Tiger King, Its Cultures, and the American Dream

A nation's collective ambition, raw and festering

Tiger King, Its Cultures, and the American Dream

Despite the harsh, Midwestern twang of my a’s, I was not raised in the United States. I grew up in Ireland, learning Gaelic, attending Catholic school, and understanding myself as primarily European, one stamp on my Irish passport at a time. But this does not detract from the facts: I am of hearty Midwestern stock, born to a mother from Cleveland and a father from Omaha. As one might expect, we ate meatloaf, watched football, and unilaterally harbor a congenital love of (preferably loud) explosives.

As I got older, this dualism worked both to my benefit and detraction. For one, I was notably foreign in Ireland and assumed to bear the worst of American stereotypes. My growing-boy lunch boxes, filled to the brim with every carbohydrate under the sun, became a textbook example of American indulgence. Likewise, my recklessness on the rugby pitch became proof of an innate American violence; my hunger for competition (and victory) reminiscent of Ricky Bobby’s parodical mantra, “If you’re not first, you’re last!

Still, I found myself uniquely capable of bridging the transatlantic cultural divide, a useful ability regardless, but particularly when coming of age in an increasingly politicized (read: polarized) world. Beyond being able to explain the rules of (American) football in rugby terminology, I was criminally uninformed and eager to please, and could thus regurgitate puerile putdowns amounting to pronouncements of American national idiocy — yes, my fellow countrymen were nothing more than gun-toting, war-mongering, chronically obese clowns — confirming my interlocutors' biases while providing recourse to my accent and citizenship.

I now give little thought to these instances; we were ignorant, media-hungry kids, eager to make a meal of whatever asinine comment W. had served up the press that day. I found that coming to understand the falsehood of such stark delineations of good and evil, and learning to speak for oneself, came part and parcel of the sense-making project that is maturation. But with each repetition of this puppet act, I became acutely aware of a baren truth, one which seemed inarticulable to my more American family: for however inexcusable they deemed the behavior of the country’s conservative masses, their vision would forever be clouded by an amorphous patriotism that prevented them from ever truly denouncing what I knew to be far from the rest of the developed world’s norms.

At an almost atavistic level, my family felt inextricably bound to their fellow Americans regardless of their actions, as if even the most deplorable actors amounted to no more than crazy aunts and uncles.

The more I thought about this phenomenon, the more confused I became. Sure, my parents were Midwestern, but they were far from your run-of-the-mill hicks; both moved to New York as teenagers to attend private universities, found careers and lives in politically progressive, educated circles, and started a family amidst the swirl of the country’s biggest cosmopolis. Of course, it was eventually Ireland’s literary heritage that brought us to Dublin, my mother finding work amongst the city’s literati. But no matter how normalized the liberalness of American, and later European, cultural capitals became, logical thought only extended so far before it was impeded by a reactionary, almost jingoist sense of right and wrong.

Yes, it was insane to own guns! Who could ever need one?! Surely, to have a gun simply gave those who would use them nefariously all the more reason to buy one! But of course, my family demurred, the ability to own and carry a gun was an inalienable right, one which, if dissolved, would undermine the very foundation of our national identity.

Yes, social safety nets and governmental programs were imperative! People should not be punished for systemic, generational poverty, particularly when they are never given the requisite tools to lift themselves from such conditions! But when asked to apply such thinking to America? My parents felt that such programs amounted to little more than “governmental meddling”, and that pity cannot be taken for those who have suffered under the weight of inequality, not when they had the “American Dream”.

The cognitive dissonance of this thinking reached obscene ends. Half-baked Nixonian conceptions of nationalism — amounting to almost delusional conceptions of American exceptionalism — had so thoroughly been hammered into my parents that the bounds of their own reason were made decidedly finite. The belief they placed in the American system, and the onus they place on those whom the system failed, extended well beyond where reasonable — I soon gave up on giving airtime to my resident apologists, and learned, as my mother would say, to stay schtum.

Until recently, I had chalked up this backwards logic to one of the myriad dysfunctionalities harbored by most, if not all American families; the kinds of conversations reserved solely for the annual screaming matches over Thanksgiving dinner. And then I watched Tiger King, and what’s worse, I read commentary surrounding the show. While every podcast and article was rife with note of the class dysfunction on display, everything I read and heard seemed to egregiously — and heartbreakingly — miss the point. While clarity is an elusive quality, when it comes to the precipitous decline of a gun-toting, mullet-donning, “queer as a three-dollar-bill” zookeeper and his self-funded tiger park, there must be more to be garnered from the show than simply a cumulative 5.3 billion streaming minutes of wasted time.

