Alright, I’m doing it: defending exactly the first ⅗ of the very first episode of “Tiger King,” the COVID sensational Netflix pop-umentary, (meaning pop documentary, my newly coined word for documentaries like “Tiger King” that are about as interested in educating the public as I am in watching actual documentaries–you may proceed to hashtag that; you’re welcome).
To defend, even an incredibly small piece, of Tiger King as a cultural critic interested in nuance and radical destabilization of the status quo is going to take some very hard intellectual labor. It is labor I am willing to invest. Not because I give a fuck and a half about Joe Exotic, the start of this comic-travesty of contradictions but because I care about “the people.” So if you have developed an albeit shameful investment in this media event, then I want to know why it makes you tick. So I watched one and one half episodes. And now, I am going to proceed to tell you why you like it. That will require a two-part episode.
Part 1 you will get today, which is an episode that we call a “ground clearing.” See, when something is as popular as Tiger King, and as radically mis-read, you can’t just jump in with an alternate interpretation. You need to clear some ground first, move away some cliche cobwebs to make space for another idea. The second episode–coming to you Tuesday next–will be a reading of Episode 1 of Tiger King that is kinky and queer in the most literal and interesting senses of the word.
But first, some ground-clearing.
The media has really missed an opportunity in their critiques of Tiger King many of which like to point out how this was a missed opportunity for some social activism.
The news media has committed one of the greatest of rhetorical sins—trying to be everything to everyone. They want explanations of Tiger King that appear thoughtful so you’ll read or watch or listen to them but don’t want to fundamentally upset you because then you’ll stop reading/watching/listening. Theywant a lede–that’s fancy newspeak, Orwell pun intended, for the thesis or central argument–that can be everything to everyone.
I believe it’s a much greater accomplishment to be something to someone, or maybe even a few people. It doesn’t sell papers, so I get it, but it does let you actually say something worth saying. Which I’m definitely almost certainly maybe probably going to do in Part 2 of this episode.
But first, let us begin Part 1 with a tour of some of the more insightful of the uninsightful reviews of Tiger King, its lead star Joe Exotic, and his band of not-so-merry misfits.
First up: Jesse Locke from The Ringer:
Summarizing Joe Exotic is about as difficult as keeping him in a cage. Yet that’s where the Oklahoma roadside zookeeper is after being sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for animal abuse and the attempted murder-for-hire of Carole Baskin, his bitter rival in the wildlife game. Joe’s collection of creative projects numbered almost as high as his list of criminal convictions. The gun-toting, mullet-sporting, flamboyantly gay founder of the G.W. Exotic Animal Park is the star of Netflix’s new documentary series Tiger King…His relentless quest for fame included a self-produced reality show, failed political campaigns, and a surprisingly impressive music career. Like all multi-level marketers, Joe is a con man, but there’s a sincere passion behind his every artistic choice that somehow makes you want to buy what he’s selling.
Locke goes on to make the hyperbolic and incorrect claim that nothing in this 7-part genre-and-sometimes-gender-bending mishmash, “is as enthralling as its star’s would-be music career.”
Lock over-sells a simpler but still honorable desire: “the music videos in this show are weird. I’d like to talk about them.” But that’s about all there really is to justify the claim. Locke makes the classic public speaking novice move to justify the article, stating, “one thing that hasn’t been highlighted nearly enough is his country music.” Right, it hasn’t been highlighted because it only needed about one article. Your article is that one article, which then goes on to tour the obvious touchstones of tacky in Exotic’s musical video archive, which is considerable. Unfortunately no attempt to explain the attraction to the world of weird is made.
But Locke does say one thing worth noting:
“Lil Nas X, Orville Peck, and Trixie Mattel might be the current poster children for a queer country renaissance, but down in Oklahoma, Joe was busy cooking up his homebrewed version since 2013.”
