Welcome back to part 2 of a close look at the very first ⅗ of the very first episode of “Tiger King,” the COVID sensational Netflix pop-umentary–meaning “pop documentary,” my new word for documentaries like “Tiger King” that are about as interested in helping us dive into the depths of real issues as I am to dive into the urine baths that pass for pools at water parks.
If you missed part 1, that’s fine. I’m way too lazy to ask anyone else to show up to my podcast having done their homework. Episode 9 was what we call a “ground-clearing” episode.”We looked at a bunch of media cliches around “Tiger King” from some of the more insightful of the uninsightful culture journalists and deconstructed them using textual evidence from three of Joe Exotic’s hit singles: I Saw a Tiger, Here Kitty Kitty, and Pretty Woman Lover.
My argument in Episode 9 was not that the show Tiger King or its gay trash Johny Cash figurehead is some kind of work of genius. It’s not. My point was that close investigation of the visual signifiers of the music videos–Black mustangs, silver meat platters, and a grown man cuddling tigers–resist comforting and familiar explanations for the show’s popularity, including, “it’s weird,” “it’s familiar,” “it’s a whodunnit,” “it defies explanation,” “it’s a bunch of tropes,” “it’s a libertarian fantasy.” Essentially, what we call here on RhetoricLee Speaking: a steaming pile of cliches.
None of those statements is wrong, exactly. “Tiger King” is a libertarian fantasy. But it’s not only that. Also libertarianism doesn’t really exist; it’s a word we use to describe a million different things. So it’s important to always ask not only how something IS a libertarian fantasy, or a whodunnit, or whatever, but also how it’s not; or what is unique to THIS libertarian fantasy that isn’t part of the usual thing we call or a libertarian fantasy; or how this libertarian fantasy maybe undermines or threatens the easy categorization of libertarians as such.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am no fan of libertarianism–essentially an ideology that embraces minimalistic government involvement and maximal individual self-determination–is a cop-out. They don’t want the baggage of social conservatism from the Republicans or the baggage of government oversight from the Democrats. So libertarianism just relies on the free market as some kind of neutral hiding place.
But there is no neutral hiding place. Libertarianism is the same as opting out of hard political decisions. Just like saying, “Oh I don’t watch that Tiger King crap” is opting out of culture. Unfortunately, you don’t get to opt out. There’s no outside to culture or politics; you’re always making a decision. Refusing to make a decision is the same thing as making a decision to support the status quo. And that’s what libertarianism is; it’s a vote for the status quo. Because when you decide you’re going to support “minimal government” whatever the hell that means, then you’re supporting hegemonic groups–whites, the rich, the able-bodied, the neurotypical–because when you say you want the market to decide you are saying you want the people with consolidated market power to decide and those people are aided and abetted by the eons of history that have given them privilege and are not interested in redistributing that privilege to others.
If we call “Tiger King” a libertarian fantasy, we mean that it hides behind the free market and individual autonomy and refuses to intervene in political decisions. Does that seem right to you? Even if you hardly know anything about the show except that it’s a flamboyant gay man who runs a giant zoo for tigers alongside this motley crew of almost entirely white men, is that the libertarian fantasy?
Kind of. And also: not exactly. And that’s what I’m trying to get you to understand out of this episode. I’m not defending Tiger King. I’m also not going to shit all over it and summarize it quickly for the sake of convenience. If hundreds of thousands of people across the country are compelled by this text, I want to know why. And saying, “oh it’s just XYZ” OR “oh it’s just ABC” is about as useful as saying all Trump voters are idiots or they’re all internet trolls. No person is ever only one thing. And if there’s one thing that is more cowardly than libertarianism, it’s demophobia.
Tiger King bashing–which is not the same as nuanced cultural criticism–is demophobia to the core. Demophobia means a fear of the demos. The demos, in political theory, are the people, the masses, all those things that, you know, Democracy thinks is so important. Democracy–demos ocracy–rule by the demos, or the people. Not the educated people or the rich people or the credentialed people, just the general, toilet paper hoarding, fidget spinner spinning, Taylor Swift listening, meme-making, Tiger King watching people.