I promptly realized more than simply a television show was at hand. An examination of the show’s logic, and its mass-misconstrual by an otherwise third-party domestic audience, stands to shed light on some of the darkest realities of the contemporary American condition. The show requires some attention, but only in detailing what it is that the audience has misunderstood, and how small misunderstandings have the power to signal much graver undercurrents.

While we may choose to conceive of Tiger King as existing in a vacuum, one that is not necessarily inflected by social mores, the show’s events as they unfold could not be more closely linked to the very cultures that have made them possible. The “trashiness” on display, with each pump of a shotgun and rev of a quad bike throttle, is not something to be casually discarded as spectacle. Instead, it sounds a siren towards specific social imperatives and economies that are integral to the operation of American life, yet often to its detriment.

In one sense, the commentators were correct: Tiger King is a harrowing display of the underclasses of American society. It so clearly demonstrates the disturbing potentialities of marginalization in this country, and of what stands to happen upon becoming enraptured with second-rate demagogues and self-styled kings of the underworld. Yet, most everyone seemed to ascribe this to systemic disadvantage. Tiger King became understood as “poverty porn” at its worst, with commentators deriding viewers for taking pleasure in other people’s suffering, tsk-tsking from behind their keyboards.

Tiger King is poverty porn for people who like to see people make hot messes of themselves while feeling superior to the residents of Flyover county”, writes Russell Cobb, a professor at the University of Alberta, in The Conversation. Another commentator, Kevin Fallon at The Daily Beast, writes, “It doesn’t take the most astute cultural critic to point out that the real zoo here is the show’s subjects, a crass kind of poverty porn that spins systemic downtroddenness into hillbilly laughs and serves up the interests, relationships, and realities of rural America into something to be gawked at and amused by”. This tack is rather convenient: digitally lambasting the masses is no more than a thinly-veiled moralism, endemic to the more “civilized” corners of the web.

In reality, none of the major characters — namely, Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, Carol Baskin, and Jeff Lowe — could accurately be called poor, let alone impoverished. No doubt, their assets are grossly mismanaged and their employees are both overworked and underpaid, but that is distinct altogether. That poverty is symptomatic of capitalism run rampant, devoid of compassion, empathy, and gratitude, not an ability to make money.

In fact, capital is not only paraded throughout the show, it is the show. That zoo? Assets. Those tigers? Assets. Those trucks, leather jackets, and garish silver belt buckles? Assets, Assets, Assets.

Carol Baskin, equal parts nemesis and anti-hero, is open about her wealth, boasting a worth in the millions of dollars. Even the designated conman of the show, Jeff Lowe, whose bombastic ostentation fools the less wary into mislaid faith in great fortune, still has money — rented as the Ferrari and mansion may be, they still come with a price tag. To call this “poverty porn” is unspeakably offensive to the forty-six million-plus people in this country who work hard to live dignified lives in true poverty. One ought to know better than to throw around weighty terms as we watch large children spend all their cash on shiny, empty toys.

Tiger King is a pageant of “trashiness” in all of its excess, while finding comfort in the term’s class paradox. While derogatory in its articulation — people are not “trash” — it remains the best term to express a distinction of “lower-class-dom” without a necessary financial referent. Wealth, as we understand but rarely articulate, hardly precludes one from “trashiness.” Instead, as the show laboriously details, frivolously spent wealth signals a gross misdirection of capital, not a lack thereof. That’s to say, it appears that what most commonly engenders class disparities in this country is not money at all, but the cultural values that money serves, and the absurd ends it can achieve.

Unable to point fingers at the oft-framed “disadvantage”, there remains no other option than to interrogate the very system that has bred such an unpalatable cast of characters. While “big cats” are nominally the passion of those involved, they are driven by something entirely different: fame and fortune, and if those prove unattainable, notoriety and power.

A thirst for fame and fortune seem to epitomize the pursuits of Doc Antle and Carole Baskin, respectively. Is it not a need for fame that drives Antle to become the foremost purveyor of exotic animals to Hollywood, and more sinisterly, Miami drug lords? As for Baskin, the ostentation of her significant wealth, along with an unwillingness to pay her host of slavish “volunteers”, demonstrates an intense desire to accrue, and maintain, fortune.

Meanwhile, for the show’s more destitute Exotic, power becomes an explicit aim, fueling his presidential run. When that fails, he takes political aim at the Oklahoma Governor’s race, largely by parading his tigers in what one can only assume is a compensatory gesture, perhaps in the same vein as his personalized condoms, reading “Vote Joe Exotic — For Your Protection”. Finally, notoriety is perhaps most apt for Jeff Lowe, who felt it appropriate to wheel tiger cubs in carry-on luggage through the halls of Las Vegas casinos, to no ends greater than the casual sex afforded by vacuous displays of wealth.