“Queer country renaissance” is what we call in vernacular terms a paradox. Queer points to everything deviant–not only in terms of sexual attraction but also in terms of transgressing any category that is supposed to have clear lines of demarcation. Queer doesn’t fit with country, which, especially in the context of “country music,” historically the protector of strictly divided categories such as normal and fag. Yet here they are, queer and country, hanging out unexpectedly but nonetheless splendidly together. Renaissance is an altogether different piece–conjuring a kind of sophistication and public stature that queer-and-country-ness are usually denied while also hinting at the rebirth of, a new found appreciation for, both of these marginalized concepts in mainstream public life. Think about it. Whom does mainstream America love to scapegoat more than the queers and the rednecks? After all, what, or who, are we laughing at when we laugh at Tiger King memes?
I’m eventually going to latch on to Queer Country Renaissance as one of my lines of defense for the first, and only the first, episode of Tiger King. For now…we have more cliches to tour.
And as we tour, I’m going to pick up where Locke left off and take a stab at what it is that’s catchy about the music for Tiger King–specifically that it visually and lyrically fucks with the cliched interpretations we want to graft onto them because, well, it’s certainly much faster and more digestible than the 20 hours it took me to research, write, rewrite, and produce this podcast. So, with the help of my always irreplaceable-at-least-until-he-graduates producer Cal Hoag, you will be hearing some tunes along the way.
Beginning with the #1 title track from Exotic’s greatest hits, the understated yet deeply melodic, “I Saw A Tiger.” First, let’s look at the cliche it doesn’t fit.
Here’s MSNBC’s Lauren Cox:
In the midst of a pandemic, almost anything new in the entertainment world is being dubbed “the perfect escape.” But in the case of the new Netflix documentary “Tiger King,” this isn’t hyperbole. Here was exactly what we needed while self-isolating: a binge-worthy true crime docuseries. “Tiger King” mixes cults, murder, politics and fame…The problem? We’re all talking about it — but we’re mostly missing the point…In an interview with Rolling Stone, filmmaker Eric Goode explained that he and his partner, Rebecca Chaiklin, sought to explore the “pathology of people that engaged in these subcultures,” adding that they honed in specifically on the people they found were “almost more interesting than the exotic animals they’re keeping.” Joe Exotic certainly is the star of this (and his own) show, but by privileging his misadventures, we may have missed a huge opportunity to make a difference in the exotic animal trade.
Quick tip: don’t denounce a cliche and then immediately claim it as, like, really true for you tho.Tweet
Regarding this missed opportunity, let’s be honest: people are not self-aware, kind-hearted, or altruistic enough to make a television show pleading for the sanctity of exotic animals a multi-week #1 Netflix most watched Twitter trending internet sensation. And if you think Netflix picked up this “documentary” series in an attempt to appeal to the animal rights lover in all of us, then you do not understand capitalism.
And if the people responsible for this series are running around telling people this was about bringing attention to animal rights then they are fucking liars because no one needs a degree in documentary filmmaking to know that nothing about the design of this series was ever meant to get at “real issues.” If it is the animal sympathy angle wyou wanted then Netflix’s “Night on Earth”–an actual documentary about animals released earlier this year–could have made top 10 when the shelter-in-place orders hit.
Nope. Instead it was a man who sings about tigers for a reason other than the Rocky soundtrack.
I get it. These songs are tacky, obviously written and sung by someone else, hyper-partisan, self-aggrandizing. Reductive. Hackneyed. Cliched. Hot. Trash.
But so are all of the arguments about how viewers of the show “just don’t get the truth” of the animal trade. No, we don’t. You’re right. And nothing about Tiger King made that any better by sucking me into this the orgy of strange and then poo-pooing me for falling for it.
Here’s Alissa Wilkinson of Vox
Tiger King doesn’t quite manage to achieve any of its possible aims — to convince audiences to care about the fate of big cats, to say something about ego or labor or America, to make its audience think twice about what props up charismatic personalities. But it’s an undeniably entertaining look into an epic American yarn that seems far too strange to not be fiction.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m an animal lover. 10% of my after-tax income goes to the SPCA and another 10% at least goes to constantly taking my half feral adopted cats to the vet after they get their furry little ass kicked. I don’t want tigers locked up. At all. I don’t think people should own tigers, the same way people shouldn’t own designer dogs raised in puppy mills or designer half tiger cats who are genetically bred to not shed. Animals are not commodities and the fact that we treat them that way is one of the many stains on our humanity.
