American society.”