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Tiger King and a Pathology of Beauty

“If you ask a twenty-one-year-old poet whose poetry he likes,” Annie Dillard declares, “he might say, unblushing, ‘Nobody’s.’ In his youth, he has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat.”

As someone who spends most of his working life around 20-year-olds, it’s worth saying first of all—I think Dillard is being a bit uncharitable.

Nevertheless, this passage came to mind recently; not as I was talking to a young poet, but as I was watching Tiger King. There is a difference, Dillard says, between someone who loves poetry, and someone who loves to be called A Poet. And, it seems to me, there’s also a difference between a person who loves big cats, and a “Big-Cat-Person” (as a number of the principle characters in Tiger King call themselves). The first (in both instances) is captivated by beauty. The second wants to take beauty captive. Or at least, “the Big-Cat-Person” wants beauty attached to herself in some way. She turns a proper noun into an adjective, and creates a hyphenated extension of her own identity.

That was one thought I had after watching the series.

The other was: “Gosh—it seems like there’s some sort of strange connection between ‘Big Cat People’ and polygamy.”

Let’s start with that second observation.

The series’ most obvious exponent of the Big Cat/Big Marriage convergence is the Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic. At the start of the series Joe is simultaneously married to John Finlay and Travis Moldonado, and shortly after Travis’s accidental death, Joe marries again; this time to Dillon Passage. Then there is Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who has even more expansive domestic arrangments than the Tiger King. He lives on a private compound surrounded by wild animals and a small harem of female keepers. Other characters in the series estimate that Doc has somewhere between three and nine wives and/or girlfriends. The series also introduces viewers to Don Lewis—second husband of Joe Exotic’s arch-nemesis Carole Baskin, and another collector of big cats. In the course of the series we learn that he was also a serial collector of girlfriends and mistresses. (Indeed one of those mistresses was Carole, for whom Don left his previous wife.) Likewise, Joe Exotic’s sometime business partner Jeff Lowe is a self-described partier, playboy, and a “swinger.” Toward the end of the series Jeff and his wife Lauren reveal that they are expecting a baby. What Jeff is most excited about though, is the arrival of their new “hot nanny.” “If you’re gonna bring in [a nanny],” Jeff confides to the camera with a leer, “why not bring in one that’s enjoyable to look at?”

I suppose at one level the preceding only amounts to the least remarkable news story in all of history: lots of middle-aged men are coarse, lecherous, serial adulterers. But moving beyond that depressingly obvious observation, it also struck me that perhaps behind these two different kinds of behavior—acquiring lots of large cats, and acquiring lots of spouses—there might be a single impulse: a desire to procure and possess beauty. If so, the bars and cages of G. W. Zoo would be one expression of this impulse. The tattoo scrawled across John Finlay’s lower abdomen—“Privately Owned By Joe Exotic”—would be another. Both manifest a longing to control and cage; a desire to enforce proximity and access to wildness, beauty, youth, and strength. If there’s anything to that line of thinking, then Tiger King may offer more than just the sideshow spectacle of sequined shirts and murder-for-hire schemes. Maybe it also provides us with an anatomy, or even better, a pathology of the human encounter with beauty. It shows us what that encounter looks and acts like, when it becomes diseased.

The pathology pops up in a particularly creepy joke that Jeff makes early in the series. I won’t repeat it here, but the point of Jeff’s attempt at locker room wit is: tiger cubs are a pretty awesome way to lure women up to your Las Vegas hotel suite. Who would have guessed? But apparently this is something Doc Antle knows as well. Young women like Barbara Miller travel across the country to work as apprentices at Doc Antle’s big cat park. Why? By all accounts the hours are long, the work is grinding, and the pay is poor. But: they get to be near the animals. There are multiple layers of irony here. Their interest in one type of predator brings these women under the control of another. They are drawn into a kind of captivity by the promise of spending time in a cage. They aspire to be keepers and end up being kept. “What are these poor women thinking?” I shout at the TV. On the screen, a snapshot shows half a dozen or more young women in the back of a limousine, sprawled around and across a smirking Doc Antle.

But then, it occurs to me, the hands-on tiger encounter that Doc Antle and Jeff Lowe use to attract women is the same lure that sustains every one of the big cat parks profiled in the series. Tour packages for “Doc Antle’s Myrtle Beach Safari” begin at about $350, but visitors don’t come just to look at the animals. They come to have a “wildlife encounter.” The website for Myrtle Beach Safari shows visitors cuddling, petting, playing, and swimming with the animals. No cameras are allowed, but for an extra $150 (and upwards), you can add a “digital photo” package, and receive a file of instagram-ready images of you and your kids, spouse, or signficant other grinning at the camera, snuggled cheek to cheek with a baby tiger. Beauty, it turns out, can be profitable. It’s “attract-ive”—it draws. And that means that, as with any other attraction, you can charge admission. Beauty can be a source of power for those who have it under their control. Again, this isn’t exactly a novel insight. A multi-billion dollar pornography industry testifies to the fact that attractiveness can be monetized and desire exploited for profit.