NOTHING about this show activated my save the tigers bleeding heart. To understand the mass appeal of this show, one of the things we’re all going to have to agree to agree on is that we will need to collectively think of “the people” as simultaneously better and worse than we normally do. Worse because people, en masse, are not going to popularize a series whose dominant payoff is the reality of animal abuse. Better because people, en masse, are also not going to popularize a series only because it’s weird, creepy, novel, sensational, or has guns in it.
Also I’ll just say it, there’s a lot about Episode 1 that does make me want to care for big cats. Just not the way that I’m supposed to want to want to care about them. Listening to Exotic sing about the fatherly and brotherly love he has for these tigers is fucking endearing I will die on that hill.
Lemme get this straight. You shove clips of a grown man in leather chaps rolling around with baby tigers in open fields and I am the one who isn’t getting the “real issues at stake” in this sensationalized dumpster fire of affection? You need to check ya motherfuckin signifiers.Tweet
But what about the argument from AJ Willingham of CNN that, “at the core of “Tiger King” madness is the thrill of learning about something entirely new.”
No. Of the many examples I could provide of where you have certainly seen all of this before, let’s stick with the music theme: who remembers this?
That is Rebecca Black’s Friday. Released in circa 2010s along with the Tea Party, you may recall that the internet went nuts mocking a 13 year old rich kid for having a birthday party where she created and recorded a music video with her friends featuring a song that, to her credit, she wrote and sang herself. Now, compared to Joe Exotic, Rebecca Black looks like Adele and the guy who won all the awards for the Lord of the Ring soundtrack had a baby. But the analogy nonetheless demonstrates that Tiger King is an entirely familiar phenomenon in the sense of the captivating basicness of it all pushing on our strict binaries between high and low culture, taste and trash.
No, If novelty were the reason then every series that discusses some entirely weird thing would be #1 on Netflix. Novelty is not a sufficient explanation.
Likewise, Scot Safon, former president of HLN, is also not helping us out by arguing that a series like “Tiger King”
“works by just piling up a bunch of TV tropes into one series”
Tell me something I don’t know.
“It’s introducing people to this subculture that has its own rituals and language and images,” explains Safon. “Plus, it has these characters you couldn’t make up. Fiction could not do it justice. There’s mystery — several mysteries — that hover around, and lots of room for speculation. And it’s hitting us all at a moment when we’re kind of in search of something worth talking about that’s not personal or related to the way we’re living.”
Safon doesn’t seem to understand how pop-umentaries work. This Joe Exotic guy created himself as a character by producing himself as an ongoing stream of random footage that these documentary makers re-produced into a new character. You absolutely CAN make Joe Exotic up; seven hours of carefully selected footage can only give you one possible caricature of a man who has been on the earth for, I’m guessing, 57 years. And talking about this show as “not personal” or “unrelated to the way we’re living” also doesn’t make any sense. You think you’re sitting around making memes about a guy that you have no connection to? Zero? No way.
I mean, what’s more relatable, obvious, and easily legible than an over-pruned wannabe, equal parts self aggrandizing and self flagellating, flaunting his derivative sense of character in search of public adulation that might fill the hole in his psych? That’s the guy we electedTweet
I’d like to note that compared to “I Saw A Tiger,” which has over 1 million YouTube views, “Pretty Woman Lover,” has only 183,000. A measly count, everything considered. If, as Safon argues, we just love all of the tropes piled into one, the most troped of the bunch is “Pretty Woman Lover,” not “I Saw A Tiger”. So why are people flocking to the one that is truly, madly, deeply queerer?
Also, the low view count for Pretty Woman Lover undermines the argument from Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, who writes in direct contrast to Safon, that Tiger King is good TV because it depends entirely on recognizable themes.
