Tiger King: How America Still Demonizes Aging Women

Vilune Sestokaite
Aug 5, 2020 · 18 min read
One of Doc Antle’s wives. Image from Google.

Netflix’s documentary, Tiger King, has taken the United States by storm and couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. With almost the whole world being on lockdown due to the coronavirus, the show seemed to be at the epicenter of entertainment. Released on March 20th, the documentary was at the top of the charts on Netflix for the first two weeks and received a 98% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes (Clark). The series promises “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness,” as two filmmakers, Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode attempt to paint a story of America’s notorious big cat breeders. In particular, they follow Joe Exotic and his biggest rival, Carole Baskin, in this underground world. In addition to Exotic, who is now serving a 22-year prison sentence for a murder-for-hire-plot he allegedly planned for Baskin, the documentary also brings in Doc Antle, a zookeeper in South Carolina, and Jeff Lowe, the man who eventually takes over Exotic’s zoo.

In the trailer, a woman’s voice reports that “there are more captive tigers in the US than there are in the wild,” while an image of slender women in tiger print walking alongside tigers flashes across the screen. Another voice notes that “animal people are nuts,” and when Exotic is shown sitting on his large, red throne in the middle of the zoo, mischievous music plays. Soon after, Baskin’s name is uttered by Exotic as the reason he can’t keep the tigers, and Baskin appears on screen while vlogging to fans wearing a flower crown is described as the Mother Theresa of cats. There’s fire, there’s Doc Antle commenting on the rivalry between Exotic and Baskin, and then there’s a woman’s voice saying “We’re supposed to be sexy — we’re luring people in.” But why are women “supposed to” be this way? And are the women really the only ones doing the only luring in the show? Or are the women portrayed as entities quite like the captive tigers?

Last winter, I was involved with a guy I had met while working at my serving job in between school breaks. As we were getting to know each other, before we hung out, he texted me I know you were born outside of the US and that’s very attractive to me. At first, I was flattered, but then something else settled in. There was nothing sexy about our move to America — it involved little money, multiple shots in the arm (I still have the scars), and bags of puke on the plane. My family is from Lithuania, and I was about four years old when we moved here, but most would say I’m pretty Americanized. I still speak the language, but I don’t have an accent. I still eat the food on occasion, but dress like any other American woman would. But this wasn’t the first time I had heard something like this being said, and I’m sure it’s been said to plenty of other women who have a perceived “exoticness” or “otherness.” At first, I didn’t know how to reply, so I asked what he meant, and he corrected himself almost immediately, talking to me about how he was attracted to my travels, my knowledge of other cultures, etc. To be clear, I am in no way shape, or form, out to get this guy, or out to take him down. I have no hard feelings about the comment itself, but I did start to wonder what kind of culture we live in where people create expectations and connections between women and the exotic — something that lives on in Tiger King pretty explicitly.

There’s an obvious tension between Exotic and Baskin, as well as an underlying tension between Baskin and the other women in the documentary. Both of these strands touch on the idea of sexualizing the exotic as it pertains to women. I realize that this predatory status is one that the polygamous male relationships share (Exotic and his husbands), but I will talk about the gender differences a little later. For now, I want to focus on the women. As mentioned before, Exotic and Baskin are at each other’s throats — while Baskin wants to stop Exotic’s possession of the cats (though she has her own sanctuary), Exotic feels like he cannot operate his zoo without her threats and even comments that he wants to “kill that fucking lady” (Trailer). Exotic’s coworkers at one point say that Baskin is always on his mind. Throughout the documentary we see Exotic say her name in utter disgust, shoot dummies of her in open fields, and Rick Kirkham, the producer of Joe Exotic T.V., said Exotic shoves sex toys in a blow-up doll of her (Ep. 4). Meanwhile, we get images of Baskin in her webcam greeting her YouTube subscribers “Hey all you cool cats and kittens,” and riding on her bike with her wind-blown hair. America has their divided opinions on whether or not Baskin killed her husband, Don (though there really is no hard evidence), but memes of Baskin surge all over the internet, and American audiences have even taken Exotic’s language when talking about her. The memes range from portraying Baskin as a cult leader, to adapting one of Lizzo’s most popular songs, claiming Baskin is “that bitch.” We may never know what happened to her husband, but Baskin is sure villainized regardless. Baskin doesn’t do any such things to target Exotic, yet Baskin is the one who is most hated, and I can’t help but wonder why.

Joe Exotic shooting a dummy of Carole in the head.