We don’t want to just gaze at beauty. We want to enter into it and have it enter into us. We want to share in it and somehow attach its name to ours. Steve Guthrie

Is that also why customers line up outside “Doc Antle’s Mytrle Beach Safari”? Is a desire for power and influence why they pay to have their photo taken with a lion cub? Probably not. Most of them, I’m sure, really do love big cats. Maybe it’s just that that draws them. But then I think of those expensive photo packages again; the tourists holding tiger cubs up against their face for the camera. And that (strangely enough) reminds me of Annie Dillard’s conversation with her student. The aspiring poet, you’ll recall, was drawn to poetry; but more than that, Dillard complains, he was drawn to the idea of being A Poet. “He likes,” Dillard says, “the thought of himself in a hat.” (And who can’t sympathize with that young man? Am I the only person who has carried some particular book around, mostly because I wanted people to think of me as “the kind of person who reads that sort of book?” Or even, because I wanted to think of myself as “the kind of person who reads that sort of book!”) We want to be in the neighborhood of beauty, not just because we hope to see something beautiful, but in the hope that we can be beautiful. We want to be connected with it, associate ourselves with it. Like a tourist nuzzling a tiger cub to his cheek, we hope it might rub off on us. We want to find a way to surround and wrap ourselves in it, like Carole Baskin in her tiger print blouses and tiger print wallpaper. Like teenagers crowding around the popular kid at a party, or an aging playboy draping his arm around a woman half his age, Doc Antle parades past his visitors on the back of an elephant. In each case we hope we’ll be declared “guilty by association;” that others might mistake “proximity” for “resemblance.” We don’t want to just gaze at beauty. We want to enter into it and have it enter into us. We want to share in it and somehow attach its name to ours. And so “Joe Schreibvogel” becomes “Joe Exotic,” and then (rather poignantly), “Joe Maldonado-Passage.” And so Annie Dillard’s student wants to be called “A Poet.”

None of that means there is anything wrong with being drawn to beauty, or with wanting to be beautiful (or with wanting to be a poet for that matter). These are good things. Remember, we’ve been considering the pathologies of beauty—the ways even loveliness gets twisted around. That’s one of the things that’s easiest to recognize in Tiger King. The series shows us more clearly than any theology textbook, that (in the words of Martin Luther) “our nature is so curved in upon itself at its deepest levels that it . . . bends the best gifts of God toward itself.” But this insight is double-edged. It means on the one hand that the longing for beauty can lead to some pretty dark places and depraved acts. But it also means, on the other, that a lot of what is dark and depraved arises at some level from a longing for beauty. So we are told, “The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” (A famous quote usually attributed to G. K. Chesterton, but which apparently comes from Scottish author Bruce Marshall.) Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why—despite the undeniably reprehensible things he does—at the end of the series I still find Joe Exotic kind of endearing. Behind his staggering vanity and casual violence, I think I can dimly discern a desperate, heartbreaking desire to be near beauty; more than that, to be beautiful.

I watched Tiger King while I was self-quarantined in my basement (I’d just returned from two weeks overseas). It was Holy Week as well. The juxtaposition of Christ’s passion, pandemic anxiety, social distancing, and Joe Exotic’s mullet seems as bizarre to me now as it seemed illuminating then. At the moment, it felt as if something important crystalized in my mind; about proximity, infection, and being ritually unclean; about what we can and can’t acquire by being close to its source. About one person identifying himself with another, attaching himself to another, in order to share in his goodness (or badness).

One of the oldest and most universal forms of magic (I recall from my college world religions class) is “sympathetic magic.” These are charms and incantations that work by way of resemblance and contagion. You wear the claw of the bear and as a result you possess something of the strength of the bear. You obtain the feathers of an eagle, and so, have something of the eagle’s grace and beauty. And with a few adjustments and modifications, this same form of magic continues to be practiced in the world of business, academics, and entertainment. Want to be successful? Surround yourself with successful people. Want to be the best? Start spending time with the best. Want to be well known? Start cultivating connections with people who are well known. Like begets like. Wear the claw of the bear. Wrap yourself in leopard skin. Have your picture taken with a beautiful woman—or a beautiful lion cub. Rename yourself “Big-Cat-Person” or “Tiger King.” All of this has a kind of ancient and intuitive sense to it. But it is strikingly different—in fact, it is the complete inversion—of the way of Jesus and his cross. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) In the gospels we meet someone who touches lepers, surrounds himself with outcasts, and is called a friend of sinners. He identifies himself with the weak and the wretched, and by his proximity makes them well and whole.

Most dramatically, at the climax of his passion, he is made a prisoner and condemned as a criminal. Which means that, interestingly enough, near the end of Jesus’ story, he occupies the same role Joe Exotic occupies at the end of Tiger King. Jesus tells his followers (Matthew 25) that he is particularly close to those who are poor, naked, sick and imprisoned. Joe Exotic then, finally ends up in the neighborhood of Beauty; not on the gaudy throne slapped together for his reality show, but in the prison cell where he is placed among those who have been declared guilty.


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