. Tiger King, COVID-19, and the Nature of Work | Ceasefire Magazine

Culture | Tiger King, COVID-19, and the Nature of Work

In its lurid depictions of strange kinds of jobs – idealised and precarious and dangerous – Tiger King perfectly echoes our Lockdown anxieties about the nature and politics of work, write Mareile Pfannebecker and James A. Smith.

Arts & Culture, Film & TV, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2020 16:19 - 0 Comments

By

(Credit: Netflix)

Working for Tiger King’s Joe Exotic meant long hours, low pay and – for some – coerced drug use and accessory to crime. Netflix’s lurid documentary series about Exotic and his rival big cat zoo owners in the American south was seized upon by locked-down viewers at the start of the pandemic, becoming one of the platform’s most successful shows. But Netflix’s global audience having nothing better to do doesn’t exactly explain the phenomenon. In its depictions of strange kinds of work – idealised on the one hand, precarious and dangerous on the other – what looked at first like merely another prurient account of the fiefdoms of American eccentrics touches a raw nerve.

The show appeared at a moment when we were forced to reappraise what we think of work. The hierarchy of what kinds of labour seem important has – for now – been turned on its head. Under the UK’s post-Brexit ‘points based’ immigration system announced in February, few of the low-paid nurses and unskilled supermarket assistants, call centre operators, janitorial staff, and delivery drivers currently keeping the country functioning could have been admitted. The ‘precarity’ of the gig economy of Uber, Deliveroo, and Amazon, in a world of mass infection, takes on a horrifyingly physiological dimension. Trying to work from home with kids has reinforced that childcare and housework are labour, more adroitly than any second-wave feminist tract. And those fortunate enough to be furloughed with few care responsibilities have encountered what we describe in our book, Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism, as the ultimate question of anti-work utopias: how to organise one’s existence when it no longer has structure imposed upon it by commodified work.

Tiger King offers up exaggerated versions of the sort of jobs many of us are now kept from doing or are attempting to approximate from home. The ‘nightmare boss’ Joe Exotic preens, rants, and shoots music videos, like The Office’s Michael Scott with a mullet, while his men and tigers eat from the same haul of expired meat stolen from Walmart bins– labourers and animal commodities uncannily fused together. As if crystallising every workplace #MeToo narrative, female employees at Doc Antle’s South Carolina zoo are booked in for boob jobs without consultation, and are invited to rise up the ranks by joining Antle’s harem of wives.

And yet, being around these extraordinary animals makes up for a good deal. At the end of the show, employees and former employees agree that they did it ‘for the tigers’, and their magnetism orients the actions of the series’ warring protagonists, their exploited workers, lovers, customers, and shady business partners. Repeatedly, we hear, working at these rogue zoos is a ‘dream job’, more like a free life choice than commodified labour. How could work with these creatures, so thrilling, dangerous and emphatically alien to the bullshit jobs on offer to most, even be categorised as work?

During lockdown, the nuclear family – with all its loneliness, repression, and hidden violences – is back with a vengeance. Viewed from within it, the queer interspecies counter-family of Joe Exotic’s zoo takes on a surprising utopian bent, exploitative of humans and animals as the documentary nonetheless shows it to be. When Exotic jokes that young men who watch heterosexual porn inherently ‘ain’t that straight’, it is hard not to be charmed by the impeccable queer logic (even though we soon learn it is applied to coerce very young meth-addicted heterosexual guys into marriage). Just so, recruiting down-and-outs at the bus stop with the promise of good work and a trailer of their own, raises the image of the zoo as a post-capitalist utopia (even if we soon learn people lived in rat-infested squalor and were fired at random). The tigers themselves only sum up the cruel way in which the series raises and crushes the fantasy of life beyond commodified work. The zoo owners love the animals, but to afford their upkeep, they breed cubs (who occasionally have to travel into Las Vegas hotels in wheelie suitcases to earn their keep), and euthanise many when they grow too big to be a viable asset.

In the UK, every Thursday evening of the lockdown has been marked by a moment of concerted applause in tribute to the National Health Service, echoing from the windows and front doors of every neighbourhood. In Brazil, citizens rattle pots and pans from their apartments in protest at Bolsanaro’s treatment of the crisis. Here, the possibility of legitimate politicized anger about the scandal of equipment-starved health workers has been eschewed in favour of a weekly duty, with Facebook-shamings for those perceived by their neighbours not to have applauded forcefully enough. Why do we not also applaud the supermarket and other workers who are taking similar risks to perform no less essential labour? We already believe that nurses and other health professionals work for a reason other than money: because they want to help others. Like zookeeping with Joe Exotic’s tigers, it appears as work based on desire, already a ‘dream job’. It is thus easy to fall for the narrative that presents the risks health workers are taking as inherently tending to heroic sacrifice. Service work, by contrast, we tacitly agree, is rarely done for any reason other than the money; so the idea that supermarket workers should now run similar risks for such pitiful compensation is too awful to face up to, and can receive no such public tribute. Meanwhile, for those nurses and doctors who have begun their work as their ‘dream job’, as they followed their desire to help the sick, this new world of universal vulnerability to disease, without sufficient institutional protection and support, has become the worst of nightmares. As one remarked recently to the BBC, ‘calling us heroes just makes it ok when we die’.