Some claim the hatred stems from Baskin’s financial power. A writer from FemeStella comments, “…she is merely labeled as unlikable, a trait that is often ascribed to women, particularly women in a position of power” (Vincent). Another author from Consequences of Sound meditates on how the “women and cats are both valued for their appearances and breed” and notes, “The exception to this objectification is Carole Baskin…but the men she challenges see her as a bitch” (Adams). Both authors point out an interesting claim about gender and power dynamic on display, which is worth questioning and digging deeper into. While it is true that all of these cat breeders — Antle, Exotic, and Baskin — are all participating in a power struggle in the Southern Belt, is power really the only reason Baskin is negatively portrayed the way she is? I want to turn to Doc Antle’s and Jeff Lowe’s respective polygamous relationships with a few women before returning to this point as a way to offer a counterpart for the ways in which Baskin is portrayed differently than the other women.

Doc Antle has three female partners who live with him at the zoo. In the series, the women wear tight clothing in tiger print, bring out the tigers for Antle while carrying whips, and are asked to get implants. The women — previously known by the names Michelle, Meredith, and Renee — are christened China, Moksha, and Rajani upon joining Antle’s zoo (Ep. 2). It’s implied that Antle made the women change their names, as he also controlled other aspects of how they lived at the zoo. Now you may notice, the shift from what we would consider more traditional names to names that ring something otherly or exotic. While one, China, name references another country, Moksha is a Hindu and Buddhist term meaning liberation or release, and Rajani is a popular Indian name, meaning “the dark on” in Sanskrit. These changes don’t necessarily represent the women’s nationalities, rather are a way for Antle to project his fantasies onto his sexual partners. As Barbara said (whose name was changed to Bala at the zoo), a former staff member remarks: “Changing your name is a very quick way to change everything else about you” (Ep. 2). But why did the women have to change their names? Just like the breeders do with cats, here is yet another attempt at not only claiming ownership over the exotic, but also attempting to portray women as the exotic themselves.

Likewise, we see the same ownership and coercion with Jeff Lowe who ends up taking ownership of Joe Exotic’s zoo when Exotic was facing financial and legal strain (after he was sued by Baskin for trademark infringements). Jeff and his wife, Lauren Lowe are known for taking baby tigers in suitcases to Vegas in order to help their swinging efforts. As Jeff Lowe comments, “A little pussy gets a lot of pussy,” reducing both the animal and the woman to a connotation of something weak and transactional. But Exotic liked Lowe’s seemingly fancy lifestyle — his zoo was in danger, so what else would he do? Lowe was a so-called investor. No surprise, Lowe was a conman, and late on his many payments. He ended up taking ownership of Exotic’s zoo, but not without the help of Lauren, his much younger, and conventionally attractive partner. While Jeff remains in the spotlight during interviews, Lauren remains in the background with her long red hair, red lipstick, and tight clothing. While Jeff took the zoo from Exotic, Lauren helps manage and run it. And while Exotic cusses out Jeff over the phone through jail, Exotic rarely discusses Lauren’s part in the ownership. Lauren, unlike Baskin, is not villainized. So maybe it is a little bit about power — about how usually, it is attributed to the man, but how do looks play into this? Why is Lauren Lower cut slack, while Carole isn’t? What if the power dynamic has a lot more to do with women and their appearance? If we go with the argument about how Baskin is hated because she has power in that she holds a lot of wealth and threatens to take away parts of Exotic’s zoo, then why is Lauren Lowe not seen as villainous? And while Jeff Lowe might be seen as the “alpha” in his marriage, Baskin is surely the “alpha” in hers. She owns her sanctuary, while her current husband helps attend to it, and in their wedding photos, we see Baskin in a white dress holding a leash attached to him. Is part of the villainous image Baskin receives due to flouting gender norms not only in financial matters, but in marriage as well?