Demophobia is a time-honored tradition amongst the very people–namely, the educated, middle and upper class Left, i.e. me, kind of–who are also the people constantly espousing Democracy. Meanwhile, the Right actually hates democracy and yet are winning over the demos Left and Right–pun intended.
And it all starts when we deride the things that appeal to the masses: religions (which Marx famously called opiates of the masses), North Face jackets and pumpkin spice latte (the basic bitch costume mocked through the 2010s) and now Tiger King.
You don’t have to like what the demos like to love democracy, but you do have to learn to love the demos. Also, you need to recognize that this artificial boundary between you and “those people” is fictional. Seriously, you may not like Tiger King or you may watch it “ironically” because you don’t understand what irony is, but I bet you can list at least 5 basic bitch Tiger King adjacent things you share in common with the demos.
To love the demos, which is to love democracy, you do not have to love what they love. But you do have to understand why they love it, and that reason for understanding has to be a reason that also explains why YOU do what you do.Tweet
You cannot be other than the demos and be a lover of democracy. You don’t need to be identical to the demos–indeed, you can’t, because the demos is an abstraction used to over-generalize a complex set of constituent terms–but you cannot be other than the demos.
If the demos loves Tiger King, or loves to hate Tiger King–in the end, the same exact difference which is to say no real difference, from a rhetorical point of view–then lovers of democracy do not need to love Tiger King but they do need to find what others love it and that reason needs to resonate with the reasons why we also love things.
So why does the demos love the Tiger King?
It’s pretty simple actually: the pleasure principle. On that note, we have one more media cliche to tour, this time from Doreen St. Felix in The New Yorker who calls
Tiger King,“a kaleidoscope of terrible taste” or “prestige trash.”
St. Felix continues:
“Exotic exploits himself before anyone else can, spinning his biography—the closeted youth; the suicide attempt; the flight from home; the adoption of wild animals as a surrogate family—into an affecting queer tragedy […] The directors are not judgmental, guided instead by the pleasure principle.
Let’s work through this argument from St. Felix, who not accidentally is writing for The New Yorker, a publication that is basically one giant mix of contradictions between espousing the value of democracy while pedaling a unique brand of demophobic snobbery called cultural criticism.
Calling “Tiger King” prestige trash is the hook of the article. And it’s a pretty good hook. It allows St. Felix to turn a nose down on the text while also validating it’s widespread popularity. But prestige trash is the same as just calling something trash. In fact, it’s basically saying it’s worse than trash because it aspires to be better than it is. Essentially, St. Felix is saying, if the show acknowledged its own trashiness it would at least be honorable, the fact that it’s trash trying to dress itself up–lipstick on a pig as they say–makes it somehow worse.
This is the bourgeoisie argument in a nutshell. It’s also not true. If the show had just peddled itself as trash, then it’d be getting shit for just being straight trash. The implication that it’s the aspiring to be something better is what makes it so awful is an obvious trap. The people in this show were never going to get a fair break–prestige trash or plain trash, either way, they were always going to be given the shaft by polite society. That doesn’t make them noble but it does point to a reality in which demophobia always depends on the demos being poor.
And I don’t glorify the use of meth. But meth has become a shorthand in contemporary civil society for the modern savage. You don’t hear people using heroin the same way they use meth as a metaphor for everything that deviates from our ideal democratic citizen. You know why? Because heroin is the drug of the privileged. The opioid crisis is a tragedy of society. The meth crisis is a tragedy of people who can’t get their shit together. But really they’re both a combination of many factors. They’re only distinguishable because we want one to mean something that the other doesn’t, because then we get to preserve the distance between us and them. But that distance is invented, artificial, untrue. The only difference between your prestige gay heroine addicted 19-year old son who had to drop out of Stanford and the trash gay meth addicted Travis Maldonado is accident of birth and how that accident shapes the rest of your life and how you are treated. That’s it. Nothing else.
