The Labor Market Economics of “Zookeeper”

On “Zookeeper” and our changing attitudes towards blue collar work.

The new Kevin James vehicle, Zookeeper, became something of an internet punchline in the months leading up to its release, as the reality that something so asinine could possibly make it into theaters as a major summer release fully set in among the commentariat.

By most critics’ accounts, it has major flaws in storytelling and comedic execution. No surprise. I’m not hear to talk about that. Instead, I’m here to talk about this movie’s relationship with labor market economics and our changing attitutudes towards blue collar work.

From the trailer, we learn that the love interest refuses the titular zookeeper’s proposal because of his chosen occupation. She’s meant to be a stand-in for societal norms that look down on manual labor. We also learn that the zookeeper has an offer, presumably from a friend, to work as a car salesman in a high-end dealership.

This contrast is obviously meant to appeal to the audience’s surface understanding of vocations and their relative statuses. A zookeeper wears a uniform, cleans up animal poop, and works outside. Low status. A car salesman wears a tie, peddles shiny, expensive cars, and works inside. High status.

I’ll come back to explore these shallow prejudices later, but for now, let’s examine the two jobs at hand. First, we have the lowly zookeeper. If he were a lowly attendant solely responsible for cleaning and feeding animals, then the love interest’s derision would be somewhat understandable. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “Nonfarm Animal Caretakers” (SOC code 39-2021 for the labor market economists out there) typically only require a high school education and earn a median wage of $9.40 per hour.

But this isn’t the lot of our hero. Take a close look at his name tag:

What the hell. Let me blow it up for you to make my point:

That’s right. He’s the LEAD zookeeper. He’s probably in some sort of management role, either supervising or training other zookeepers at the zoo. He may even have a bachelors degree. Even if he’s neither a manager nor a college grad, it’s clear that he’s not the run-of-the-mill monkey pooper scooper. He has experience–based on James’s age, at least 10 years, if not 20–and he probably earns a modest middle-class salary.

So why abandon all of that for a job as a car salesman?

"Put that coffee down. Coffee is for closers."

Not only would his years of zookeeping experience be worthless in a totally different industry, he’d be at the mercy of his own performance for earnings that are largely tied to commission. As far as his potential sales aptitude, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the nurturing, empathic qualities that make him a good (LEAD, mind you) zookeeper would probably prevent him from selling a lot of Lamborghinis.  In other words, he’s almost certain to make less money as a car salesman than as a zookeeper, which would do nothing to help him get the girl.

Perhaps the shortcomings of this plan are covered in the movie. After all, it’s a safe assumption that the zookeeper finds out he’s not really cut out to be a car salesman and returns to his true calling of zookeeping. And it’s not at all indicated if the love interest warms up to James due to his career change.

In any event, it’s clear that the movie is playing off the aforementioned societal prejudice against blue collar jobs. This has been well documented and lamented by others to the point of becoming something of a meme. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs delivered an excellent TED Talk on the subject:

And Matthew Crawford, former Plutarch scholar turned motorcycle repairman, documented his experience in the book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Media accounts of other former “knowledge workers” have left the comfort of desk jobs and air conditioning to start sandwich shops and work on organic farms are plentiful, especially as the sluggish hiring market has caused increased disillusionment with old norms on careers and their associated statuses.

In a way, fixing motorcycles is just like studying Plutarch. In a way.

So when the zookeeper is validated in his chosen blue collar profession and attains self-actualization without having to wear a tie, he doesn’t do so in a vacuum; he does so in a cultural context that has become at least partly aware of its discrimination against blue collar jobs and is trying to atone for it by celebrating labor again.

But is Zookeeper actually part of this same movement? Probably not. Zookeeper isn’t marketed towards the same type of people that TED Talks and Shop Class as Soulcraft are marketed towards. No, Zookeeper is marketed towards children who like talking animals and parents of those children who aren’t deterred by the presence of Kevin James and the apparent half-assed collection of tired cliches that comprise this movie. This may come of as elitist, but there’s a class divide between those two audiences.

Which is ironic, of course, in that the upscale audience that supposedly endorses this resurgence in manual labor is the same audience that turns its nose up at a movie that celebrates this ideal.