Jill Campbell, a professor at Yale who studies eighteenth-century gender constructions, and in her essay, “Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the ‘Glass Revers’d’ of Female Old Age,” writes how the eighteenth century “conceptualized the process of aging in both men and women…broad concerns about human identity in time are vented in men’s gleefully horrified rejection of the figure of the aging woman” (Campbell 213). How can we take this idea of the disgrace of a woman’s old age in relation to Exotic’s disgust with Baskin? Eighteenth-century literature also teaches us about “the sobering fact of beauty’s transience” (Campbell 223), so how does this idea of decay change our perception of power and women as it pertains to Baskin versus the many other younger women in the series? This concept of disgust over a woman’s decaying beauty didn’t stop in the eighteenth-century. In a fairly recent study, researchers examined the top 100 motion pictures from the 1940s through the 1980s and found there not only were there a disproportionate number of men in cinema, but also, the female actresses women were criticized for their physical looks more so than their male co-stars (Bazzini 532). “Because one of the central media messages concerning women is that women’s primary value lies in their appearance, it seems plausible that sexist and ageist stereotypes may interact” (Bazzini 532), it is more likely that aging women will be portrayed negatively. If Carole Baskin were a little bit younger, more conventionally attractive, and not married, how might the public perceive her? Would the idea that she possibly killed her husband be sexy? Would America cut her a little slack? Memes have been surging all over the internet, particular on Instagram, where males joke about whether or not they would have sex with a younger Baskin. Rick Kirkham, the Exotic TV Producer, notes that after Exotic created the music video about Carole’s so-called murder of her previous husband, Don, Exotic “had everyone convinced” (Ep. 2). The music video shows Baskin laughing like a villain with her head thrown back and counting a stack of money in the driver seat of a convertible. How do the memes and video create tension with Baskin’s current, villainous image? And when Don’s female family members talked about his other girlfriend in Costa Rica, they said “one of their [Don and Carole’s] main problems was she couldn’t be the only one in his life. I think she thinks she would be the only one to change him. She thought she was pretty enough, young enough, that she would be all he needed” (Ep. 3). This statement shows the norm of women using looks to captivate men — or at least feeling that beauty is the thing that will do that.

Though Exotic identifies as a queer man in this documentary, we see him, more than once making sexual advances and almost sadistic gestures toward blowup dolls of Baskin. What is the purpose behind these actions if it isn’t for Exotic’s sexual arousal? One particular study looked at the factors that are at play when someone uses antisocial punishment (punishing those who are pushing for public good). Researchers claimed that “the punishment of cooperative others, which reflects aggressive behavior to dominate and to harm other individuals, fits the evil mould of sadism” (Pfattheicher, et al.). In the study, the researchers had people play a public goods game where each player received money and had to make decisions with contributing to the common good all within the framework of self-interest. The researchers measured the sadism of every person, then made a threat in the game, and saw how the threat affected people. They found that the people who had a “disposition for sadism” were more likely to “engage in antisocial punishment after being existentially threatened” (Pfattheicher, et al.). Numerous times, Exotic felt threatened by how Baskin was running her zoo and antagonizing Exotic for the way he ran his. Could some of the sadistic gestures come from Exotic’s insecurity about the zoo’s future or guilt that he is not running the zoo as well as he could be?

In other research, two studies were conducted side by side. In the first, almost two-hundred men in the United Kingdom answered questionnaires in order to see “whether men’s dehumanization and objectification of women relates to their sexual aggression…” (Bevens, C.L., Loughnan, S.). The initial study proved there was a correlational in regard to dehumanization and men’s sexual aggression where “dehumanization is most relevant in contexts of extreme aggression…” (Bevens, C.L., Loughnan, S.). The second subsequent study involved showing one-hundred and twenty-eight men from the United Kingdom pictures of women. While the control condition group was assigned a picture of a woman in normal, everyday attire, another group was assigned the same woman, but wearing a bikini. After looking at the picture, the men were given a prompt and had to write about the woman. They found that “the woman in the control condition was perceived having greater human nature qualities than the same woman in the sexualized condition” (Bevens, C.L., Loughnan, S.). All in all, “when a woman is dressed in everyday clothing, the role of dehumanization is negligible in whether men report interest in perpetrating sexual aggression against her. By sharp contrast, when women are sexualized, these factors — particularly attributions of human uniqueness — play a strong role in her being seen as a potential victim of sexual aggression” (Bevens, C.L., Loughnan, S.). And when the women aren’t given the human uniqueness quality, “they are seen in terms of more animalistic or bestial traits (animalistic dehumanization)” (Bevens, C.L., Loughnan, S.). With this study in mind, how can we now read Exotic’s aggressive behavior toward Baskin’s dummy? Is the dummy a way for Exotic to take away Baskin’s“human uniqueness,” and make it easier for him to act violently toward the dummy? But Exotic isn’t just physically aggressive toward Baskin, he’s sexually violent. Could he be trying to re-sexualize Baskin to render her no longer a threat? Maybe it’s more subtle way of showing the viewer that Baskin needs to be re-sexualized in particular, through a dominant male’s hands. But we never see Exotic doing these things to dummies or blow-up dolls of Lauren Lowe — or really any of the other women on the show. Maybe it’s because he believes Lauren still has her sexuality. And if studies are showing that taking a way a woman’s human uniqueness means that women are seen as more animalistic, could Exotic be trying to show his control of Baskin?