St. Felix is right to put us in the territory of the pleasure principle, but collapses it into an argument about the attraction of the demos to Exotic’s self-exploitation and affecting queer tragedy. The effect is to make the point and miss the point simultaneously. Yes, this is ultimately a show that is about pleasure, but not pleasure in the way that we usually use that word, meaning just feel good, empty, sensational nonsense, like double stuffed Oreos or a One Direction concert. The pleasure principle, which originates in Freudian psychoanalysis, isn’t about pleasure the way we think of that word meaning “absence of pain,” it’s actually closer to the word enjoyment, which means a kind of satisfaction our psyches get when something both satisfies our beliefs about the world around us and transgresses the norms that make up our social systems. Ultimately the pleasure principle will account for the attraction of Tiger King in a way that doesn’t require shit-talking the demos, but in fact taps into something very real and very hard to understand about how all of us relate to the things that give us pleasure: we cannot find pleasurable something that meets our expectations exactly, nor can we find pleasurable something that is entirely other to us; we can only find pleasure in things that confirm and transgress our existing sense of the social order in just the right ways.
In the previous episode I suggested that the music video for tiger king created just that sense of pleasure, by both reinforcing and fucking with our inherited sense of appropriateness. Now I’m going to expand that argument to the first ⅗ of the very first episode of Tiger King.
Here’s the thing: the animal people are kind of crazy. And also, YOU are also an animal person as of the moment you invest in this film. You are, therefore, kind of crazy. I don’t think we ever watch things entirely to look down our noses at them.
Now, normally this cliche, “oh the facts are so startling you’re almost certainly going to care about the facts” would resonate because we’ve all been trained to buy into that statement even though it falls apart upon scrutiny. But you listened to Episode 8 and so you know that the facts don’t really do much in the way of persuading people to care about something.
And if there’s one thing a Netflix documentary filmmaker also knows, it’s that facts have minimal resonance. Because if they believed facts made a difference then they would just be publishing narrated powerpoints of pie charts, not documentaries. Yet they still include this cliche fact statement from a news reporter as the very opening scene of the documentary. Why? Because when people are trying to create something, they usually resort to familiar cliche arguments. In this case, “face the facts.”
Should tell you that the one thing the popularity of this show doesn’t traffic in is facts. Whether or not this guy did hire someone to kill this woman; whether or not he abused these animals; whether or not, as will be revealed in the follow-up docuseries “The Tiger King and I” hosted by Joel McHale, this guy was, in fact, a scumbag piece of shit.
So all of this debunking that’s happening on the internet about the “facts” or truth or reality or whatever behind this Tiger King show is missing two very important points:
- The entire phenomenon has nothing to do with facts
- Neither does anything else
And I know all of that to be true because the very next line out of anyone’s mouth is someone referring to a tiger as sexy. What do we mean when we say something is sexy? That we want to have sex with it? No. It means something alluring, something with an appeal that is kind of naughty. Or, in the words of entry no. 5 for sexy on Urban Dictionary:
I would tweak this a little because it’s not someone or in this case the thing that “makes you want to do bad things to it,”–that gets way too close to “it’s what the tiger was wearing” for my taste–rather, it’s the way the thing or the idea of the thing has been constructed in the collective conscious to make you want to do bad things, which then you are driven to do because 1) you have a bunch of cliches to hide you from your own reasoning for your behavior and 2) nobody ever teaches you to be naughty in ways that are productive.
That’s why tigers are sexy, because they’ve been constructed in our collective imaginary as things we want to do bad things to–possess, cage up, control, turn into leggings, fetishize…the one thing we don’t want to do as good, western, capitalist, colonial subjects is just let them be straight up regular old tigers. No, we have to turn them into something that serves us–whether that’s as the subjects of our righteous animal rights crusade or as objects that we pen up in cages like that YouTube video of 2 Chainz buying tiger kittens, both fantasies are sexifying the tigers and whichever one you align with you have more in common than you do not in common.