Which is a shame, in that this leads to the final irony of Zookeeper: by alienating the upscale audience, the movie ultimately undermines its own attempt at celebrating blue collar work that the white collar world looks down on.

Are you imagining Daniel Day Lewis as the Zookeeper? Did I just blow your mind?

Now, I’m not saying that Zookeeper deserved a prestige-picture treatment (imagine Daniel Day Lewis in the title role) or that a movie can only deliver effective social commentary if it gets a good review in The New Yorker and the respect of high-falutin’ rich folks. Or that this movie even needed to make a serious attempt at social commentary. I am saying that there’s a really interesting conversation going on about jobs and their changing relationship with our notions of self worth, and it’s frustrating to see a movie totally take itself out of that conversation, or any interesting conversation, due to its shoddy quality.

Admittedly, I haven’t actually seen this movie, but in this case, I don’t think it’s actually necessary; I suspect the vast majority of our readers are engaging with this movie in the same way that I have; through its trailer and the incredulous reaction of the rest of the internet to its existence. BUT: if you HAVE seen this movie, I am dying to hear what you thought about it. Not just to hear how well it holds up as a piece of entertainment, but mostly to know if my assessment of the movie’s portrayal of jobs is on point or not.

[Hat tip to OTI podcast listener @JayDubSA for posing a question on Zookeeper which made it onto the podcast and also inspired this article.]

19 Comments on “The Labor Market Economics of “Zookeeper””

  1. Hattie #

    Worth noting (former non-keeper zoo employee here): most zoo jobs that involve direct contact with the animals require at least a bachelor’s and usually a lot more. Many keepers at larger zoos have ph.ds and years of field work under their belts, and certainly a “lead zookeeper” would have that. There are a lot of low-level jobs at zoos, but most of them are concession-oriented. So while it’s not exactly a white-collar job in the traditional sense, the idea that someone would reject a zookeeper but not a car salesman on the basis of the zookeeper being a lowly, ambitionless shit-shoveler was, to me, the least plausible thing in the entire “Zookeeper” trailer. (Yes, less plausible than the talking animals.)

    “Nonfarm animal caretaker” could encompass a lot of things, but probably also includes things like dog walkers and groomers. Not that zookeepers make bank, but I think they do okay.


    • Lee OTI Staff #

      Thanks for bringing that up. I didn’t bring it up in the article, but I do know an honest-to-god zookeeper who has both a bachelors and masters in her field. But to be fair, she did do some shit-shoveling while on the job, at least when I knew her as an entry-level zookeeper.


  2. Liz Coleman #

    Yeah, my first thought was, “Isn’t zookeeping one of the most badass, sought-after-by-schoolchildren professions out there? These people hang out with tigers and polar bears!”


  3. Lee OTI Staff #

    Off-topic, but can we talk about the TGI Fridays product placement? The Red Letter Media video that I linked to brings it up, but we should acknowledge that it’s just…so…blatant and terrible.

    In other words, “Shut. UP.”


    • Brian #

      I’ll defend this so called abortion of a placement ad as an intentional and brilliant work of satire on how we’re throwing away the methods of worker and communal organization that made this country great to pursue images of personal wealth at the cost of our nurturing humanity. And Andrew’s comments below corroborates the actual in movie experience. It doesn’t not work, it works only too well, too too well. Argument as follows…

      “TGI Friday’s.” Friday, eve of weekend as we know it started in America when Henry Ford in 1926 closed his factories on Friday to accommodate Jewish sabbath and thinking it helped the economy, standardized across American workforce after WWII (source: Restaurant is named after a popular worker saying celebrating end of work week, “Thank God it’s Friday.” The movie producers could have easily used “Applebees” or some place more fictional, but this product placement, probably to TGI Friday’s chagrin, is intentionally painful and integral to the movie makers aim.

