Tiger King, Social Class, and Electoral Politics

Julie Kvedar
Cinemania
Published in
6 min readApr 15, 2020

The troubling implications of our favorite quarantine distraction

Tiger King’s Joe Exotic with one of his tigers
© Netflix

There is one thing, aside from COVID-19, that is monopolizing my group discussions right now: Tiger King. It is a Netflix documentary series exploring the outrageous and often illegal escapades of a group of for-profit exotic animal breeders. The show centers around a gun-toting, mullet-wearing, gay tiger breeder named Joe Exotic.

While the show’s plot itself is admittedly shocking and bizarre, there is an undercurrent of social class voyeurism that contributes to making the show so gossip-worthy.[1] Social class in America is a taboo discussion topic; we politely ignore its existence, instead referencing imperfect proxies like race, education, and profession. Even while refusing to acknowledge that we live in a class hierarchy, however, many Americans limit their interactions to people in their own class.[2] Our self-selection reinforces the invisibility of social class in our daily lives.[3]

This is part of what makes Tiger King so fascinating: it gives members of higher social strata a “safe” glimpse into a social class other than their own. It is the same reason we love following the Kardashians and the Real Housewives. We have limited real-life exposure to other social classes, and we are naturally curious about how their lives compare to ours.

In my social circles, we are in our mid-to-late twenties and live in large, coastal cities. We go wine tasting and travel to Europe. We have skincare routines and listen to podcasts and overpay for restaurant items featuring avocado or truffle. We all have straight, white teeth. Each of these is both a signal to new acquaintances in the same social class — “I am one of you” — and fodder for shared discussion, for mutual understanding.[4] The same cues that draw us to one another based on the inherent comfort of similarity also reinforce beliefs of our social class as “normal” and lower social classes as “other.”

Immediately upon starting Tiger King, we recognize that most of the cast members do not belong to our class. They come from a certain subset of the rural, white lower class to which we rarely have access. They are missing teeth; they have tattoos; they eschew both social and grammatical correctness. They shop at Walmart and ride motorcycles. At times, the display of these characteristics feels particularly intentional: cast members are interviewed while shirtless in trailers; cameras zoom in on tattoo sleeves and rotting teeth and cigarette-wielding hands. Each of these is a cue to folks with more privilege that “they” are not “us.”

This is why Tiger King provides such a delicious escape for us, particularly at this moment when we are all desperate to escape from reality. With Tiger King, we can skip the discomfort of real, in-person interactions with those in a lower social class than ours — interactions in which we would feel out of place and unsure of behavioral norms. We can entertain ourselves with their poverty from a safe, CDC-approved distance.

This class tourism may not be as harmless as it seems. Social class resentment, though rarely acknowledged as such, plays a significant role in the polarized nature in our politics. We use terms such as “working-class whites” and “the rust belt” when we really intend to signify social class. We discuss discontent directed at “coastal elites,” when we really mean anger is directed higher up on the social totem pole. Hiding in plain sight in Tiger King, behind Joe Exotic’s outrageous antics, is the appalling plight of the operations’ employees. Many have struggled with addiction, incarceration, and homelessness; they submit to abusive employment at these animal operations because of their dearth of alternatives. They are the key to understanding our divided politics.

Class resentment informs electoral choices. Social class factors into why my social circles overwhelmingly supported Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, but neither candidate made meaningful headway in the Democratic primary.[5] Both candidates speak in the language of the academy, discussing complex political issues with nuance and eloquence.[6] Their professorial approach feels familiar to the highly educated, but perhaps strikes as elitist the nearly two-thirds of the country without a bachelor’s degree.[7]

Donald Trump, despite his celebrity and education and wealth, speaks in the language of a lower social class. His rhetoric, generally free of academic jargon, is simple — “build the wall” — and laced with resentment for the status quo — “lock her up.” His approach has undoubtedly appealed to many disaffected white, lower-social-class individuals like those serving as our entertainment in Tiger King. These folks have few options for an upward social trajectory and harbor significant discontent towards the establishment.[8]

Herein lies the sinister link between the rise of Trumpism and our seeking distraction in the poverty of the white lower class. As uncritical Tiger King viewers, we utilize the less fortunate for amusement, while doing nothing to improve the inequities that first led to our disparate places in the social hierarchy. We must start to talk about social class in less euphemistic ways; to acknowledge that it is real, it permeates our culture, and it has consequences. We may limit our interactions with those in other social classes, but they still have an impact on our lives and we on theirs. There is nothing like a pandemic to shine a spotlight on this reality.

Far beyond its entertainment value, Tiger King provides us with an important glimpse into the lives of pivotal 2020 voters. How might Joe’s employees benefit from universal healthcare, from ban-the-box movements, from addiction treatment reform? We must learn to speak not only about issues important to this demographic but in a manner more resonant to them; polished, academic prose is likely not the winning strategy. We must also substitute empathy and humility for the condescension with which we sometimes discuss the lower class. We were social distancing from these individuals before it was cool; it is time we start listening to them.

[1] VanArendonk, Kathryn. “A Debate About Tiger King Between Me and Myself.” Vulture, 26 Mar. 2020, www.vulture.com/2020/03/is-tiger-king-on-netflix-good.html; see also Andrade, Gabriel. “What Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’ Teaches Us about Race and Class in America.” Merion West, 2 Apr. 2020, merionwest.com/2020/04/02/what-netflixs-tiger-king-teaches-us-about-race-and-class-in-america/; Pollard, Alexandra. “Is Tiger King Just a Celebration of Abuse?” The Independent, 6 Apr. 2020, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/tiger-king-netflix-joe-exotic-carole-baskin-saff-lilligers-animal-rights-a9446221.html.

[2] Côté, Stéphane, and Michael W. Kraus. “Crossing Class Lines.” The New York Times, 3 Oct. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/opinion/sunday/crossing-financial-lanes.html (“[P]eople tend to interact almost exclusively with people who share similar educational histories, incomes and occupations — and when they do interact with others from different social classes, even as friends, those relationships seem fraught with misunderstanding and tension.”).

[3] Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Viking, 2016, p. 7 (“Americans do not like to talk about class. It is not supposed to be important in our history. It is not who we are.”); “Social Class as Culture.” Association for Psychological Science, 8 Aug. 2011, www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/social-class-as-culture.html (noting that although Americans “think class is irrelevant,” recent “studies are saying the opposite: [t]his is a profound part of who we are.”) (quoting Dacher Keltner).

[4] See generally Kraus, Michael W., et al. “Signs of Social Class: The Experience of Economic Inequality in Everyday Life.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 12,3 (2017): 422–435. doi:10.1177/1745691616673192.

[5] Yglesias, Matthew. “Why Elizabeth Warren Is Losing Even as White Professionals Love Her.” Vox, 3 Mar. 2020, www.vox.com/2020/3/3/21162527/what-happened-to-elizabeth-warren.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.; US Census Bureau. “CPS Historical Time Series Tables.” The United States Census Bureau, 9 Mar. 2020, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/educational-attainment/cps-historical-time-series.html.

[8] Kraus et al., supra note 4, at 431 (noting that many lower class individuals have “come to distrust a political system that ignores their own daily economic struggles.”); Andrade, supra note 1.

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Julie Kvedar
Cinemania

Julie Kvedar is a health care lawyer. She is passionate about the intersection of health, human rights, and law.