And all the while, the rest of us sit comfortably quarantined on our couches at home, at times laughing, at times recoiling in mock-terror, understanding all of this as simply the delusional ‘shenanigans’ of the foolhardy vain.

Why haven’t we called our local representatives, or better, Joe Exotic’s representatives, to question how these atrocities occurred on American soil and demand guarantees they will never happen again? Why are we not frantically flipping through the pages of the APA’s Manual of Mental Disorders to find a diagnosis for what surely amounts to pathological self-aggrandizement?

In some perverse way, we understand these characters. In fact, we empathize with them. While many of us have tailored our lives and aspirations to conform to the realities of a more moderate world, we often remain driven, or at least enticed, by the very things these people chase down so fervently.

While many of us have refracted our “American Dreams” through the prisms of upper-middle-class comfort and societal respect, we can’t help but feel a wretched kinship with those who unabashedly swallow those dreams whole. Much like my parents, we can never truly escape the false specter of swift upward mobility and unfettered “rights”, no matter how normalized the conventions (and realities) of the developed world become. The problem though, is that for those who do labor to open their gullets and stretch their bellies for that unrefined American Dream, they find it comes with much more skin and bone, entrail and fat, than it does meat. What lies on display in Tiger King is “trashiness” understood as ‘American ideals’ explored to their logical extremes — The American Dream: Raw & Festering.

But we must go further. The idea that reactionary worldviews are intrinsically tied to material poverty disregards what here is fact: these behaviours work in tandem with the localized economies of regions that foster such skewed perceptions of reality.

Joe’s GW Exotic Animal Park, in its very existence, underscores this — it is veritably insane for a private individual to set up a park of exotic animals. This is not to mention that those exotic animals are tigers, that this is in the middle of Oklahoma, and these people are without a single credential or the skills necessary to appropriately care for these creatures. This insanity is given credence by the fact that it actually is illegal in forty-three states. And still, as we see in Tiger King, people flocked to Joe’s dystopian wonderland, eager to pay extravagant sums to hold in their arms wild animals bred and maintained with reckless and frequently cruel abandon.

In many ways, this is akin to your neighbor, formerly an innocuous IT maintenance professional, not only breeding bear cubs in his backyard, but inviting small children to play with them. While you may be driven to calling the police, the particular regional cultures in which Joe, Carol, Doc, and Jeff exist are designed to reward such ill-conceived industriousness, driving people to happily form orderly cues for entry, and in Carole’s case, work long hours of manual labor for no more than a sense of inclusion and privilege.

The “trashiness” invoked in the show could actually be understood as the inverse of “poverty” — it is what allows one to avoid the misfortune of material lack by (literally) capitalizing on a set of outlandish and perverted social values. Damningly, those not brought up amidst such values of unfettered industriousness. instinctively ascribe these hair-brained get-rich-quick schemes to the desperate, malfunctioning, or both. In parts of this country, where inspired depravity has the capacity to create fortunes, the relationship between economic and social class can in fact become oppositional.

To some degree, we viewers must be willing to readily discard our sympathy for vast swathes of Middle America that exist under this rubric — as sentient beings, they’re responsible for their own decisions. But this doesn’t negate the truth that those who are otherwise unacculturated to coastal social mores and globalized conceptions of commerce are every day working within a set of social and economic principles so absurd that we film shows for the very purpose of laughing at them. And the end result is not that the director yells cut and that we return to our adulterated, rather tame lives, but that these worlds continue to exist without the camera, pigeon-holed into failing economies and limited opportunities, preventing these regions’s denizens from ever fully taking part in the developed world as it unfolds.

As we know well but choose to ignore, the rest of the developed world is not like this, nor are they willing to offer the seemingly-endless line of good-willed rope that we Americans allow to pass through our hands. This generous helping of slack doesn’t empower upward mobility, so much as it reinforces the glass ceiling placed over much of this country.

While so many live happily (and obliviously) within the ever-constricting confines of social — and resultantly, economic — regression, even more of us sit and bemusedly watch as our country is done a great disservice. It is not without a small dose of irony that those who most fervently believe in American exceptionalism will be the agents of its downfall, and the rope the rest of us offer will be that which they use to hang themselves.

Jacob Barnes

is a writer and editor born in New York, raised in Dublin, Ireland, and currently living in London. After working in the film industry, he decided to start Soft Punk with Charlie in the summer of 2019. Since then, Jacob has worked as a writer, editor, publisher, and curator for numerous publications and organizations spanning the United States and Europe.

All contributions from Jacob Barnes

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