      “Applebottom Jeans,” the song goes un-scrutinized, Oh it’s noticed, but if you dip into what the song is about- a stylized type of jean tailored for the sole purpose of accentuating the hips and buttocks for maximum sexual allure, and compare that to the unglamorous history of jeans prior use- 19th century sailors for ruggedness in all types of rough situations, miners in the Old West where they got rivets for durability, factories during WWII; only in the 1950’s after James Dean co-opted them in “Rebel Without a Cause” as rebellious non-work fashion did jeans catch on as fashion staple, now jeans have evolved to the point of being purely fashion and little work function. The other lyric said in trailer, is “boots with the fur, the whole town was look’n at hir” as James points to the gorilla, an obvious nod to how our factory line methods of raising and slaughtering animals for fur and food in warehouses of horrid conditions is a secret we’re all repress thinking it won’t affect our sense of value of life.

      So what better song to highlight this transition from being judged by what and how you do things to how you look doing it? What better restaurant than TGI Fridays to underline the lip-service we as a culture pay to the achievements of worker organization and social community? And what better way to emphasize those points which are drastically important to public discourse but are neglected because of the very medium you’re using to send the message is partly responsible for that degradation then by sacrificing you’re own movie in a giant performance act which gives a jolting experience to the audience that indeed no movie is beyond scrutinizing and thus immolate the myth of “harmless entertainment?”

      Unlike Rage Against the Machine’s whining to the choir anthem “Just stare!” and Shosanna’s Scooby-Doo smoke ghost in Inglourious Bastereds, Zookeeper burns an image 9000x more potently painful precisely because it so undesirably, uncannily come from our last sacred place of solace, sitting in the dark relic of an American made van a captive?/free? a man in a sophisticated gorilla suit in working man’s clothing growls an ironic demand of the American masses through the reflected glowing image of TGI Fridays to “Shut up.”


      • Brian #

        I guess this is arguing the shoddy quality takes Zookeeper deeper into the conversation rather than out of it, shoddiness intentional or not it’s shoddiness certainly drives the themes of why and how we work deeper than had it been “good enough” to pass inspection.

        So arguing if it’s intentional or not maybe a sideways detour, but if it’s intentional it says something about worker dissatisfaction and how workers show it; if unintentional it shows how even our most thoroughly trusted tried and true formulas for efficiency and success done with the utmost confidence and skill can nevertheless fail us and explode our sense of absolute control over our situations and environment.


      • Brian #

        I’d also argue that the shoddiness opens up a discourse on the still taboo subject of failure, going for the trifecta of Richard Sennett references I’ll cite “The Corrosion of Character” where he researched a group of IBM workers after a layoff go through the stages of coming to terms with being laid off and finally being able to openly talk about failure without shame or guilt.

        “But this required the presence of others. Their achievement -which is not too strong a word- is to have arrived at a state in which they were ashamed neither of their mutual need nor of their own inadequacy. …Shame about dependence has a practical consequence. It erodes mutual trust and commitment, and the lack of these social bonds threatens the workings of any collective enterprise.” (141)

        Zookeeper’s trailer also starts with a big failure, James’ proposal, which is rejected because his job is shameful to the girlfriend. The rest of the trailer/movie is coming to terms with that failure/shame.

        “The Corrosion of Character” thesis is dramatized so thoroughly in Zookeeper there is no doubt in my mind the writers had it mind when writing and the movie makers while making it and the editor while cutting the trailer, if they didn’t it’s the most uncanny coincidence I’ve encountered and should seek psychiatric care immediately. Which brings us to the ad and the “Shut up.” line.

        There’s a new management structure that’s supposedly devoid of authority and holds teamwork in high regard, but it’s blatantly superficial and is used as a cover for management to deny non-union workers legitimacy of needs and desires by saying they’re not being team players-“The good team player doesn’t whine.” Since this is a relatively new style, management has a problem with older workers who have what’s called in the mgmt jargon “voice,” which is when a worker talks directly to the boss about a grievance, younger workers don’t do this because this isn’t something their familiar with.

        That the old gorilla who suddenly is revealed to have a voice, and could have been any age and sex and personality type better suited to the high energy of comedy, and that the performance is so oddly inert for a kids comedy movie, and that the writers were obviously discussing work, and that the odd “shut up” line is said through a superficial reflection of restaurant named after a union saying right to the audience leads me to believe the ad was intentionally subversive, it just too perfectly lines up with this notion of “voice.”