Like so many American stories, Tiger King is about ego and money and the empty grandstanding of rugged individualism, of libertarian fantasy perilously lived out on the fringes. It’s also about cults, and queer loneliness, and an unsolved disappearance. At its most profound—and engrossing—Tiger King is a portrait of a world that’s entirely alien, and yet also reflective, and diagnostic, of this country as a whole. It’s funny, and creepy, and frustrating, and, in the longview, pretty sad. Which feels just about exactly right at this particular juncture in our national experiment.
Lawson has substituted a list of themes for an argument about what, exactly, Tiger King is doing in the national imaginary. And the use of hyperbole doesn’t help. The show isn’t “empty grandstanding”–there’s some very full grandstanding, on the contrary. If unsolved disappearances explained the draw, then people could have just binged Unsolved Mysteries. If a milquetoast flopped season of a television adaptation of the film Contagion can get top billing right now, Unsolved Mysteries could have just as easily joined the COVID watch party.
Queer loneliness I’m going to put in the pile with queer country renaissance for elaboration in Episode 2.
For now, suffice it to say that Tiger King isn’t alien–much of it feels pretty familiar; in fact, Lawson literally just listed what makes it familiar: individualism and libertarianism. Teddy Roosevelt was talking about rugged individualism almost a century ago and libertarianism didn’t even make a weak plea at a third party nomination this year. “Funny,” “creepy,” and “frustrating” are generic adjectives, not explanations. And saying that the show taps into something about our current “national experiment” just begs the next question that isn’t answered; what’s the deal with our current national experiment? If Tiger King is a diagnostic for America-at-large…what, exactly, is the diagnosis? What does the popularity of Tiger King tell us about larger cultural politics? That they’re frustrating and sad?
I needed to read Vanity Fair to figure that out? I could tell all that from a few seconds of Exotic’s most watched musical hit, “Here Kitty Kitty,” which tells the story of his arch nemesis, animal rights activist Carole Baskin, whose husband Exotic has been imprisoned for conspiring to murder.
That the music video for “Here Kitty Kitty” has 6M views–6 times that of “I Saw a Tiger,” suggests something both terrible and wonderful about the people who have gone down the tiger hole–hopefully metaphoric–of Joe Exotic.
On the one hand, the appeal of this music video is almost certainly just straight up old fashioned misogyny. The utter disdain and contempt with which the world holds this Carole Baskin person who really at the end of the day did little more than just be righteously assertive about animal rights, speaks to something far deeper than your generic sense of villainy. America hates women. But I didn’t need a critique of Tiger King to tell you that.
But in its villainization of Baskin, “Here Kitty Kitty” is also intriguing in its choice of visual metaphors. To establish, in the very beginning, Baskin’s evil qualities, the Cruella Deville of Tigers so to speak, the video lingers on her as she tosses her hair, circling a sleek, black, new model Mustang convertible, longingly tracing her fingers across its shiny curves. Joe stands in the background observing her maneuvers, singing provocatively.
Now, I’m no expert on gay men, country music, or Mustang convertibles, but correct me if I’m wrong: this is the music video you make when you tryna fuck somebody.
I’m not trying to cast doubt on Exotic’s sexuality or his “true feelings” for Baskin. People buy into all sorts of figures and tropes when they’re trying to get a point across–doesn’t mean they’re secretly whatever.
But this guy managed to accidentally stumble on about the worst possible opening scene to communicate hatred and loathing that one could possibly imagine. Like, if someone said to me, “hey Lee, I need some advice on how to write a music video about a woman I absolutely hate to try to get a bunch of other gun-nuts to hate her,” I’d be like, “hmmm…whatever you do, don’t show her enjoying herself some guns. Oh yea and also don’t linger on her appreciating a brand new mustang convertible.”
The chorus of “Here Kitty Kitty” features the Baskin stand-in, in all of her golden cheetah print glory (kind of a weak diss for a man who chooses both a sequined gold tiger print blouse and rhinestone-studded black tank top in other videos), feeding a caged tiger with tongs from a giant tray piled high with raw pink meat strips surrounding—wait for it–the head of a plastic mannequin who would be gender fluid but for the dapper 1930s era head of plastic hair.
