Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Core Post #3 Shahs of Sunset and the Politics of Representation

Most Iranians are not as shallow and materialistic as depicted in the series. We work hard and strive to achieve. The show's portrayal of Iranians is very narrow. As an Iranian these are not a group I would hang out with. We are normal people assimilating well in to American society as decent hard working friendly people. Most Iranians do not fit the mold depicted in the show. (Ardavan Ashrafi, 2012)

Shahs of Sunset (2012-2015), a reality television show telecast in Bravo featuring the Iranian-American community has been controversial for several reasons. Put together by Ryan Seacrest Productions, the show follows the affluent life of six Iranian-Americans in their mid 30s in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has a special relationship to the Iranian community. Following the mass influx of Iranians during and after the turbulent revolution in Iran, Los Angeles became the second largest settlement of Iranians outside the geographical space of Iran. Shahs of Sunet was subjected to a wave of negative opinion by the Persian community in LA who found it to be offensive on several counts. The opposition to the use of the tag of Persian identity in the reality programme was soon followed by counter allegations that “Iranians were not exactly Persians.” This in turn, led to bitterness among the Iranian community who had assimilated themselves within the syncretic melting pot of “Persian-ness” as a way to integrate themselves against the onslaughts of the revolution in Iran.

Some of the debates on the politics of representation and racial stereotyping hinted in last week’s readings can be directly connected to the controversies that were triggered off by Shahs of Sunset. In many ways it also opened up the element of “authenticity” for debate. This  becomes increasingly relevant considering the tense relationship shared by the United States and Iran in the recent past. When the pilot was launched in 2012, one of the concerns that many Iranian Americans faced was how the timing of the show could be detrimental in painting a picture of Iranians that were far removed from real. The escalating tension in the US over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme had contributed to the tension among the Iranian community in the US.

One of the most stark representative elements of the show is the way it associates wealth with the community, inciting responses from the community that this might water down the “reality” of the Iranian community. The clash between the import of Western values and the erosion of the cultural purity was played out in the seething tensions that followed the telecast of the show. “We are not these people,” became the immediate response for majority of the community and some even invited journalists over to their houses to see for themselves the sea difference that separated their everyday lives from what was projected in the show. An online petition against the airing of the show on Change.org for instance contested that:

The show, regardless of its intent to "entertain" is, in fact, political […]Many people lost everything during the revolution. They left their families, their friends and their home. They came to the United States completely alone and unable to speak the language […] Iranian-Americans quickly embodied the American ideals of hard work, self-sacrifice and family. It is this trait that has made the Iranian American so successful in the United States […] This show not only threatens the good name of Iranian-Americans, but it may also threaten the physical safety of Iranian-Americans in this country. In this day and age, caricatures of Middle Eastern groups in the media are even more likely than other forms of ethnic stereotyping to lead to threats or physical violence.”[1]

The concern of the petition that the American public would wrongly construe the character of Iranian-Americans connects directly to Anna McCarthy’s argument about citizenship and reality television. McCarthy suggests that “reality television is something of a privileged site, annotating transformations in the institution of the individual (citizenship’s raw material) through its consolidation of connections between three discursive apparatuses for the formation of citizen and self: state, family, and cultural text” (19). But McCarthy also points to the “affective weight of cultural artifacts” (19) that marks reality television. One could argue that the negative response to Shahs of Sunset was exactly that—a response to the affective weight of its politics of representation.
The fear that cultural stereotyping in a television show could “lead to threats or physical violence” in real life makes Shahs of Sunset a site for contesting the notion of an ideal Iranian-American notion of citizenship. In fact, the Change.org petition could be seen as an effort at crisis management outside the text of the show, but because of that very text. The crisis here is signaled by the larger politics of American involvement in the Middle East. The “social-text” of the show, then is formed by the triangulation of actual political and military action, a history of immigration, and the threat of xenophobic backlash. The Change.org petition then, becomes a sort of a preamble for “ideal” Iranian-American citizenship, widely understood. The petition states:
As has been shown by many studies, Iranian-Americans are much more likely than average to attend graduate or professional schools or be professionally employed as doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and academics. However, that reality is not well understood by the American public. The materialistic, shallow banter of six individuals on Bravo's "Shahs of Sunset" now represents the entire Iranian American community. 

The larger social-text of Shahs of Sunset then reflects a colloquial engagement with the idea of the “good citizen.” If one were to follow the logic of the petition, Shahs of Sunset militates against this ideal of the good immigrant-citizen, who having assimilated and succeeded in forms of public life after going through a historically traumatic experience, should be able to avoid justifiable violence. Even though Shahs of Sunset is not about suffering per se, it signals a crisis in public life that has deeper connections with historical trauma and migrant memory. The “excesses” of Shahs of Sunset then, does truly lead to “a rethinking of the place of suffering in civic life” (21), even though this might be a side-effect of its representational politics.

[1] https://www.change.org/p/bravo-television-comcast-nbc-universal-not-to-air-shahs-of-sunset

1 comment:

  1. Darshana,

    Thank you for your wonderful piece on 'Shahs of Sunset.' I just wanted to add one more controversy into the mix!

    In 2014 (on the cusp of the season 4 premiere) Shah’s entire postproduction crew went on strike as a result of not receiving health insurance and other employee benefits. The strike, which lasted about one month, caused the season premiere to be delayed and created tension with advertisers. Although the crew eventually ratified a union agreement, the process was certainly sticky.

    In this Fast Company article (How "Shahs Of Sunset" Is Changing Hollywood: http://www.fastcompany.com/3040648/how-shahs-of-sunset-is-changing-hollywood) the author points out the importance of the editors strike, which in reality TV, was entirely unheard of. It made me think of the Raphael chapter, “The Political Economic Origins of Reali-TV,” in which he notes the low cost of making "reality" programming and mentions the cost-cutting strategy of bypassing unions, something that Ryan Seacrest Productions got away with until the Shahs strike.