The reporter’s statement about facts at the start of the documentary is a misdirection. I don’t think it’s on purpose but ultimately it gives a nod to the domain of “facts” that the rest of episode 1 and the 6 episodes that remain are going to totally steam roll over.
In rhetoric, we distinguish between the domain of belief belief (pistis) and the domain of judgment (krisis). Pistis is the realm of belief or faith, not grounded in rational assent. Krisis is the domain of discernment, which is where you get the word “criticism,” which means to render judgement.
Tiger King traffics in pistis–belief–not krisis or judgement. And it certainly does not traffic in episteme, a fancy rhetorical term for domain scientific evidence. If you try to come at pistis from the perspective of episteme then you are not going to get krisis you’re going to get turning your nose down at idiots. If you want to render a discerning judgement on something, you have to evaluate it on its own terms, in this case, pleasure, sensation, and spectacle, not statistics about exotic animals.
A minute later, in fact, the documentary is going to tell you that it lives in the domain of belief, not in the domain of rational facts, and undermines the entire pretension to facts with which it started.
I’m not even going to touch the train wreck defense. I’ve harped enough on cliches at this point and this one is among the weakest explanations there could possibly be.
But the commend “he was like a mythical character” is interesting. Obviously, the documentary is quite self-aware about Joe Exotic as a production. Therefore, when St. Felix tells us, “Exotic exploits himself before anyone else can, spinning his biography” it’s not news. It was already there in the documentary to begin with.
The point that everyone misses when they talk about Exotic as a myth is that all characters through which we relate publicly are myths. More than that, people we relate to intimately are myths. We are never attracted to people because of who they are; we are attracted to people because they give pleasure. And we give them the ability to give pleasure by turning them into something that keeps us suspended in that paradox of enjoyment where we are both anxious about transgression and can explore that transgression with a manageable amount of risk. So this “he’s larger than life” cliche doesn’t work because that’s true of every subject by whom we are fascinated–Trump, Obama, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Nipsy Hustle, you name it. When a public figure fails to incite that kind of enjoyment or pleasure, it is because they have offered us nothing mythical. Biden is a great example. The cliche “we’re attracted to Exotic because he’s larger than life” isn’t untrue; it’s just not useful as an explanation because becoming larger than life is the only way that anyone ever attracts us. The question that we’re not answering is how this person is rhetorically constructed as larger than life and how they tap into our paradoxical desire for the affirmation of boundaries and the transgression of boundaries.
Tiger King gives you pleasure, at least in the first ⅗ of the first episode, because it toes the line of kink–of queer transgression around sexual identity and practice. Not in a mean, sad way but in a fun kind of loving way.Tweet
Check out the 7th minute of the first episode and tell me I’m wrong.
If you had just this one minute to go on, this would be an incredibly attractive, fun, playful transgression. It’s kinky, it’s talking about boys mating with boys and openly and vulnerably admitting to wanting affection both as a human and also as an animal. It breaks down the boundaries between human and animal and it not so subtly alludes to urophilia, otherwise known as pee play golden showers.
We’re about to get really weird so if you’re listening and you’re related to me or just hold me in a certain amount of esteem, fast forward a few minutes.
Being peed on, not literally by tigers because I don’t think that’s the primary transgression that’s attracting people to Tiger King, is about the most harmless possible sex act I can think of. Again, most transgression isn’t about sex, but it’s the easiest way to talk about it because most people immediately think about sex whenever someone mentions transgression or perversion. Being peed on isn’t dangerous, it isn’t harmful, it’s not expensive, and if you’re hydrated, it’s barely unsanitary.
