Tiger King: Postmodernism and the Power of Stories

Stories are all around us. Stories shape how we see the world; they bring us together, and they divide us. “We think in stories, remember in stories, and turn just about everything we experience into a story, sometimes adjusting or omitting facts to make it fit,”1 says Carl Alviani. This is because “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”2 Stories have power over us. A story is the most effective way to either communicate the truth or to bury the truth. Stories conflict with one another all the time, leaving us with a decision to make: which stories will we believe?

One of the most popular stories right now is Netflix’s docuseries, Tiger King. Tiger King was the number one show on Netflix for nearly a month-long streak, but it garnered its 64 million household views by being more interested in being entertaining than by being truthful. A docuseries about the “big cat world,” Tiger King is not really about the cats; the animals are sidelined in favor of the far more interesting human characters in the story. The story focuses on Joe Exotic, the flamboyant, gun-toting, mullet-sporting, zoo-owning “Tiger King.” His nemesis is Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist who is cast as the number-one suspect in the mysterious disappearance of her husband, Don. Joe Exotic owns a zoo with hundreds of big cats, and Carole Baskin’s mission is to put people like Exotic out of business for committing acts of animal cruelty. Tiger King includes a cast of eccentric characters, all with their own perspectives and stories to tell. Tiger King is as chaotic as it is sensational; it is convoluted, controversial, offensive, intriguing, and raunchy.

Warning: This video contains some strong, inappropriate language.

Entertaining as it is, the docuseries’ loose relationship with truth is concerning to many of its viewers. The twisting story, narrated by over a dozen conflicting viewpoints, is told in such a way that it seems impossible to know whose story we should believe. When stories contradict one another, how do we know what is true? This question about the relationship between personal narrative and truth is at the heart of one of the worldviews predominant in our culture: postmodernism.

Postmodernism and Narrative
Postmodernism is a term that became popular in the late twentieth century. Postmodernism was a reaction against the extreme certainty that philosophers and scientists espoused in the earlier twentieth century. Seeing that the modernists, the lovers of the technical and the empirical, exaggerated how much we could really know about the world, postmodernists swung to the other extreme, denying that we could know anything for certain. The word postmodernism is complex and full of variations that defy succinct or comprehensive definition. For the purpose of this article, I will use postmodernism to mean: a worldview or philosophy that denies metanarratives, and therefore denies that we can make sense of the world as a whole.

A metanarrative is an overarching story that relates and makes sense of all the small stories within that larger story. Metanarratives are how we understand the world; every worldview has a metanarrative. Postmodernism attacks metanarratives, saying there is no big story, and that is what makes it so destructive. The way we understand truth is shaped by a metanarrative, so if there is no legitimate metanarrative, which is what postmodernism claims, truth becomes shaky and uncertain. We need a narrative to make sense of the facts that we encounter. While we may try to “just believe the facts” objectively, we always attach a narrative to those facts to imbue them with meaning. Facts without a story mean very little to us. Stories shape our understanding of the facts and how we understand the facts shape the stories.

The Postmodern Confusion of Tiger King
Tiger King exemplifies how narratives shape our views of truth, and the potential danger of postmodernism. Each character in Tiger King has many of the same facts, yet each one tells a widely different story based on those facts. With so many different stories, how can you know what really happened? The answer seems to be that you can’t know. Even the point of whether Tiger King should be considered a documentary or a sensationalized fantasy based loosely on real events is not agreed upon.

According to most of the people appearing in the series, the story told should not be considered accurate. In a follow-up episode of Tiger King, many of the cast members are interviewed for their reactions to the docuseries. In that episode, Jeff Lowe, Exotic’s business partner and eventual enemy, states that Tiger King “tries to sensationalize [the story] a little bit, and tries to make a villian, and [I’m] the villain.” On the other hand, Alexander Dial, the campaign manager for Exotic when he (Exotic) ran for public office, said, “[Tiger King] is fair, it’s balanced, and I think it’s just a wonderful production.”