As visual imagery goes, the scene is absolutely brilliant. Not because Exotic is a brilliant communicator or because the scene communicates Exotic’s true feelings about Carole Baskin–which are that she’s a bitch. Rather, Baskin emerges as a slightly crazed but somewhat endearing figure, feeding her tigers lovingly and carefully from a silver tray with tongues, juxtaposed with the savagery of the piles of dead flesh strewn carelessly about, dripping from the mannequin head and tiger cage.
Exotic sees in Baskin the things that he seems in himself–an unsustainable mix of savage and sweet, a sense of social isolation and deviation. Baskin, like Exotic, blurs the boundaries of what is considered normal and acceptable in ways that are unsettling without necessarily being bad. We have a word for unsettling-but-not-bad–it’s “bizarre.”
As in Doha Madini of MSNBC News’ assertion that
“Tiger King” turned into an internet sensation as viewers stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic became fascinated by the bizarre-but-true story of Exotic, real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage.
Bizarre is a favored adjective in the Tiger King commentsphere. It’s the right adjective, but not for the reasons people think. For most people, bizarre means weird, foreign, a little bit creepy, strange, alien. From that perspective, Tiger King is attractive because, for lack of a better word, it’s a freak show.
Which brings us to our last media cliche explanation for Tiger King: its a freak show. Here’s Alissa Wilkinson, Vox in a different article
We, the audience, are coaxed to rubberneck, to ogle these people — carefully edited to look like hicks and freaks — as they do and say strange things. Then we make memes and jokes out of the version of their lives that the series presents, trading quips with each other that make us feel like we’re in on the gag. Or we ironically celebrate the show’s “characters” as folk heroes. The memes go viral, prompting more people to watch the series and boosting its popularity. (That there’s undoubtedly an element of class prejudice involved — look at these vulgar rednecks! — makes this extra icky.)
Describing us as coaxed directly contradicts previous claims about our own willingness to miss the point of the horrific world of the exotic pet trade. But of course the other implied piece is that we WANT to be coaxed. And that’s not entirely wrong. We aren’t always great people. Sometimes downward social comparison is just enough to fill today’s void of being. To quote the Sex Pistols, there is something to be said for taking vacations in other people’s misery. But it has limited appeal. You can’t invest in something in which you do not see at least a part of yourself.
Also, let’s all stop using irony as an explanation for everything. Irony, I love to remind people, is defined as when A returns as not A. For irony to work in the process of celebrating the show’s character’s as folk heroes, rednecks would have to be returned as civilized sophisticates or vice versa. If you’re celebrating Joe Exotic as a folk hero, then you’re either
- doing it sincerely,
- doing it sincerely but couching it as mockery so no one knows you, you know, enjoy this kind of thing,
- -or doing it mockingly because you don’t want to admit to yourself that you, you know, enjoy this kind of thing.
But that’s not irony. Irony is a word people slot in to fill the gap where thoughtful explanation and accounting for taste should be.Tweet
I’m fine with calling Tiger King a freak show mostly because I’d say there’s nothing truly captivating that doesn’t have an element of the monstrous or the bizarre about it. (e.g. Frankenstein’s first monster in Penny Dreadful.)Tweet
But bizarre and freak and weird and strange don’t simply mean things entirely foreign and other. Bizarre has a doubled meaning, Here is its etymology from Oxford English Dictionary.
“fantastical, odd, grotesque,” 1640s, from French bizarre “odd, fantastic” (16c.), from Italian bizarro “irascible, tending to quick flashes of anger” (13c.), from bizza “fit of anger, quick flash of anger” (13c.). The sense in Italian evolved to “unpredictable, eccentric,” then “strange, weird,” in which sense it was taken into French and then English. Older derivation from Basque bizar “a beard” is no longer considered tenable.
See, even a benign adjective like bizarre can’t help but bring us back into the realm or the queer. I just wish anyone, at all, writing about this had thought more about why they choose their words.
Now, I’m not mad at the popular news media. They’re not cultural critics. They traffic in the obvious.
I am mad at all of US for deciding that easy explanations that leave basic assumptions unquestioned should be the law of the media land. Thank god they’ll let just anybody start a podcast. Tune in next week for part 2 of this queer country renaissance.Tweet