No, ‘Shahs Of Sunset,’ You Aren’t The Iranian Rosa Parkses Of The TV Industry

This truly is a new standard in sublime ridiculousness: one of the stars of Bravo’s reality show Shahs of Sunset, about well-to-do members of Los Angeles’ Persian community, has decided she’s a civil rights icon:

“It took someone like Rosa Parks to say, ‘I’m not getting on the back of the bus,’ to start a movement,” cast member Golnesa “GG” Gharachedaghi told The Huffington Post. “She got a lot of drama for it, but at the end of the day it started something so revolutionary and I feel like we are doing the same in respect of the entertainment industry.

“Knowing we are the first doing this so our egos are a little bit bigger than should be,” Gharachedaghi continued. “We are paving the way. It’s been difficult being Persian on TV. I don’t think anyone has given us as much drama and bullshit as the Persian community. There has never been anything out there about Persians before.”

Now, I’m not one to suggest that we’ve achieved all of our diversity goals in popular culture, by any means. But there’s a lot of evidence that Iranian-American actors — as well as South Asian actors — have broken into television quite successfully. And their successes raise interesting questions about why they’ve succeeded where African-American characters have actually lost ground on television.

In between Fairly Legal and Life, Iranian-American actress Sarah Shahi alone has two-thirds as many starring or co-headlining roles in television series in the past decade than African-American actresses have had collectively. Nazanin Boniadi (Tom Cruise’s pre-Katie Holmes girlfriend) did 119 episodes on General Hospital between 2007 and 2009, and had a fairly long arc on How I Met Your Mother, in addition to her recurring work on other television series. Maz Jobrani hasn’t had as steady a role as he did on Better Off Ted in some time, but he also recurs regularly. Shaun Toub, who also appeared in Iron Man works regularly in television, including in HBO’s Luck. Adrian Pasdar even played the President of the United States in Political Animals.

Not all of the reasons for these successes are particularly comfortable or helpful. I’d be willing to bet that most people who see Shahi on screen assume that she’s Caucasian rather than that she has Iranian heritage. And the rise of terrorism as a significant subject for television has created work for actors of Middle Eastern origin, like Navid Negahban, who played super-terrorist Abu Nazir on Showtime’s Homeland. But it’s absolutely significant that television feels comfortable casting Middle Eastern and South Asian actors as a lot of different kinds of professionals, from research scientists in Better Off Ted to white-collar legal mediators in Fairly Legal, while African-American actors still often end up breaking into heroic television professions as cops partnered with white counterparts, or as military officers like Andre Braugher in Last Resort.

Gharachedaghi’s comments aren’t offensive just because they trivialize the risk that Rosa Parks too, and the basic liberties African-Americans were denied, though of course they do that. They’re frustrating because she’s failing to acknowledge the work that Iranian and Iranian-American actors have already done to blow open opportunities in the industry for their counterparts.