Hey all you cool cats and kittens.
Gird your loins.
Like many people, my wife and I got sucked in to the Netflix documentary, Tiger King, as a much-needed distraction from our COVID-induced lockdown.
It was, well… a lot.
Admittedly, finding life-lessons in the show might seem as likely as extracting high nutritional value from a bag of Cheetos. But since Cheetos may be all I have left soon, here goes.
“I SAW TIGER”
For the uninitiated, the king himself (“Joe Exotic”) hails from down the road from me in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. He’s an openly gay, gun-toting, mullet-wearing, lip-synching, PETA-hating polygamist (technically: polyandrist) who owned several hundred live tigers in a private collection.
Joe ran for Governor in 2018 and received 18% of the Libertarian primary vote. But that was before his conviction in a murder for hire investigation, which sent him to a federal prison that is currently infected with COVID-19.
Some have argued that Tiger King’s absurd storyline (in which reality and Reality TV converge) is the perfect match for our current cultural moment. And by some people, I mean my friend Josh who sells electric motorbikes and month-by-month phone plans. (Hi Josh.)
K. B. Hoyle describes it this way over at Christ and Pop Culture:
[It is] not a documentary so much as a circus presented to a captive America during a time of crisis while we wait for the government to dole out to us our bread.
There are only villains and victims in this story—no winners and no heroes.
Hoyle’s claim is that when “bread” is short, we settle easily for “circus.” (Read the whole thing here.)
But what lessons can we glean from Joe in a time when schools, church buildings, and counseling offices are largely closed to the public?
I’ve boiled it down to three F-words: (1) freedom, (2) fame, (3) frauds.
One question the series raises involves how far our individual “freedoms” should go. And that’s especially relevant in a time of social distancing.
Where else on earth can one buy, breed, and monetize hundreds of man-eating tigers in their own backyard? Answer: I don’t know. But I bet places like Oklahoma are just a teensy bit unique on planet earth.
We Americans like freedom, and rightly so.
We don’t like people saying we can’t do what we want: Even if what we want are two hundred live tigers, three husbands, and a private military arsenal in the woods behind a Casey’s gas station.
It’s in the Constitution. Or not. I’ll Google it.
But what if—and just go with me here…—total individual freedom is not the highest good? Perhaps in some cases, thumbing our nose at regulations—say, a social distancing order—could actually result in a massive loss of freedom for others (say, health care workers)?
(I say this after having driven by the local Lowe’s and noting how packed it still is. Do they sell food and ventilators now?)
Sometimes, a “freedom first” mentality has advantages—like an entrepreneurial spirit or a resistance to dictatorship. But absolutizing the “I can do what I want” mindset is as foolish as sticking your arm (or that of your ER nurse) inside a tiger cage.
A second point raised by the show is how far people are willing to go to be famous.
By the end, Joe’s friends all admit that his passion stopped being tigers and started being celebrity. It’s why he ran for Governor, started an internet show, created terrible lip-synched videos (see here), and filmed literally every moment on his giant tiger-topia—including some that helped land him in jail.
Herein lies a parable for “leaders” in the age of internet celebrity.
Chasing fame incentivizes ever more outrageous behaviors, statements, and hairstyles.
Before you know it you’re in federal prison. Or federal office. It goes both ways.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the documentary (nope, I take that back) is the way it slowly causes you to question which “tiger person” is most fraudulent.
Which big cat lover is actually most deranged and dangerous?
Joe, of course, wears his absurdity like gaudy earrings—nine per lobe. But his bête noire of big cat breeding is a tiger queen named Carole Baskin.
Carole is beloved in the animal rights community for her attempts to “rescue” cats from exploitative keepers. Yet as the series rolls on, you start to wonder if Carole and Joe are that different. (Not to mention the defacto cult leader “Doc” Bhagavan Antle, who runs another private zoo/harem.)
Like Joe, Carole Baskin also lives under a cloud of murder rumors (her millionaire husband disappeared mysteriously); she too makes money off of caged cats; and she too has legions of followers who serve as near slave labor for her big cat kingdom.
To cite Hoyle again, “There are several predators [here]”–and none of them are tigers.
Who really cares about the animals?
Who is the bigger fraud?
Now for my super-sentimental conclusion.
At the end of every Jerry Springer episode, Jerry shared a “Final Thought.” It was an absurd attempt to spin the show’s empty calories into something poignant and practical so viewers would feel better about having consumed them—like wrapping dog poop in a page from Chicken Soup for the Soul and handing it to the audience with a smile.
This blog post is like that.
But after 27 seasons, Jerry’s final Final Thought was this: “We’re not better than these people. We just dress better.”
Is that true of me and you and Joe Exotic?
I don’t think so.
But then again, we loved the show; and we’ve been wearing sweatpants for weeks.
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