Labor, celebrity, and the carnivalesque in Tiger King

Abstract: When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States and people across the country began to shelter in place, viewers turned to the big personalities of the big cat world, including Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, and Doc Antle. On its surface Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness might seem to be an escapist series about the world of murderous and feuding zoo owners who operate outside the law, however, the documentary and the world of big cat exhibitions merely spectacularizes uneven economic development and common forms of labor exploitation. The worlds of Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin and Doc Antle embrace a superficially carnivalesque atmosphere. The “carnivalesque,” as derived from literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, describes a literary mode that, like a carnival itself, temporarily upends cultural hierarchies and norms. To varying degrees these big cat exhibitors have created their own moral universes, worlds that permanently shirk societal conventions such as monogamous marriage and disregard acknowledged standards of care for animals and compensation for employees often in service of the celebrity of the zoo owners. Rather than constructing a liberated environment, these zoos operate under their own rules and systems of control that mirror many of the labor conditions and inequities of late capitalism. Although many people watched Tiger King with shock and awe, this chapter considers the unremarkable qualities of performance and capitalized labor in the series.