Yet if I were to talk openly about being a person who thought it was fun, exciting, and sexy to be peed on to pee on someone else–which I’m neither confirming nor denying–I would be shunned to the ends of the earth. I’d almost certainly lose my job, if not be seriously reprimanded, people would refuse to publicize my blog, and, who knows, people might not even want me around their children anymore. Talking about wanting to get peed on–which he’s almost certainly into–might have been the only thing Trump could have said that would have lost in the election? Why? Because we spend way too much effort as a society shaming people for basic, fun, transgressive instincts like being peed on, having gender subversive identities, experimenting with language, or doing anything else, especially when we’re young, that might mess up the tidy binaries we all spent too much time defending between straight/gay, woman/man, us/them, appropriate/inappropriate, and so on and so forth.
And while I’d be getting tomatoes thrown at me in the proverbial town stocks for talking about pee, people run around calling women bitches, and calling Colin Kaepernick a racist, and mis-gendering trans and gender queer people like it’s no big deal. Why? Because even though we do sometimes publicly shame those behaviors, it’s not part of our collective social norms to do so. That’s why it’s harder for a person to talk about being into a harmless kink than it is for someone to be a racist, or a homophobe, or a sexist, or whatever.
In human sexuality, kinkiness is the use of non-conventional sexual practices, concepts or fantasies. The term derives from the idea of a “bend” like a kink in a hose in sexual proclivities, to contrast such behaviour with “straight” or “vanilla” sexual leanings.
Kink is a paradox–people want to transgress, they also want to feel somewhat safe in their transgression–there’s a reason Fight Club only had one Tyler Durdan and Dark Knight only had one joker–most people, in fact, do not want to entirely burn down the social structures that organize their lives. But we also want to feel the push and pull, then tension, the precariousness of our real-world ethics, of the norms and rules that organize our lives. Enjoyment, then, is a weird combination of pleasure–because we get our expectations reinforced–and anxiety, because we’re stepping up to a pseudo unsafe edge. That doesn’t absolve kinky behaviors from their problematic and violent contexts–whether it’s race play or harassing liberal snowflakes online or wearing a blackface costume–that shit is definitely 100% racist.
But it also points to a desire for transgression that can be put to productive use–experimental fiction, irony-laden spoken word poetry, cross-dressing in a local production of Man of La Mancha. Historically, that kind of productive transgression has been what the humanities and the arts and theatre have provided. But they aren’t valuable because we live in a world of code and machines and facts. So we defund the humanities, we reserve clever world play for the educated elite of New Yorker readers, we put kids in poor communities into trade schools. So their transgression has to go into unproductive outlets. And even the most well-off middle class groups of society are still so immersed in the contemporary obsession with facts and objectivity and appropriateness and dressing for success that they don’t have any outlet for productive transgression. So they get it from ˆTiger King, and really who can fucking blame them?
Not to mention how affectionately this scene plays with transgression of heteronormative norms of not only being straight–it’s Adam and Even not Adam and Steve and all that crap–but also of not enjoying your sexuality.
A few minutes later, the episode makes this point again, this time using humans, not tigers.
The openly exhibitionist and gay displays of affection and playfulness are exactly the kind of playful transgression we want to encourage people to explore.
That’s not to say that they show, as a whole, doesn’t reinforce stereotypes of gay affection and heteronormative narratives, it certainly does. We already see that laid out in episode one as the potentially unique and transgressive relationship to an alternative sexuality is re-articulated through a predictable trauma lens. Hearkening back to St. Felix, then, its correct to criticize the text for relying on the cliche of “affecting queer tragedy.”
But that’s a sparse read because
1. the gay trauma narrative is probably true and 2. even if it’s overdone and cliche in terms of associating all of being gay with some kind of trauma or tragedy and then appealing to viewers in that way, it is only a few minutes of the very early part of the episode.
Also let’s not forget that the libertarian/whodunnit framework that is supposed to explain away attraction to this show rarely carries a giant studded rainbow flag. So whether Exotic’s gay origin story is affected or not, the addition of the gay ingredient to the cliche fantasy of the hold-your-ground-woman-hating-animal-abuser-meth-adddict soup is still a queering of a stereotype. Whether you like it or not is a different issue.