Polygamous relationships are abundant in this series, no matter the gender. There’s Doc Antle and his multiple female partners; there’s Jeff Lowe and his partner, Lauren, who swing with other women as a pair; and there’s Joe Exotic and his multiple husbands, who actually come out as straight by the end of the documentary. An article in the Independent titled, “Nobody is Talking About the Misogyny of Tiger King so I Will,” includes Exotic, Antle, and Lowe in its assessment that the show “traffick[s] in open misogyny,” concluding with the following appraisal: “Perhaps in a post MeToo era it’s comforting to believe that we take violence against women seriously. But it really doesn’t seem that we do” (Walsh). Kathleen N Walsh highlights how even though Exotic “manipulated straight men into marrying him by leveraging a dangerous drug addiction” (Walsh), Baskin is the one that gets the hatred. What are the differences when it comes to sexual grooming in same-sex polygamous relationships between men and opposite-sex polygamous relationships between men and women? How are Exotic’s husbands treated the same or differently as Antle and Lowe’s female partners?

While both genders have a common starting point in this grooming, they diverge when taking into account how the groomers treat males and females, as well as the expectations of each gender. Partners of both Antle and Exotic are young and inexperienced in the world — they seem to be searching for something interesting. Travis, one of Exotic’s partners was 19 when they met and had no life prior coming the zoo. John, another one of Exotic’s partners was also 19 years old and fresh out of high school (Ep. 5). Exotic was about twenty years older when he married these men and obviously had much more experience than them. Antle’s multiple partners also came along, generally as teenagers, and applied in his apprenticeship program.

The way in which the genders were “lured” in, so to speak, was quite different. In an article titled, “Behavioural Differences Between Online Sexual Groomers Approaching Boys and Girls,” researchers studied how convicted offenders approached boy’s and girl’s decoy profiles online. They found that while “Offenders approaching boys seemed focused on immediate sexual gratification and were also more sexually explicit in their comments,” whereas offenders gave girl decoys affectionate names, were more focused on making the girls feel special, and often appealed to their in hobbies, occupations, and interests (Van Gijgn-Grosvenor, E.L. 588). While this study specifically focuses on grooming over the internet, and Antle and Exotic did not attempt to contact their partners online directly, these trends can be applied to the ways in which Antle and Exotic respectively groom young women and men. In Antle’s case, his website has a page dedicated to an apprenticeship program (Ep. 3). The webpage states that he prefers teenagers who are vegetarian and appeals to youths interested in wellness by highlighting the function of yoga and meditation at the zoo. One former worker mentioned how she was lured in because she was a vegetarian and did yoga. Antle goes beyond just appealing to young women’s interests by offering them food and housing; however, nothing was what it seemed, and the women reported finding cockroaches in their food and sleeping in horse stalls. The ways in which Antle abuses these women is much like Exotic’s sadistic treatment of Baskin. While the horse stalls dehumanize the women, Exotic similarly dehumanizes Baskin with his treatment of the dummy. When thinking about Exotic, we can look at how he addresses Travis. On one of his first days on the job, Exotic recalls that he asked Travis explicitly about the porn he liked to watch and when Travis replied that he liked to watch “the big one,” Exotic told Travis that he was gay (Ep. 2). This shows the idea that men are more sexually explicit toward other boys, and Exotic even goes so far as to define Travis’ sexuality by misinterpreting his response. In episode 5, Jeff Lowe describes Travis as “a pothead from hell” and describes how Joe kept him satisfied with is life at the zoo by providing him with weed. Travis eventually says Exotic always asked him what was wrong, but never spent any time listening to him (Ep. 5). The pictures shown of the three men in the series are of them half- naked, coddling each other and kissing in front of the camera. Could it be because Exotic was already benefiting from the sexual gains?

The expectations of the genders are quite different, which all goes back to the idea of physical appearance being the biggest factor at play in the treatment of women, especially when taking into account screen time and portrayal of women on screen. The same study that found negative depictions of older women also found that while “women of all ages underrepresented,” this was “particularly the case for women over the age of 35. Eighty percent of the characters over 35 were male…” (Bazzini 541). When Antle introduces his partners, the camera pans to each of the girls, and Antle describes them by their ethnicity or physical appearance. He refers to China as the “blonde lady running the stuff here,” Rajnee as “the little Italian lady,” and Moksha as “the pretty blonde with big teeth and the bright smile” (Ep. 2).

