Lampooning the Poor — Tiger King in Pandemic America

Societal disrupting events, while perhaps novel for the generations alive today in the United States, weren’t unknown to our forebears. American history is littered with pandemics, economic shocks, and war. When occurring at or near pivotal moments in time, they severely alter the economic, political, and cultural path of the United States in the years that follow. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different. As time passes, it’ll show itself as a pivotal moment in history, one that fundamentally alters the American way of life — a Great American Reset.

Such events also expose our nation’s fault lines, stripped bare as institutional resources redeploy to support the emergency efforts confronting the disruption. The faults become apparent for anyone paying attention. Without institutional assets to cover and manage them, the foulness from within bubbles up, exposing whatever core social, political, or economic realities exist just beneath the surface. The Civil War exhibited much about race, class, and economics between two fundamentally different regions. The First World War disclosed the reality of America’s place in world affairs. The Great Depression revealed gross inequalities for working Americans, while the homefront during the Second World War laid bare issues of race and gender.

During the crisis, as we’ve all experienced in the past few weeks, the pandemic has uncovered many faults about class in the United States. The rich and famous were tested first, the disease is assaulting African American communities at higher rates than white populations, and the working class is far more likely to stay at work and contract the virus. As schools closed, local districts scrambled to provide food and access to broadband. Food banks buckle under an enormous surge in demand, while millions of working class Americans have no paid sick leave and millions more put themselves daily at risk working at essential services. The safety nets meant to support wage and gig workers cannot handle the influx of unemployment claims and, the relief supposedly created in recent legislation, hasn’t yet hit its mark. Domestic violence has even increased significantly in recent weeks.

As a release from all this, many Americans have escaped to streaming entertainment platforms. Just like cinema during the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the moving image provides a powerful distraction from the incessant pressure of a national predicament.

As such, what stories would you expect to best represent the zeitgeist of a nation seeking release from daily pandemic horrors? Perhaps, given the profound issues of class being exposed at the moment, Americans would turn to repetitive binge-rewatching sessions of Parasite, Hustlers, Joker, or Us to reaffirm what many of us already know — working class Americans are treated like shit under any circumstances. On the contrary, maybe we’d find release in the abstract, binging sixty hours of Game of Thrones nihilism or fifty hours of cartoonish heroism in the Marvel cinematic universe.

Alas, you’d be wrong. For it’s been Netflix’s Tiger King that has managed to capture the current American mood. For audiences and critics alike, the show has become the emblematic marker of cultural ambience in pandemic America. Much has been written about the documentary series and the audience reaction to it. Conceivably, Tiger King teaches us about class and race, or the series perfectly demonstrates the crazy, privileged bullshit that white America gets away with. Doreen St. Félix suggested that it’s “a takedown of the libertarian ethos, a dispatch from the last frontier of white colonialism, a Trumpian fable.” Sophie Gilbert even called it a “moral failure.” For the filmmakers, the series supposedly began as a treatise on big cat conservation and rescue.

Tiger King certainly means different things to different audiences, but for white middle-class America, watching the series becomes a satisfying experience in punching down against working and lower class Americans. It provides white middle-class America a cathartic process to exorcise class anxieties in a time of extreme disquiet about wealth, job prospects, unemployment, and the economy. While Black America sees a ridiculous display of white privilege in Tiger King, white middle-class America is reaffirmed of the dividing line with the poor — a barrier marked by neck tattoos, missing teeth, and lowbrow ridiculousness. “Paychecks may disappear and retirement savings may plummet, but at least I’m not one of those people. I’m affirmed in my caste, even if my bank statements don’t show it.”

Much of the current criticism against the show misses the point. Americans, particularly Tiger King’s white middle-class audience, couldn’t give two shits about the status of big cats in the wild or in captivity. Nor do I suspect that white America watched the series for its narrative complexity, nor to glean insightful details regarding the big cat black market.

White middle-class Americans watched Tiger King to be reaffirmed of the line between them and the lower classes. The series facilitates this by showcasing the characters’ missing teeth and limbs, philistine eccentricities, shitty tattoos, wasteful allocations of resources, sexual license, and poor grammar — stereotypical and accessible signifiers of media depictions of the poor. This is what white America extracted from the series, not any meaningful understanding of conservation, a complex murder-for-hire plot, or true-crime entertainment.

Furthermore, the on screen personas are abridged versions of their true selves. They’re fictional characters, designed and carefully crafted in the edit bench just as characters are in any episodic television show. Plus, while the series is presented as a documentary, it has far more in common with reality television. Tiger King is more Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty than Making a Murderer and Evil Genius. This should be no surprise to anyone, for the reality television format has been reaffirming lines between class (Buckwild), race (Cops), mental health (My Strange Addiction), body image (Biggest Loser), and gender (The Bachelor) for a generation.

Such reality television and docuseries continue the American tradition of using humor to reinforce group distinctions and to trash minority groups. In terms of cultural function, Tiger King serves to lampoon the poor in a time of anxiety about class in much the same way minstrel shows mocked African Americans in a time of angst about race in the decades before the Civil War. Minstrel shows united white Americans culturally against Blacks, while reinforcing African-American stereotypes with humor.

Tiger King operates in a similar way by uniting middle class white America against an underclass perceived as an economic threat, while reaffirming the distinctive line between socio-economic classes in the same ethnic group. As a shared experience, it purges our anxieties about becoming poor, even if just for a few hours. “These people are poor white trash — see, they even look different?”

It would be naive to think that all race and class issues will disappear on the other side of the COVID-19. Perhaps, though, the crisis does offer a unique window in American history to address the cracks in our society by forcing us to rebuild institutions. We need new societal mechanisms that actually improve the conditions of the least fortunate among us, while stabilizing the middle class. Real safety nets are needed, especially when things fall apart. We need a new New Deal.

In the very least, we need a better grade of entertainment to see us through the pandemic. Perhaps original narratives presenting a critical view of class and race in America, while offering a more noble vision for the future.

Public historian, animator, and resident of Muncie, Indiana.

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