That’s not to say people who are gay, especially in states like Oklahoma, don’t experience a lot of exclusion and bigotry and violence because they are gay but rather that the inclusion of the trauma narrative helps us re-absorb the potentially transgressive sexual politics of the episode into a familiar understanding, as in, “oh yeah being gay is hard and sad. Cool. got it. I am no longer being challenged by what I see.”
Later, as St. Felix puts it, things start to become more troubling. When we are introduced to Joe’s second love interest, Travis Maldonado, there’s more than a fair amount of tragedy, exploitation, and mean-spirited transgression. St. Felix describes footage that must be from beyond the first ¼ of episode 2 because that’s as much as I’ve watched, “in which Exotic, giving a eulogy, describes a sexual maneuver that Maldonado liked to perform. Maldonado is not only a victim of Exotic’s egotism; he is a casualty of “Tiger King,” too.”
Thus we arrive at the ultimate disappointment that will be Tiger King’s demise: the playful kind of transgression sketched in the first episode, where viewers first get to test the waters of their pleasure with the text, quickly gives way the mean-spirited kind.Tweet
For example, the misogyny that takes hold in the rival between Exotic and Carole Baskin, a woman and animal rights activist. I won’t explain this issue much because I’m tired of hearing about it. Suffice it to say, Tiger King starts to revolve increasingly around this rivalry and the outcome is basically a bunch of cheers for Exotic every time he says something hateful about this woman and jeers anytime Carole Baskin opens her mouth. Not to mention other forms of misogyny including a character who practices polygamy.
As one example of many showcasing how eagerly people have taken up this Baskin bashing, here’s an excerpt from another podcast description, that I won’t name. It’s not popular but I still don’t want to give it attention.
“Tomorrow we will have another episode. We will be reviewing the legend that is the Tiger King, Joe Exotic and that bitch Carole Baskin”
Misogyny isn’t the playful kind of perversion or the productive kind of transgression, It’s the mean-spirited kind. Historically, being shitty to women has been far from a prohibition; in fact, it’s been encouraged. It has only become a prohibition by people who feel the need to transgress this made up thing called “political correctness”–joining into the pleasure of calling women “bitches” comes to seem like the same kind of transgression of Exotic’s queering of other boundaries.
Transgressions aren’t created equally and one–like a Tiger urinating on you–isn’t hurting anyone but you and the other–calling a woman a bitch because you don’t like her opinions–is part of an entire logic of woman-hating, which becomes all kinds of other hate. And yet people are probably more uncomfortable with the idea that you might want someone or something to urinate on you than we are with people calling this woman a bitch. Let’s not forget that our President is on record as saying women “bleed from their you-know-whats” and advising to “grab women by the pussy.” Let’s also not forget that the current Democratic nominee is undergoing investigation for digitally raping a former staff member.
Whether you believe any of those things are quote unquote “true” isn’t the point–the facts aren’t going to affect most of us whose beliefs are solidly fact-defiant. The point is that no one considers it particularly transgressive when women are assaulted because hating women is a beloved past-time of our patriarchal system, just like hating Black and queer folks–or Blacks and queers as they’re called if you hate them. All of that is built on repressive systems that create taboos and prohibitions around those modes of identity. Some transgressing of those norms is productive. But some are not.
One of my all-time favorite rhetoricians, Josh Gunn, uses the word “perversion” to describe this thing I call transgression. I use transgression to avoid the baggage of the word perversion but they in essence mean the same thing, Josh is just far better at wielding subversive language. Perversion, or transgression, is the queering of norms; it’s the playing with rules; it’s exposing the arbitrary guidelines of appropriateness that dictate behavior as arbitrary.
In his latest book, Political Perversion: Rhetorical Aberration in the Time of Trumpeteering, Gunn argues that not all perversion is created equal. Some perversion is fun and harmless and socially productive, like drag or poetry or George Carlin’s stand-up when he wasn’t being homophobic. Or Dave Chappelle’s stand-up when he isn’t being transphobic.
Gunn distinguishes between the playful pervert and the mean-spirited pervert–what I call productive and unproductive transgression.
