The Persian Version Perversion
by ARASH KARAMI in Irvine
20 Apr 2010 23:14
While the 1972 screen version of The Godfather was in production, Italian American organizations rallied against yet another negative depiction of their community at the hands of Hollywood. The Italian American Civil Rights League managed to convince the film's producer to omit the word mafia from the screenplay altogether. Given the movie's subject matter, this was a remarkable feat. Still, the film went on to become legendary, inspiring hundreds of copycat productions. While the Italian American Civil Rights League won the battle over a particular word in a particular picture, they lost the war against Hollywood's identification of Italian American culture with the mafia.
One can hardly fault Italian American organizations for wanting to influence the commercial shaping of their cultural identity. Their community's story is part of the saga of immigrant struggle that is uniquely American, with each new generation of immigrants attempting to forge their ethnic identity through an arduous process of deconstructing stereotypes and mass-cultural depictions. In the end, the complex effort to retain the core values and prideworthy traditions of the Old World, while shedding practices deemed unnecessary or even shameful and blending in American customs and mores can be empowering and liberating. Undoubtedly, it enriches the collective American identity. The diversity of cultural identities within that collective one provides multiple lenses through which to view the spectrum of American life, to understand in new and important ways what it means to be American.
The Iranian American community seems to be traveling a path similar in ways to that of the Italian American community. There are significant differences, of course. The earliest waves of Italian immigrants, mostly from south of Rome, were largely poor and working class, while many Iranian immigrants are from the wealthy, educated cohort that fled Iran following the 1979 Revolution. Iranian Americans, in fact, are one of the most affluent, best educated groups in the United States, especially accomplished in the fields of business, engineering, and medicine, and earning far more than the national average. This immigrant community is also diverse. While the majority identify themselves as Muslim, there are many Armenian Iranian Christians and Iranian Jews, as well as members of other ethnic and religious groups.
However, social status, wealth, and education have not brought Iranian Americans immunity from cultural stereotyping. With the 2006 release of director Zack Snyder's 300 (based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller), Iranian American intellectuals, critics, and journalists took aim at the filmmakers and Warner Bros. studio, decrying the picture's historical inaccuracies and racist overtones. Outraged parents and grandparents sent chain emails asking friends to boycott the movie. Online petitions, protests in the United States, and condemnations by the Iranian UN envoy reflected the sentiments of Iranians worldwide. Irrespective of its vocal critics and more than 50,000 petition signatures, the movie went on to gross nearly half a billion dollars worldwide. Perhaps it was the the thunderous roar of the revenue stream that made it possible for Hollywood to not hear the outcries.
300 is now all but forgotten. The Iranian American community, still in shock from the aftermath of the June 2009 election in its homeland, argues internally about whether it is a monarchist group in exile or a support base for the Green Movement back home. Perhaps the community's members at some point will put their differences aside and again unite, this time against MTV and the creators of Jersey Shore.
Jersey Shore's hit first season concluded in January. The reality show features young Italian Americans spending the summer in a New Jersey beach town with a camera crew recording their every move. Italian American organizations spoke out against the show's depiction of self-proclaimed "guidos" who spend their time drinking, fighting, and fornicating when they're not lifting weights, roasting in tanning salons, or slathering on inconceivable amounts of hair gel.
The show's debut season was so successful that MTV is now developing several spinoff series involving Russians, Asians, and yes..."Persians."
"Two thousand years ago the Persian Empire ruled the ancient world...but they didn't have your soundtrack, your style, or your swagger," reads the casting call for what is known, at this preproduction stage, as The Persian Version.
"For you, life is all about Gucci, Gabbana, Cavalli and Cristal. From BMWs and Bugatis, to Mercedes and Movado -- money is no object." It seems those who might be interested in a show about the cultural assimilation of Iranian Americans will have to watch it through the filter of a spoiled 20-something group obsessed with materialism, body waxing, excessive makeup, and the sort of behavior that will be nothing less than shocking to a community that, for the most part, is morally uptight and clings to sexist double standards. On the other hand, one could argue that this is proof that Iranian Americans have finally arrived. They are now receiving the same sort of treatment as other stereotyped groups, as well as validation, however perverse, that they indeed constitute an established ethnic minority in the United States.
But this kind of validation offers a two-edged sword. If the world of Facebook serves as a litmus test of where the Iranian American community stands on the issue, then -- though a few are slightly amused by the idea -- it is afraid of how it will be portrayed in The Persian Version.
Posting any updates concerning this show will guarantee at least a dozen comments by friends fearful of what this show will do to their community, and at the same time bring wisecracks about gold chains and hairy chests. Out of pure curiosity, I joined the fan page "Boycott Persian Jersey Shore before it's made."