  4. Jormungandr #

    Yeah, I always thought that zookeeping was a well-respected and sought after job, especially by kids. The idea of being “only a zookeeper” seems like a conceit of the film to involve a lot of talking animals in this horribly generic comedy.

    And yes, I watched the RLM video before seeing the trailer along, and I COULD NOT BELIEVE that the TGI Fridays thing was real. It’s just so… naked and obvious. The way the gorilla slowly, awkwardly says “Is TGI Fridays as won-der-ful as it al-ways seemed?” is exactly the way it would be in a parody product placement.


  5. Andrew #

    I can’t defend the product placement, but I can defend the film. There’s a sweetness running throughout the entire film that gives it a more genuine sheen than something like Marmaduke or Beverly Hills Chihuahua. I enjoyed that the film was willing to follow it’s admittedly stupid premises pushing it farther and farther until it surpassed being dumb and pushes things into the genuinely funny range.

    It’s also significantly more biting than the trailers let on with a strongly alluded to gay couple and an openly bisexual snake handler. Those elements most definitely did not make it into the trailer and I was more than surprised to see them in the movie.

    As far as the classicism is concerned I think it cuts more on the white-collar side of the fence than the blue. Most so far, and I imagine most that will comment in the future, are judging the characters based on the way the more negative ones in the film view themselves. Going back to Hattie’s point, s/he’s viewing Kevin James’ character like the disgruntled fiancee, not like Rosario Dawson’s who glorifies the profession.

    I like that you mention that it’s not as simple a solution as sticking Daniel Day Lewis into the movie, but that’s still the only answer you really point to by having not seen the movie. So yes, I do think you’re analysis is a bit off but brings up some interesting points.

    To close, can’t defend the TGI placement at all (pretty much everything involving Nolte talking was hard to get through) though the weirdness afterwards made up for it.


    • Brian #

      So what’s the climactic turn, does Kevin end up with Lisa Bibb because she realizes her attitude toward his job is cold and ridiculous, or does she not change and Kevin James realizes he to be wants to be with co-worker Rosario Dawson? Or does he end up with Nick Nolte and really shatter expectations of the status quo?-Is that “the weirdness” after the TGIF ad that makes up for it?


      • Andrew #

        Thanks for the commentary.

        To answer your question it’s the second and partly the third. The idea of inter-species sexuality is less hinted at and more nudging you under the ribs going “Eh? Eh? This night could end somewhere weird, huh?”

        There are two things that you say in your thoughts below that I think are indicative fairly directly of the experience of the movie versus the trailer.

        “By being such a mathematically perfect crappy by-the-numbers movie it can’t be negated further thus breaking this negative image bond, which that breaking is actually a good thing and what you want because it allows you to go onto a better structure of work life.

        But showing the alternative structures is where The Zookeeper (trailer) really does it’s damage because, as stated before, it’s condescending/disillusioning as hell with it’s reliance on mass marketing cliches and disingenuous take on nurturing and empathy- if the producers really cared about promoting empathy they would have empathized how soul crushing the product placement is.”

        If I were to compare the experience of watching the film versus seeing the trailer (which I didn’t even look at until I needed to get some screen-caps for my review) I’d say that the two statements apply in different proportions to each presentation.

        The movie is split roughly 80/20 between the first and second statements whereas the trailer is roughly 5/95 between the two.

        I’ve actually been surprised at the extent to which the fiancee’s character has been commented on and not Rosario Dawson’s. But given how much of a non-presence Dawson is in the trailer I can’t be that shocked.

        Anyway, Kate (Dawson) acts as the saintly middle-class stabilizing influence on Griffin (James) throughout the film whereas Stephanie (Bibb) is obviously the ultimate upper-class shaper of men. What I found kind of fascinating, now that I’m over-thinking the movie (as I suppose I have to in this environ 8-D), is the way Kate and Giffin utilize those high falutin’ values to shatter the illusion of money = happiness and allow Griffin an Oldboy-esque stab at revenge (contextualize though, PG movie, no unusual sex hinted at other than what I’ve already covered).