St. Felix, then, is right to put us in the territory of the pleasure principle, a phrase taken from Freudian psychoanalysis. In its typical formulation, the pleasure principle is the instinctive seeking of pleasure and avoiding of pain to satisfy biological and psychological needs. I think St. Felix means that the docu-series chases tail metaphorically and literally–going for the cheap thrills (especially the ones that don’t feel good) over less pleasurable “real issue” content, for example, the mistreatment of big cats.
But Freud’s theory would later be reworked in the 60s and 70s by another psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, who would distinguish between two kids of pleasure: plaisir (pleasure) and jouissance, perhaps best translated as pleasure-in-pain. Plaisir obeys the law of homeostasis and refers to a human’s psychological desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Exercising is painful but sitting on the couch feels good so I choose sitting on the couch, to oversimplify matters. Thinking about animal abuse is painful but watching Joe Exotic roll around with tigers is pleasurable so I choose Tiger King.
But that’s not quite right, is it? Sure, sitting on the couch for a few minutes to rest my feet rather than going for a run when I haven’t run in a while may be pleasure. But what about the fourth hour of sitting on the couch, stuffed full of oreos, watching your umpteenth episode of who knows what, the whole time shit-talking yourself for not doing the run that you tell yourself night after night you are definitely going to do? That’s not pleasure is it? That’s pleasure in pain. That’s jouissance.
Jouissance transgresses the rule or the norm–run a mile, don’t overeat, be productive, don’t watch too much TV–in ways that are both painful and also pleasurable. It’s more than simply “feeling good” the way that cliches are meant to make you feel good.
We can easily see where the pain part of jouissance comes from. But what makes it pleasurable? Lacan uses the concept of compulsive repetition or reproduction, arguing that the pleasure derives from you internalizing a social structure that you repeatedly, compulsively re-enact. So while it’s painful to sit on the couch night after night beating yourself up because you’re not running like you said you would, it’s also pleasurable because you get to repeat this self-shaming cycle that has been bred into you by social norms. And you get to not run. And so the cycle continues because you’re suspended in jouissance.
Tiger King works the same way. It feels good because it rehearses a bunch of stereotypes you have about rednecks and drug addicts and women.
Sitting around immersing yourself in misogyny and stand-your-ground entitlement and the cult of personality doesn’t feel good but it does feel good. It’s a cycle of mean-spirited perversion.
The problem is that in the first ⅗ of the first episode of Tiger King, playful perversion and mean-spirited perversion are intertwined so that you can’t have one without the other. That’s what makes the show intriguing and also heinous.Tweet
Nowhere is the mixup of transgressions more apparent than about 12 minutes into episode 1 when Baskin, shut inside a small golden cage like a human exotic animal, tells the camera: “if theres one thing I know it’s that big cats don’t deserve to be locked in cages.”
Later in the episode, Exotic goes on a rant about how Baskin and PETA are after him and, of all of the thousands of different PETA campaigns, the footage is a campaign that PETA did of hot women painted like Cheetara from the Thundercats posing like centerfolds in cages with the caption “Exotic” or sometimes “Wild Animals Don’t Belong Behind Bars”
These images unmistakably echo Baskin in the cage and once again reintroduce kink onto the scene. Except now Kink is tied up with misogyny and eventually is subsumed by it entirely.
Nowhere is that more evident than the first piece of episode 2 in which a trans man, Sass, who works for exotic–notorious in the news because of the documentary kept misgendering him–gets his arm ripped off by a tiger. In episode one, Sass had spoken highly of exotic. I’ve also read that in this follow-up special to the series. Sass will continue to be relatively supportive of exotic without absolving Exotic of the prison time. I think we can assume there was some affection between the two of them, whatever else may be the case, yet when when Sass’ arm was ripped off, Exotic is show in a now-iconic-for-its-memeness scene saying,
“I am never going to financially recover from this.”