To further add to the confusion, some people, including his niece, claim that Exotic is way worse than how he is portrayed, but some of his zoo staff point to genuinely kind actions from Exotic. “Saff” Safferty confirmed that, as shown in the docuseries, Exotic makes a Thanksgiving meal for his local community every year. Safferty added, “I’ve seen him give the jacket off his back for people, and I don’t think that was highlighted enough. Joe did a lot of messed up stuff, and that’s a fact, and that’s shown and now the entire world knows it. But he did a lotta good things, too.”

Doc Antle, another big cat owner featured in the docuseries, does not think that Tiger King deserves to be called a documentary. He stated: “This is not a documentary. This is a salacious, outrageous ride through a television show produced to create drama, to just tie you into some crazy train wreck of a story between the feud of Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic.”

Carole Baskin wrote an article entitled “Refuting Netflix [sic] Tiger King,” in which she expresses her displeasure with the show, claiming that the filmmakers “did not care for truth. The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers.”3 Carole Baskin’s current husband, Harold, went so far as to call the producers con artists. While Baskin is quick to defend herself, others interested in big cat conservation don’t like her self-portrayal. John Goodrich, the chief scientist for Panthera, sees Carole more as a self-serving businesswoman than the selfless cat-lover she claims to be.

Amidst all of the conflicting opinions and viewpoints, it is hard to discern what is true. Any simple explanation of the story is certain to be partly true at best. Amidst the confusion and uncertainty, it seems that postmodernism is winning the day. According to postmodernism, we may as well forget about what’s “true” and enjoy Tiger King for its entertainment value.

Responding to Postmodernism
Postmodernism would say that it is useless to try to understand the metanarrative of Tiger King; any metanarrative we construct will not really be true. Postmodernism would have us ask, “if there is no cohesive narrative for a little story like Tiger King, how can we claim that there is a knowable metanarrative that ties together all of reality?” However, in attempting to undercut all other worldviews by asserting that there is no overarching story that explains all of reality, postmodernism actually creates a new overarching story: the metanarrative of postmodernism. Postmodernism tells the story of a world that is confusing and unknowable. It tells of a reality in which we are lost, tossed about in an endless sea, unable to make sense of anything. It provides an alternative story, but with the story of postmodernism we have nowhere to turn to find meaning, no way to live life meaningfully.

So, what do we believe? Despite the claims of postmodernism, we can be confident that there is a true metanarrative, even when we are not certain about the specifics of the story. Postmodernism claims there is no true metanarrative, but Christianity claims that there is a true metanarrative and it is knowable. Postmodernism is like a raging ocean, in which we are floundering dangerously, but the metanarrative of Christianity is like a safe shore where we can land. Although we may never know every detail in the story, we can be sure of its basic structure.

The central story of the Christian metanarrative is the story of Jesus Christ, and it is the story that makes sense of all of the other stories in the world. Even if we understand the story of Christ imperfectly, we can be sure that it is true. We know that we are fallen and sinful humans who need to be saved (Romans 3:23). We know that we deserve death for our sins (Romans 6:23). We know that the Creator of everything loved us enough to send his Son to earth to save us from our sins and to reconcile us to himself, so that we may live eternally in relationship with him (Romans 5:8, John 3:16). With these central truths, Christianity can make sense of the world in a way that postmodernism cannot.

Christianity explains that there is brokenness in the world because of human sinfulness, and also extends hope for healing that brokenness by offering redemption through Jesus Christ. The postmodern metanarrative offers neither satisfying answers nor hope, and leaves us without a meaningful way to move forward in life. If we can be confident in the primary truths of Christianity, we can hope to make sense of the rest of the world. The central story of Christianity holds power over all other stories in history; as Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”4 Even if we cannot see the whole story or make all of the facts fit together and make sense, we can be confident that the great Storyteller sees it all, is sovereign, and is working all things together for his glory and our good (Romans 8:28).

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