We watch in Tiger King events of the last recession as we topple on the verge of a new one. At the time, Joe Exotic and other rogue zoo keepers weren’t the only ones who recognised the special power of work as a ‘dream come true’ in the new hinterland of the down and out that emerged after 2008. In 2011, an itinerant preacher fleeing prostitution and drug charges called Richard Beasley decided to find a new way to support himself in the informal online economy increasingly normalised since the financial crash. Advertising, like Exotic sometimes did, on Craigslist, Beasley claimed to seek a permanent caretaker for a secluded Ohio farm, ‘used mainly as a hunting preserve, overrun with game’, with ‘a stocked three-acre pond’, ‘some beef cattle’, and the ‘nearest neighbour a mile away’: a job every bit as unalienated as – in its best moments – Exotic’s employees found working with tigers to be. Beasley met with candidate after candidate out of the hundred-plus who applied, screening for age, close family, and how connected to their communities they were. One at a time, the successful candidates were instructed to meet Beasley and a young accomplice, bringing with them a vehicle and any portable property of value.

Beasley killed three men that way (another escaped), selling whatever they brought. The crime represented a strange nexus of forces coinciding at that moment. Both murderer and victim were in some way recession men, or at least, they were moved to a certain recklessness by the recession’s conditions; and both were taking up the new digital ‘platform’ economy’s invitation to find business in otherwise inaccessible relationships. Tiger King owes its viability as a documentary to Exotic’s addiction to recording and broadcasting his every movement like a model social media user. But it is Beasley who might have claimed to be acting like a perfect Silicon Valley entrepreneur. His algorithm-like identification of a huge reserve army of unskilled, unemployed, middle-aged white men, unmarried or divorced, missed by no one, and desperate to believe in the impossible American pastoral he conjured, was also in some ways vindicated by later events. While Tiger King shows us Exotic aping Donald Trump’s obnoxiousness to launch a political campaign of his own (in his hated rival Carole Baskin, he even had his own Hillary), Beasley’s constituency was also precisely Trump’s: the forgotten men who tipped the balance against the Democrats in Ohio and Rust Belt states like it.

In this respect, Tiger King rewards comparison with another movie found on Netflix, which surreptitiously plays on the Beasley story. In Patrick Kack-Brice’s horror movie Creep (2014), an aspiring film director takes – like Beasley’s victims and Joe Exotic’s employees – a job advertised online, requiring him to drive out to a woodland cottage to make a memorial film for an allegedly terminally ill employer to leave as a message to his unborn son. The ‘found footage’ is what we, the viewers, see. The employer’s eccentric behaviour becomes more and more troubling as the job proceeds, and suffice to say, the film concludes with the employer – revealed as a serial killer – closing the door on a cupboard full of DVDs of victims who have effectively been tricked into creating the films of their own deaths. Creep thus reverses the logic of the founding texts of such meta-horror movies, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (both 1960). Whereas the scandalous intimacy between the camera and the killer’s gaze in those films had the effect of equating cinema and murder (rather literally in Peeping Tom: the murderer’s blades are attached to a camera which is used to capture his victims’ final moments), in Creep it is the hidden workers of film-making itself who are the quarry.

A well-heeled hipster in his thirties, Creep’s fictional victim seems far from Beasley and Exotic’s deadbeats, and the difference is compounded in Creep 2, where the protagonist is a young YouTuber who responds to the serial killer’s unnerving invitation in the hope of getting some good content for her flailing channel. Yet the comparison of these three positions implied in Creep’s twist on the Beasley case sets up a pattern of downward mobility, precariousness and personal vulnerability that cuts across generational and class lines. Coding the movie as a fiction of the platform capitalism recession also gives it a surreptitious answer when the viewer makes the cries conventional to all horror movie audiences as the tension builds: ‘why is he staying?!’, ‘you’d just leave wouldn’t you?!’, ‘get out while you can!’. In the gig economy, it can be difficult to say no to a job, however strange, risky, or impossible.

In November 2011 – a month after Joe Exotic featured on Louis Theroux’s America’s Most Dangerous Pets, and days before Beasley’s arrest in Akron, Ohio – Occupy Wall Street supporters in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park were performing a group reading of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. Occupy’s joyful group reading was the latest in a long line of activists and philosophers who have taken strength from Bartleby’s heroic passivity and wrongfooting of his employer, as he accepts the job in principle and squats in his workplace, but to every task replies with an unshakable ‘I would prefer not to’. Ultimately, Bartleby dies. But not without claiming the obsessed fascination of his employer, colonising the very speech of everybody around him (all the characters end up compulsively using the verb ‘prefer’), and positioning himself as one of the great objects of interpretive labour in American literature. And yet as the writer on precarious work Ivor Southwood has noted, ‘if Bartleby had been an agency worker the fiction would have turned out rather differently. If one fancifully imagines a temporary data enterer who preferred not to perform the tasks assigned to him, this would present today’s office manager with no such terrible insight’. 

In Tiger King,we see a partially idealised version of this anti-Bartleby dynamic when Saff, the zookeeper attacked by a tiger, refuses hospital treatment that might have saved his arm in order to spare Exotic’s zoo bad press and to return to work with the beloved tigers. Around us, the reality of care workers without adequate protective equipment on the one side, zero hours security guards, service workers, and delivery drivers with no possibility of furlough and no sick pay on the other, both with no choice but to return to work each day in this terrible dream.

Mareile Pfannebecker

Mareile Pfannebecker is co-author of Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism. She is a writer and translator living in Manchester. She tweets at @MareileP

James A. Smith

James A. Smith is the author of Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism (Zero Books). He tweets at @NuPopulism

Leave a Reply

Comment

More Ideas

More In Politics

More In Features

More In Profiles

More In Arts & Culture