Within minutes, I received comments warning me that such groups would not "make a difference," but "only make the show more popular." The group so far has fewer than 300 fans for its boycott page. The original Jersey Shore Facebook group, by contrast, enjoys almost 40,000 supporters.
If one follows Facebook threads closely, or as closely as I do, there does appear to be some form of consensus developing. It is that most in the young Iranian-American community seem to feel sandwiched between two stereotypes: one, that of the bearded religious fanatic; the other, that of the materialistic, gold-sporting Persian. Between these two identities, many appear to favor the latter, evoking the Maz Jobrani joke, "No, no, no, I'm not Eeranian. I am Perrrjan. Like the cat. Meow."
The "self-conscious self-reference as 'Persian,'" as Cyrus Safdari of Iran Affairs describes it, is actually a matter of long-running dispute among Iranian Americans. Rick Zand of Tehran Bureau, who has written wonderfully of the history behind the Persian vs. Iranian struggle for identity, observes that "Persian" is the label that has historically been imposed by outsiders. If MTV has its way, it appears that this latest battle will certainly go the way of "Persian," raising that issue that is always central to the development of a cultural identity -- self-determination.
One manner in which The Godfather revolutionized the American gangster movie was that for the first time in a large-scale production the story was told from the viewpoint of the mob, rather than law enforcement. It was also groundbreaking in that it was directed by an Italian American based on a novel written by an Italian American, and its Italian American characters were played by Italian American actors. All in all, it was pretty much an inside job.
From Not Without My Daughter to the upcoming The Persian Version, Iranian Americans are still at the mercy of Hollywood. Dr. Firouz Naderi, associate director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an Iranian American activist who has worked extensively with the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), wrote to me about the treatment the community has been led to expect. His email described the "inappropriate negative stereotyping and sensationalized approach often associated with irresponsible TV." Dr. Naderi did offer a counterweight to this: "We have seen how Jewish comedians poke fun at their own ethnicity in a controlled way and to a positive effect."
Indeed, it is hard to imagine where Jewish Americans would be without the self-deprecating humor with which their culture is so often associated. For all that the community's members have achieved in the fields of science, law, and education, one could argue that Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld have played as big a part in bringing American Jews to America. In the process, they have created a distinct Jewish American identity whose ability to laugh at itself deflates derogatory characterizations. Perhaps this explains why a "Jewish Shore" isn't currently in the works. There is also the fact that the satirization or negative depiction of Jews by outsiders, non-Seinfelds, risks allegations of anti-Semitism, where groups like Italians and Persians don't carry such volatile baggage.
"But there is something deeper going on [in Jersey Shore] than cheap jokes," said Iranian American Mehrdad Bokhour, when I spoke with him over the phone. An open letter he coauthored with Nakkisa Akhavan, which appeared in PAAIA's April 15 newsletter, included this thought: "Most people who watched Jersey Shore may have judged the cast members.... [But they] did not judge or form prejudices against Italians in general because they have other experiences with Italian [Americans]."
His fear that The Persian Version will be many Americans' introduction to the Iranian American community is a legitimate concern, and it points to the crucial difference in the comparison to Italian Americans. The identity of the much larger Italian American community has over time been assimilated into every aspect of American culture, from fine dining to the local pizza joint to films and TV shows where the familiar clichés are easy to laugh at and easy to laugh off. A reality show depicting a few knuckleheads is not going to tarnish the community's reputation, given how many prominent, accomplished Italian Americans have already represented their community in a positive light, and how closely their identity is interwoven with American society as a whole. As well, their identity as Italians is by now largely nostalgic -- generations have passed since their immigrant great-grandparents first landed on American soil. Many Italian Americans no longer identify themselves with Italy at all, and the Old World customs have diffused into mainstream culture.
Iranian Americans constitute a much more recent phenomenon. The cultural stereotypes to which they are tied are also much more immediate and threatening: unlike Italy -- which evokes images of the rolling hills of Tuscany, the museums of Florence, Rome's epic ruins -- Iran is identified as a belligerent adversary of America's, associated with the attacks of 9/11, and depicted as a terrorist, extremist state. This leaves Iranian Americans much more vulnerable to negative stereotyping and vitriolic reactions from an ill-informed public, as well as the loss of jobs and career opportunities.
Iranian Americans, still a largely unknown immigrant group, are inching their way toward a positive identity. Whether or not The Persian Version strikes an embarrassing blow to this fragile effort, or just happens to endear the general American public to an assembly of comically spoiled kids, is an open question. The answer, once again, lies in the hands of a Hollywood production company.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau