Photo from Netflix

Episode 90—Tiger King, Of Course

Maybe you’ve seen the Tiger King memes all over the internet? If so, you are probably wondering what Tiger King is all about?

Is Tiger King truly the genius documentary that we all need right now? Or is this miniseries really just Jerry Springer with giant f-ing cats? Check out the podcast above for our dissection of America’s morbid fascination with the hit phenomenon.

And check out Johnny Genie’s expanded thoughts on the Tiger King below.

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What is it about a “thing”, that it can so broadly speak to us as a people? No, I don’t mean a global pandemic or a moving speech on the state of the world to rouse the masses.

I am, of course, talking about Joe Exotic–the one and only Tiger King, a “legend” who has found his way into so many homes over the past few weeks.

In this strange and straining year that is 2020, so far, we’ve all “circled the wagons” and “battened down the hatches” and whatever other colloquialism captures the brand of agoraphobic, self-isolating mania you’ve chosen for yourself. It seems to me—for the first time in a generation—people are starting to wake up and think about everything from the large, overarching structures that shape our lives and make up our routines, to how many times we touch our faces, to constantly asking ourselves “is this essential?”

Times of great crisis and change SHOULD induce some self-reflection—that isn’t my concern at all. In this time of careful selection, and parsing of what we allow in our homes and bodies, how has America so thoroughly embraced the insanity of Tiger King, and welcomed this madness into our living rooms and psyche? There are, indeed, some truly startling implications lying just beneath the surface here.

I should clarify that my judgments are more about “we the people” and how we ingest this content—not on the documentarians who did a marvelous job. Everyone interviewed believed they were somehow the “good guy”, shedding light on this least understood world, and appealing to us to take a stance.

 Regardless of the apparent horrors perpetrated against exotic animals and the manipulative practices done to the workers at these various “zoos”, let’s call them, why does it strike such a chord with us, the viewers? Is it just another true crime style series that came out while we are all a hunkered down captive audience, or is it such a captivating cast of characters that we can’t look away—in the vein of a carnival freak show?

 I fear the answer is something far worse: the American obsession and outward susceptibility to “cults of personality”. 

Whether you voted for Trump or not, you must concede he was elected based on his “personality”—not his policies or ability to do that job, beating out literally, a dozen more qualified candidates. I sense this is happening again with the acceptance of Joe Exotic, as somehow—if not a lovable character—certainly a tragically relatable figure.

There’s just something about a leather-fringe wearing, six-shooter toting, bleach-blonde mullet sporting, gay polygamist, zookeeper who lies, cheats, and steals, that people find “genuine”.

It’s not that these traits make him either admirable or deplorable; it’s just that we can’t imagine someone doing all that as an act—that someone expressing themselves this way MUST be serious in their identity. An eerie resemblance  to many Trump supporters, who even once you catalog and list off his many disingenuous statements and flat out lies, there is still something “believable” about their leader when he talks to them.

I find the parallels between Joe Exotic and President Trump don’t stop there, and have to wonder if their ability to amass appeal is similarly linked. Both born to overbearing fathers, who lost brothers to substance abuse issues in their early adulthood, who sought to create a grand image of themselves, and feed off the strange mix of adoration and envy they both seem to absorb so readily. That these two radically different men, from such radically different worlds, use the same playbook, and it appears to work, has stuck in my brain these last few weeks—and I can’t get it out. 

The next, and equally concerning question to ask is, what does it say about us, as the public? How many people like myself are aware of Joe Exotic’s self-aggrandizing, manipulative, and dishonest way of dealing with the world and watch anyways? How many people are enjoying the Tiger Kingmania? And is it in spite of these traits, or because of them, that we are so enthralled? Am I losing my mind posing such philosophic quandaries about a guy with a bunch of fucking big cats while trapped in my home?

It really is hard to tell, but there’s definitely something there. So here are some more worrisome questions raised by the documentary that have been gnawing away at me:

Who are all these people paying to see tigers? And do they really think it’s a humane practice? Do they care if it is? And why do these big cat owners call their “pets” “sexy” all the time? Is it just me or is that the weirdest part?

The national debate that has been spawned by all this is NOT—as Carole Baskin would say—at all like the “BlackFish equivalent to the Big Cat world” that she was hoping this series would be. The focus is NOT on the animals, or the private collections system that exists in this country. It is also NOT about the troubling question of what do we do with these cats if their natural habitats have shrunken to oblivion or simply gone?

If you go to the internet, the big question is: did Carole Baskin kill her husband, and feed him to tigers? A fascinating question for sure, but a little disappointing that it is the main takeaway.

To clarify, I am not about to virtuously tell you to do better, or care more, or try harder—I’m just as mesmerized by the carnivalesque sideshow as anyone. Unfortunately, I’ve looked away from the chicken-head biting geeks, and saw the faces in the crowd, and am now far more concerned with what’s going on in their minds than in the performers.

Why hasn’t this series led to a national clamor for legislation? For regulation and oversight of these egomaniacal and deranged animal keepers? Why is SeaWorld still open? And why is Carole Baskin’s whodunnit the main takeaway from this whole ordeal?

Is it simply easier to pass judgment on individual players like Joe and Carole, than the implication of a societal reordering of what is acceptable or normal behavior, to exhibit and enjoy?

I wish I had a succinct little wrap up to these musings with a mix of jest and justice to help make sense of it all or at least make you feel better about this whole thing. But I don’t. 

There’s tons of motivational nonsense in the world about “living your truth”, “follow your dreams”, and the like. Is that the main appeal of Joe? That he seems to be living “the dream” of doing exactly what he wanted with his life, despite how absurd it may sound?

Any of us working at a desk, or more likely, working for a boss we KNOW we are smarter than, can relate to a man who built his own little kingdom, and made it a paradise as he saw it. Then he lost it all, and more, including his freedom, as he is currently serving a 22-year prison sentence (the poetic justice of a man who caged animals for decades for profit, finds himself in a for-profit prison system is somewhat tragically sublime) while his maybe-murderous nemesis is free and thriving with her own cats.

Is it American’s natural affinity for an underdog who has lost it all that makes him a more endearing character? I have no idea, and naturally, have many more questions than when I started. Worse, each one I try to answer poses a cascade of further queries.

I suppose that is the point of good art though; it should definitely ask more questions than it answers. Much like a large cat in a cage in Oklahoma, it would probably be best to find a new home for such obsessive thoughts—but I just can’t. And so just like the Tiger King, I’m subjecting you all to them.

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