By Behnam Gholipour
December 8, 2020
The Islamic Republic of Iran has generally viewed celebrity stardom in the context of how it can be restricted as a security concern. Over time, however, this approach has evolved. A recent “strategic report” on celebrities in Iran has shed light on the Iranian government’s changing attitude to the phenomenon of celebrity – and admonishes officials for their “total resignation” in the face of a once-cultural, now political phenomenon.
The modern concept of celebrity has taken root in societies the world over as a result of technological, economic, cultural and social changes over the past century. In Iran, the idea of celebrity fame is often considered in parallel with the experience of modernity as a whole, and the arrival of mass communication technologies in particular.
Because of this, it comes as little surprise that officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran believe the fundamental values of celebrity culture are in conflict with the values and norms of an idealized Islamic society. And yet the former has continued to grow in Iran, with the role of celebrities as cultural and political referents in Iranian society becoming more and more influential as the years go by. For this reason, politicians in Iran continue to find themselves in a direct and difficult confrontation with celebrity culture.
In late September this year the Center for Strategic Studies, the research arm of the office of the Iranian President, published a report entitled Overview of Cultural Policies in the Face of Celebrity Culture in Iran. It re-examined the history of celebrities and castigated the past policies of the Islamic Republic in dealing with this phenomenon.
Among others, the report examined the career trajectories of such Iranian singing and sporting stars as Dariush, Googoosh, and Gholamreza Takhti, characterizing them as “celebrities of the Pahlavi period”. It also charted attempts to change the focus of popular cinema in the early days after the Islamic Revolution.
“During this period,” the report noted, “the presence of female actors in films came with rules that stated one should not use women’s faces to make the film compelling. Actresses, even those who had the potential to become stars, had to play roles that did not take advantage of their physical attractiveness. These stipulations were somewhat observed for men as well, but were more stringent for women.”
After the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime, “a lot of opposition to celebrity culture” was observed in Iran, but over time “the level of resistance gradually reduced, creating the conditions for its re-emergence and expansion, so that in the present period this culture has greatly expanded and wields considerable influential power.”
The Center for Strategic Studies declared the resurgence of celebrity culture in Iran a result of “the introduction of [new] technological equipment and capabilities, social changes, and developments in society.” Specifically, it said, a combination of “Western celebrity culture” and “specific conditions” in Iran were to blame for the growth and flourishing of local celebrity culture, together with the allocation of government budgets to cultural and artistic activities. But it also noted celebrities’ relative independence from the government, based on “the weakness of legal and official intermediaries [which] has left celebrities responsible for marketing and managing their own image”.
Bans and Blacklists Give Way to ‘Resignation’
Instead of dealing with “the structural causes affecting the spread of celebrity culture”, the report said, Iranian officials had too often focused on banning isolable actors, mediums or individual works of art. The endlessly “direct and harsh confrontation” of the political system with celebrities, it stated, “has turned the cultural into political” – to the point that “any kind of misconduct or incompatibility is considered a political and security crisis.”
“A review of past experiences shows the inefficiency of cultural policy in the face of celebrity culture in Iran,” the report goes on. “Most of these policies start with an initial ban on the person and over time, the degree of restrictions decreases. The policy of prohibition becomes a policy of giving up, and eventually, of total resignation.”
Furthermore, the report said, the “weakness” of political parties and non-governmental organizations, and the low participation of academics and experts in public discourse, had created the conditions for the elevated political status of celebrities and their “superficial and non-specialist comments in the public sphere”. For instance, it said, “the participation of celebrities in the event of natural disasters can be attributed to a decline in public trust in official institutions.”
The Center for Strategic Studies also said the same “resignation” had crept into the broader cultural approach of the Islamic Republic. Initial shutdowns of radio and satellite channels were later replaced with restrictions that are now largely defunct. The same has gone for individual policies, such as a 2008 prohibition on the appearance of artistic and sports figures in advertising, which was watered down to a set of restrictions in 2014 and has been completely abandoned in 2020.
This text is one of very few official strategic reports available in Iran that addresses the “issue” of celebrity culture head-on, and in an unusual way. Over the past 20 years, the Islamic Republic’s policy of intolerance has seen countless famous artists and stars summoned, interrogated, detained or blacklisted. Perhaps, the report suggests, this has been a counter-productive stance all along.