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Iranian-Americans Say New Reality Show Stereotypes Them

  • Heather Maher

A screengrab of Bravo TV's "Shahs of Sunset"

A screengrab of Bravo TV's "Shahs of Sunset"

Ask many Americans what they think of when they think of Iran, and they'll probably mention the 1979-81 hostage crisis in Tehran or a turbaned, white-bearded cleric preaching anger toward the United States.

A new U.S. television reality show set in Los Angeles wants to replace those grim associations with happier ones, like expensive cars, champagne, private jets, and mansions.

"Shahs of Sunset," named after the city's iconic Sunset Boulevard, tracks the daily, and nightly, dramas of six wealthy, 30-something Iranian Americans whose parents fled Iran after the 1979 revolution ushered in theocracy.

The cable TV show follows in the ratings-tested footsteps of other successful American reality shows, like "Jersey Shore," with its young, hard-drinking, hypersexual Italian Americans, and "Real Housewives," which follows fabulously rich women on their shopping sprees and five-Martini lunches.

The show's creators describe it this way: "A group of friends...who are fervent on the dating and party scene, but seeking approval from their family, face pressures to settle down and marry within the community. From outings on Rodeo Drive to traditional Persian feasts at home, this series celebrates the unique lifestyle of a group of friends who have worked hard for what they have and are not afraid to flaunt it."

'Charge It To My Daddy!'

The spitfire of the show is Golnesa "GG" Gharachedaghi, described in her cast bio as "an exotic beauty with a fiery temper. This classic 'Persian Princess' goes out to lunch with her friends during the day and shops for Mr. Persian Right at night."

She's spoiled, supported by her rich father, and fond of telling shopkeepers, "Charge it to my daddy!"

Mike Shouhed "is part of the self-appointed 'Persian Real Estate Mafia' in Los Angeles" who still lives at home and is looking for a woman "he can bring home to his mother."

Reza Farahan is described as "one of few openly gay Persians in the community [who] often struggles with gossip and prejudice regarding his sexuality."

Mercedes "MJ" Javid is a party girl whose bio says is "constantly disappointing her overbearing and unconventional Persian mother."

WATCH: A promotional trailer for the "Shahs of Sunset" reality TV show

Only one episode has aired, but clips on its website show the six friends partying, arguing, shopping, and drinking as they poke fun at Los Angeles' Persian community and brag about their wealth.

At one point in the show, MJ boasts that "only Persians will have a pool party with a tiger in the cage."

"That's how we roll," she says. "We need a tiger at pool parties, hey."

Reza counters: "You know the way I normally do a party at home. I've got caterers, bartenders; you name it, I've got it. That's how I roll for my parties."

If you're running late, you're on "Persian time." If you fly commercial airlines instead of private jets, they "feel sorry" for you. And if you're not attractive, they don't want you around. "I hate ants and I hate ugly people," GG tells the camera.

Persian Backlash

Who wouldn't want to spend an hour watching these people every week?

Other Iranian-Americans, for starters.

Even before the show officially debuted on March 18, an anti-"Shahs of Sunset" Facebook page had been set up and anti-Shah petitions were circulating online, accusing the producers of promoting racial stereotypes and depicting Iranian Americans as caricatures.

One urged people to "help the Persian community by signing this petition to end 'Shahs of Sunset' and other such racist, exploiting television programming."

A signatory wrote: "This show wants to present caricatures of Iranian-Americans. This is not entertaining. Rather, it is racist and only encourages others who do not know Persians in our American society to feed into the worst kind of stereotype."

Another wrote, "Due to the current political climate between the United States and factions in the Middle East, I cannot see the benefit of this show."

It's not just Iranian-Americans who are upset.

A petition on the website has attracted almost 800 signatures, and the list contains a good number of non-Persian names.

"I am not Iranian or Iranian-American but I have only had positive experiences meeting and knowing Iranians and Iranian-Americans," one person wrote. "There is no good reason to single out these people for negative publicity. I am disappointed and embarrassed that something so negatively biased will be aired."

Another wrote: "I am not Persian but I still do not agree with this show. I think we need to learn to respect others and other cultures."

The public anger prompted cast member Mike Shouhed to recently tell a reporter that the critics are just "jealous."

In the show's defense, he said, "All we are doing is hanging out and being ourselves. People are intrigued to learn more about our culture instead of automatically associating us with negative portrayals like terrorism. It humanizes us in a way."

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