        In the movie I looked at the TGI Fridays scenes more in the vein of the Brady Bunch movie when we get that delightful Sears montage. Both films are trying to have fun with the middle-class destination choices while simultaneously poking at and celebrating them. The problem with Zookeeper is that it swings too far in one direction and not at all in the other – resulting in an initial mess of a moment where they’re saying how cool it is to go to Fridays, have a few drinks and maybe have sex with a gorilla.

        The “Shut-up” moment is every bit as painful in the movie as it is in the trailer but the little bit of context helps it’s delivery tremendously.

        Also, just to note, Stephanie is written consistently. Aside from her initial disgust of the job, which stems more from his position and (in her perception) lack of upward momentum than any of the actual duties, she doesn’t really flip flop back and forth between “Ewwww” and “Awwww”. She’s the shallow product of a class that learned to replace honesty with manipulation and call it honesty. So she behaves honestly, consistently, and by the time she gets her comeuppance at the end it made me feel kind of bad for her.

        Regardless, I’m a newbie to Foucault (I still need to finish Discipline and Punish dammit) so sorry I can’t respond as theoretically minded as yourself.

        Thanks again.


        • Brian #

          Yeah I’m not that hip to theory either, I’m afraid to read any French theorists after Baudrillard was incomprehensible to me. I much prefer the plain speaking version which makes OTI so great. I went with the stuffier language here thinking it’s funny in contrast to Zookeeper, like Mike Rowe naming the sheep testicles in his mouth anagnorisis and peripetia.

          But now I really regret it because I didn’t know it well enough to be able to focus it’s relevance clearly and ended up blasting the conversational momentum full of jargony bird shot and expected everyone else to fix the mess of holes. But hey I’m learning aight mistakes are gonna happen aight brahs, props to all da peeps for understand’n da learn’n pros.


  6. Brian #

    Thank you for this article! -I wrote my comment before reading Andrew’s comment revealing the movie is different tonally then the trailer, so I’ll stick to the effect the trailer has.

    The Zookeeper (trailer) in it’s absolute failure is a really effective/accurate artifact about the undercurrent ideology of work in America because it’s dissonance between narrative and method of production is the same as what’s going on in America’s discourse on labor. This is why The Zookeeper is so existentially crippling, it intentionally goes out to undermine the cold cut throat autonomy or overbearing paternalism of modern institutions that cause dissatisfaction in workers- by promoting and de-shaming the nurturing work like that of Kevin James’ as zookeeper which is great and something needs doing, but then the producers of the movie at every chance subordinate the method of production to those very same negative notions they’re supposedly denouncing for money and efficiency- thus slaughtering the very hope the movie’s narrative raised in the audience and disillusioning trust and any hope of actually realizing true alternatives to the authorities the narrative proposes.

    So Red Letter Media, South Park, all the satirists find themselves in existential crisis over Zookeeper (trailer), why? Because it forces them to face that the act of complaining about a boss can strengthen your dependence on them, because they’re still the focal point, Fenzel mentioned this as “the Foucault thing” in podcast 158 about 42 minutes in if my notes serve accurate, but I know it from “Authority” by Richard Sennett,

    “To expose the illusions and the potency of authority became the goal of the negative spirit born in the French Revolution; it was a determination, in Hegel’s words, to drive out ‘the master within.’ This resolve not to be duped by the appearances of the authorities can have the paradoxical effect of tightening the bond between master and servant. It did so in [a case where] accountants bent on exposing the fact that their boss was not the leader a person in her position should be; they needed her negative to see the positive image of authority they wanted.”

    By being such a mathematically perfect crappy by-the-numbers movie it can’t be negated further thus breaking this negative image bond, which that breaking is actually a good thing and what you want because it allows you to go onto a better structure of work life.

    But showing the alternative structures is where The Zookeeper (trailer) really does it’s damage because, as stated before, it’s condescending/disillusioning as hell with it’s reliance on mass marketing cliches and disingenuous take on nurturing and empathy- if the producers really cared about promoting empathy they would have empathized how soul crushing the product placement is.