Again, Antle is sure to point out the other worldly exoticness he sees the women possess. I watch him introduce the girls dressed in tight, tiger print clothing and bright red lipstick and think about how Antle made them dress. I, too, think about Jeff Lowe’s wife Lauren who is more of a cameo in the series, despite her prominent role in the management of the zoo, and how she wears tight clothing and bright red lipstick. She stands alongside Jeff and nods to his comment about getting pussy. Really, the woman who gets the most camera time is Baskin, but only to play the part of Exotic’s antagonist, while the other more conventionally attractive girls are just shown as moving, sexy images. Rarely do the women of Antle or Lowe get to speak for themselves.

While the women in the series are valued for their appearance, Exotic’s husbands are not. The women are dolled up and sexualized, whereas Travis and John are unkempt, with the latter even missing a few teeth. In addition, the men’s names remain the same, and they are taken in just as they are, while the women are ultimately altered in terms of appearance and identity. Exotic even willingly takes the last name of these men, changing himself for them. Like Barbara/Bala mentioned in the interview, changing one’s name is changing the self. Travis and John talk about the affection they received from Exotic, about how he showed them love. In one particular clip, Exotic is posing for a photo shoot with a tiger and another woman. The woman is young, has on a small, blue bikini, and has long black hair (Ep. 2). It’s apparent in the show that Exotic is queer, and he admits he has been since he was a teenager, but this again illustrates how a woman’s appearance and exotic like nature is used for consumption and monetary gain. Baskin comments that Exotic uses the cubs as a way to elevate his status, and it seems he does it using the younger women as well.

Exotic posing with a woman in a bikini. Screenshot from Ep. 2.

Why should we care about the idea that women are valued for their physical appearance more so than men? Didn’t society as a whole already know that? If media is a “reflection of a culture’s attitudes, beliefs, and standards, as well as projections of desired realities,” then shouldn’t we pay attention to what the media is showing us (Bazzini 532)? What does it mean for women when we live in a society where physical appearance is valued so much, that losing the beauty also means losing respect? Isn’t it harmful when we project our idea of the exotic onto others? The sense of dehumanization as a whole could be seen through the post-colonial lens as the white males need to own and control the exotic.

Works Cited

Adams, Jenn. “Big Cats, Fragile Egos: how southern Patriarchy Creates Netflix’s Tiger King Chaos.” Consequences of Sound. 26 March 2020. https://consequenceofsound.net/2020/03/tiger-king-southern-patriarchy/2/.

Bazzini, D. G., McIntosh, W. D., Smith, S. M., Cook, S., & Harris, C. “The Aging Woman in Popular Film: Underrepresented, Unattractive, Unfriendly, and Unintelligent. SexRoles,36(7), 531–543. Retrieved from https://er.lib.k-state.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.er.lib.k-state.edu/docview/225380160?accountid=11789

Bevens, C.L., Loughnan, S. “Insights into Men’s Sexual Aggression Toward Women:Dehumanization and Objectification.” Sex Roles, pp. 713–730 (2019).https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01024-0.

Campbell, Jill. “Defects”: Engendering the Modern Body, “Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the‘Glass Revers’d’ of Female Old Age,” eds. Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum. AnnArbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000: pp.213–51.

Clark, Travis. “‘Tiger King’ has been Netflix’s Most Popular Title for 2 Weeks Straight.”Business Insider. 6 April 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/tiger-king-netflix-most-popular-title-for-2-straight-weeks-2020–4.

Pfattheicher, Stefan and Schindler, Simon. “Understanding the Dark Side of Costly Punishment:The Impact of Individual Differences in Everyday Sadism and Existential Threat.”European Journal of Personality. Vol. 29, no. 4, 2015, pp. 498–505.van Gijn-Grosvenor, E. L., & Lamb, M. E. (2016). Behavioural differences between onlinesexual groomers approaching boys and girls. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse: Research,Treatment, & Program Innovations for Victims, Survivors, & Offenders, 25(5), 577–596.doi:http://dx.doi.org.er.lib.k-state.edu/10.1080/10538712.2016.1189473.

Vincent, Michelle. “Justice for Carole Baskin: The Inherent Sexism in ‘Tiger King,’”FemeStella. 16 April 2020. https://www.femestella.com/justice-for-carole-baskin-the-inherent-sexism-in-tiger-king/.

Walsh, Kathleen N. “Nobody is Talking About the Misogyny of Tiger King So I Will.”Independent. 31 March 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/tiger-king-carole-baskin-joe-exotic-netflix-sexist-misogyny-don-lewis-a9438451.html.

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Vilune Sestokaite

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