Reality TV: When they won't believe women

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There’s something interesting happening on Shahs of Sunset this season. It’s a typical Bravo reality show in most ways—the main characters are a group of highly polished Iranian-American friends in Los Angeles (many of whom have known each other since high school) who drive expensive cars even if they’re only marginally employed, throw lavish parties for no reason, and spend just as much time fighting as they do having fun. Asa Soltan Rahmadi, the self-described “Persian Pop Priestess,” buried $30,000 worth of gold coins in the ground when she bought her new house, and Mercedes "MJ" Javid recently kept the body of her newly dead dog in her kitchen freezer instead of leaving him with the vet. Totally normal reality TV stuff.

But a serious accusation has infiltrated this fourth season. In the second episode, Golnesa “GG” Gharachedaghi told a couple of cast members that another cast member, Mike Shouhed, “tried to have sex" with her during a group trip to Turkey last season. The story eventually gets out to the rest of the cast, and the ripple effect is so strong the newly engaged Mike is eventually isolated from the group entirely.


Being that this is a reality show, most of the event in Turkey is on tape. Both GG and Mike were very drunk, which neither of them denies. He was playing with the back of her thong while they were drinking at a bar, both of them surrounded by their friends and laughing. They went up to their rooms, and there’s some footage of them together, drunk, still laughing. Then they go into a room together, and the door closes. GG doesn’t say that Mike sexually assaulted her, instead saying he tried to have sex with her and, at one point, was on top of her, without elaborating much more. Her sadness seems to stem from the fact that they’ve been friends for a really long time, and even though they’ve flirted in the past he clearly crossed a line by trying to push it further, especially since he was dating Jessica, his fiancée, at the time.

The situation made me do something I never want to do when I hear about sexual assault: I’m going over the events with a fine-toothed comb and trying to figure out who's telling the truth. But the show pushes you to do that; in true reality show fashion, this situation is all about provoking a response in the viewer, not necessarily sorting out the truth. It's very important to GG that people believe something inappropriate happened, but she won't give details, and she never frames it as rape or sexual assault.


The whole thing becomes even more upsetting when GG decides to take a lie detector test and is slut-shamed by the old, white, gray-haired man administering the test. She says she’s nervous about the test and reliving the events from that night, even with MJ there for moral support. Before she’s even hooked up and strapped in to the machine, the man asks her a series of innocuous questions about what happened; when GG tells him that she lost track of how much she had to drink that night, he asks how she ended up alone in a hotel room with Mike. When she admits that she left to go to bed and Mike came to get her to ask if she wanted to hang out, the test dude says, “Why do you think he wanted to hang out with you at three in the morning?” Remember—she’s not hooked up to the machines yet, and this is just some guy trying to scope out the situation. GG later tells the camera that she felt like he was judging her before he even performed the test, and says “What’s the point of even doing the test if he has his mind made up?” The results, perhaps unsurprisingly, came back inconclusive.

But a lie detector test is a better test of anxiety than it is truth. In this instance it feels like a reality TV stunt, but there's a real person being shamed.

GG is framing this as sexual inpropriety at worst and a betrayal of friendship at best; she never says Mike sexually assaulted her. What picqued my interest, however, is that the lie detector test administrator was grilling her in the manner of a sexual assault victim, and then immediately using what he learned to shame her about her pretty realistic actions of hanging out with a friend while drunk. Why couldn’t he just shut up and do his job—his job not being the judgment of her actions but the (pseudo) science of whether or not she’s telling the truth about what she experienced with Mike? Why is it so difficult for some men to believe women as a default?

Even though the incident is explicitly framed not as a sexual assault, the scenes about GG’s credibility implicitly stand in as dramatic reenactments of what happens to women, especially women of color, who report rapes and sexual assaults. How do you prove it? Who gets to judge? Who gets believed? The show lowers the stakes, but then play-acts these questions out. And I’ve never been so uncomfortable watching reality TV.


The issue for GG’s friends is that her moral indignation about the whole night comes hot on the heels of her telling lies and having violent outbursts for years. GG hides knives around her house, gets into shoving matches with people at pool parties, and once told her sister “I would love to cut your face with a knife right now” during a spat about their shared business. Everyone eventually comes around to believing her, but GG’s history plays into their decision making process pretty heavily.

The strange thing is that Mike’s history plays into their decision-making process, too, in a way that we’re not traditionally used to seeing men’s sexual history questioned. Long-time friend Reza told Mike that he knows Mike has always been a slut, and it didn’t matter who he slept with until he brought it into their circle of friends. Asa doesn’t have a hard time believing that Mike tried to have sex with GG, and neither does MJ, both saying that they know how he usually acts. They’re all on board with how Mike and GG’s past behavior has informed what may or may not have happened, even though they end up taking GG’s word over his.


In the end, GG took a new, digitized lie detector test with a different administrator and passed; we’re still not sure what that means, given that most lie detector tests are sort of BS. But the conflict between GG and Mike continues, and is the main storyline of the season.

Shahs of Sunset is intentionally a circus. This is not a serious show; they cultivate and exploit drama. It’s interesting to see the show take on a topic as serious the way we default culturally to not believing women and treat it like another event happening under the tent.


Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.