    To me it seems “dependence and nurturance” are the real themes here, it relates to work because ever since modern era/industrial revolution separated work and home American workers have had the problem articulating dependence on employers without resentment. I’ll again quote from “Authority” on two ways this work/dependence/individualism conflict has tried to be alleviated.
    1. “Paternalism: dealt with this relation by making the issue of nurturance non-negotiable. George Pullman [19th century industrialist who built town for his workers] would tell his workers what was best for them; if they wanted to be cared for, they would obey and leave the rest to him. Nurturance was a gift. Unlike a real parent, he conceived it as his right to give or withhold as he saw fit.”
    2. “Autonomy: the aim was to repress nurturance altogether. When superior and subordinate come into conflict, the superior exerts moral controls over his subordinate by acting deaf to appeals for guidance and sympathy.” (185)

    So I would argue that Kevin James is a parentalism nurturing figure to the animals/workers-though probably not a jerk/dictator thus evolving beyond it’s negative aspects, while the car dealer is autonomous, no pun intended, by me at least maybe by the movie writers. So maybe Andrew can tell if this total baloney or not if it’s on to something.

    I don’t know if any of this makes sense, I’m honestly out of the loop on the American discourse of labor, and “Authority” was written in 1980 so maybe it’s out of date.


    • Brian #

      So I guess I’m saying that it’s not just white collars looking down on blue collars, blue collars look down on themselves, and how/why they feel that way is related to the modern/American idea that we are 100% responsible for our lot in life and when your lot is a lame ass job you start thinking of yourself as too stupid and weak to do anything else even if there’s real external influences preventing you from “upward mobility,” this was recorded again by Richard Sennett in “The Hidden Injuries of Class.” That there was a very strong direct connection with work and personal identity, that you can’t have a job that you “just do” that you have no care for and have it not affect your sense of self.

      So Zookeeper may miss the white collars, but it reaches the just as important direction of blue collars to themselves.


  7. Wade #

    If this is what offhand questions based on ill-informed and possibly wrong assertions can lead to, then I guess I should speak up more often! Good work, Mark.

    While originally I objected to the central conflict of this film being built around a man being wrongly jilted for having a perfectly respectable job, I realize now that what I’m really objecting to is the love interest character herself. We’re meant to not like her specifically because of her completely wrong and illogical opinion of Kevin James’ profession. The problem I found with the film is that the character isn’t written with any consistency. One minute she thinks his job is icky, the next she thinks its adorable. (Asking for writing consistency in a children’s movie? Surely, you jest!)

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in regard to intended audience, though. Even beyond the fact that the film is a sort of ‘lowest common denominator’ attempt at celebrating the hard-working blue collar, the talking animals the film leans on so heavily in the advertising is such a tangential part of the film that I find it hard to imagine kids paying attention long enough for the next scene featuring Sly Stallone voicing a lion. So not only is the film a middle class film erroneously pieced together by the Hollywood upper crust (and even then I say that with some reservation), but it’s also a children’s film that doesn’t seem interested in playing to children.


  8. Chris #

    Reading through the comments, unless I missed something I don’t think anybody mentioned that Zookeeper is misspelled in the title of this article. Other than that, top notch work.


    • Lee OTI Staff #

      Shut. UP. Corrected.

      Thanks for all the comments, folks. I’ll weigh in when I get the chance.


  9. Lee OTI Staff #

    Okay, after reading through the comments, first: big thanks to Andrew for actually having seen the movie and sharing his thoughts. Second: I’m fascinated by this notion of simultaneously poking fun at and celebrating the middle class destination like TGI Friday’s or Sears. I’m trying to think of other examples of how that’s handled in movies:

    Office Space – straight out pokes fun at the Friday’s-like restaurant, Chotchkie’s. No celebration there, as it’s where they go because they have nowhere else to go. And obviously, the Jennifer Anniston character hates working there.

    Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle – this is a straight out celebration of the (in)famous fast food chain, except that it’s presented as where privileged young Asian males go after a bout of pot-smoking rather than a banal middle class destination to go because they lack the means or sophistication to go elsewhere.

    Talladega Nights – the family goes to Applebee’s for their first dinner together in a long time, but Ricky Bobby’s character gets thrown out. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this movie, but IIRC, this is a good example of what we’re looking for: a depiction of a middle class destination that both pokes fun at its banality while still celebrating it in some way.

    Other examples?


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