It is now a meme by the same name. As explained by the website, Know Your Meme:
“I’m Never Gonna Financially Recover from This” is a memorable quote uttered by Joe Exotic on the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Online, a screenshot of Exotic saying the line has been used as a reaction image to express feelings of fiscal distress.
On March 20th, 2020, Netflix premiered the docuseries Tiger King. In episode two of the series, which details various exotic cat zookeepers, features a segment an accident wherein which an employee of Joe Exotic’s at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park had his arm ripped off. When Exotic hears about the accident, he responds, “I’m never going to financially recover from this.”
That day, Twitter user @bridger_w shared the clip of Exotic saying the line “Me after I spend six dollars.” The tweet received more than 27,000 views, 930 likes and 150 retweets in less than two weeks (shown below).
Pierce. Is. Out
I know I normally clown on the phrase, “that was the moment I knew…” because people normally say that about moments where they most certainlyyy didn’t know.
But that was, indeed the moment I knew. Which sucks. Cause I was kind of in until that point. I was here for sexy lady cats and meat platters and affected gay romance and tiger pee play and going commando and all of the mistfit queer weirdness of the whole slap happy nonsense.
But then I watched the trans transgression of Sass become totally displaced by the logic of capitalist consumerism and that was the moment I turned that shit off and I never turned it on again. Because I knew that all of the fun, kinky transgression was lost to what would likely now be a rapidly escalating series of awfulness. Dead ass you can check my Netflix and you’ll see that shit frozen mid-episode two right after those words were uttered.
But I’ll still defend the first ⅗ of the very first episode of Tiger King until the day I die from drowning in pee. No I’m just kidding. Or am I?
But to bring it all back to Trump because he’s going to be president for four more years unless somebody figures some shit out, the lesson we get from a close reading of Tiger King is this:
If you don’t give people an outlet to be fun perverts then they’re going to become mean perverts. Trump’s language and inappropriate behavior at Press conferences and just straight Twitter wilin’ is giving people the kind of fun playful perversion and messing with language and performances of appropriateness that people want because people like to transgress boundaries. We’re all like two year olds. We run away when we know we’re not supposed to so that people will tell us to come back and when someone doesn’t come rushing after us we peek back around the corner to make sure they saw us run away. If no one follows us at all, we get mean. If they follow too closely, we get unnecessarily rebellious because YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO DAD. And that’s what the Left has become to the working class basic bitch ass Tiger King watching demos: the worst of both worlds. We don’t pay attention to people when they run away and then we yell at them and shame them for doing something they weren’t supposed to do.
You know how you manage that with a two year old? In the words of .38 special: you hold on loosely. And above all else: YOU NEED TO PLAY BACK.
So what do you do-oo–ooo with a Trump supporter?
The same thing you do with Tiger King fan? You validate that shit. You gotta figure out how to really really “get it.” Get the draw, get the pleasure, in the words of internet culture, get the lulz. Not because it’s right or true or good but because it taps into something about ourselves that we’d all rather pretend isn’t there: namely, that we all spend our lives attracted to the naughty but also not wanting to be attracted to the naughty.
The shame, the guilt, that we feel around enjoying something that is prohibited makes the enjoyment better. So you have to stop prohibiting it. But that isn’t the same as joining in. But it’s also not wagging your finger in the air and tsk tsking at these ignorant Tiger King fans–talking to you MSNBC, New York Times, CNN, The New Yorker…and all of you Facebook finger waggers out there standing on your soapbox about Tiger King while you suffer silently with your own seedy little dark pleasures. Let people know,
“hey, I get it, Tiger King is a borderline socially acceptable opportunity to vicariously partake in all kinds of transgressions. I see you. I get it. It feels good because it feels bad. You’re not weird or broken; we all have our thing.”Tweet
Then, don’t add a “but.” Leave it there. You do this enough times, about all sorts of things that you normally want to chastise, not just one TV show, and eventually the light of day softens the desire to transgress.
Because transgression isn’t hot when it’s out in the open. And when it’s not hot, it’s not transgression.