The Netflix true crime docuseries Tiger King was reportedly watched by an astonishing 34.3 million people in its first 10 days of its March release. In the month that has followed its release, the fascination with the show and the real life people it depicts has only grown. Although the majority of the conversations regarding the show seem to be around animal abuse and the eccentricity of its characters, there are devastating and disturbing themes related to the exploitation of vulnerable humans, our country’s toxic obsession with ‘freedom,’ and deeply ingrained misogyny that have gone largely undiscussed.
What is Tiger King?
For those of you who have managed to steer clear of the Tiger King madness these past few weeks, the show is a seven-part docuseries about the rivalry of a private zoo owner who goes by the name Joe Exotic and big cat sanctuary owner Carole Baskin. All seven parts were released by Netflix on March 20, 2020 and the streaming giant reports that 34.3 million people watched the show in its first 10 days of release. (These are astonishing numbers in an era with so many different platforms to view shows, but all numbers released by Netflix have to be taken with a grain of salt as they rarely provide any independent verification of their viewership statistics).
Joe Exotic, currently in prison for crimes that I suppose are technically spoilers based on the way the show is edited and presented, is a gun toting, country boy with a God complex who is also flamboyantly gay, polyamorous, and absolutely desperate for celebrity. His claim to fame is his private zoo in Oklahoma where he keeps large mammals (including a reported 227 tigers) in deplorable conditions. Carole Baskin is a condescending and hypocritical woman with a complex past who runs a sanctuary for big cats in Florida and is trying to get Joe’s zoo and the ones like it shut down with the help of PETA. They are both highly unlikeable people and the show regularly breaks a sweat trying to suggest moral equivalency between the two of them.
Over the course of the seven episodes, the series expands beyond Joe and Carole to incorporate roughly a dozen other significant characters including a transgender Iraq war veteran whose arm is bitten off by a tiger, a WalMart ammo salesman who aspires to be a political campaign manager, an ex-con who may or may not be a murderer for hire, a double amputee who is very devoted to big cats, a cult leader who owns his own private zoo, a reality show producer with a cowboy hat, and the various partners — past and present — of Joe and Carole.
It is not surprising that the show has been such a hit. First of all, it is very slickly produced and cleverly edited. It is certainly not responsible journalism and it often teeters on the line between docuseries and trashy reality show, but it is compelling. Second, it was released right at the beginning of the quarantine when people found themselves both in need of distraction and with lots of unexpected free time on their hand. Third, like many cultural phenomena of yore, it opens viewers eyes to fascinating and disturbing realities of American society that many did not realize existed. Fourth, it features a smorgasbord of titillating and sometimes taboo topics, including (but hardly limited to) animal abuse, pedophilia, polyamory, murder, betrayal, meth addiction, exploitation, and first and second amendment rights.
Trying to weave this wild cast of characters and provocative themes into a coherent narrative is no small task. The creative team certainly deserves some credit for making it entertaining, which they do at least up until the disappointing final episode and the largely pointless, low-tech “aftershow” hosted by Joel McHale that was released last Sunday. In their attempts to play to the audience, however, there are countless fascinating and disturbing storylines, ethical questions, and themes that the show does not even begin to properly address. I discuss some of these below.
What Our National Obsession with Tiger King Says About Us
It’s easier for us to care about animals than humans.
Let me state up front that I am a passionate animal lover and always have been. I treat my dog as a member of the family and I base a lot of my traveling around the opportunity to see majestic wildlife in their natural habitats. The animal abuse that occurs on Tiger King, from the mere breeding and captivity of these animals to outright physical torture and killing, is horrific and needs to end immediately. Full stop.
Yet I do find myself fascinated that the ultimate takeaway from Tiger King for most people appears to be the suffering of the animals with little to no attention paid to the horrible exploitation of humans on display. The series makes it abundantly clear that Joe’s zoo staff is comprised almost entirely of people at the very fringes of society who are being put in extremely physically dangerous and emotionally abusive situations. These include people who are war veterans, ex-cons, drug addicts, and homeless. His lovers (all of whom he considers his husbands regardless of official legal designation) are barely legal boys seeking a way out of poverty and/or a supply for their drug addiction.
Over at the reserve owned by Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, many of the workers are underage girls who he lures there with the promise of fulfilling a fantasy to live among exotic animals while forcing them to work in abysmal conditions for lower than minimum wage and sexually exploiting them. One former employee alleges on the show that the underaged girls were forced to have sex with Doc Antle and that he would pay for breast implants for them. We also learn that Carole was gang-raped at age 14 and disowned by her family as a result and see the grossly uneven power dynamics of Jeff Lowe’s “open relationship” with his pregnant girlfriend.
None of these horrors is followed up on in any meaningful way and they have been the source of very little discussion and media coverage of the show. In part that’s because of the parts of the story the show emphasizes, which is animal abuse over human exploitation. But also, it is in part because it’s easier for many of us to sympathize with beautiful, defenseless animals trapped in a cage than vulnerable human beings who are in situations we don’t understand and are making decisions that we are sure we wouldn’t if we were in their circumstances (which, of course, we never would be!).
We still have a lot of trouble talking about mental illness, drug addiction, and sexual abuse.
In addition to the horrific sexual abuse and exploitation described above, mental illness is a major through-line of this show that gets barely any mention. Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in the death of Joe’s husband Travis by self-inflicted gun-shot wound to the head, which occurs just off camera in the show’s most horrifying and unexpected moment. Regardless of whether it was Travis’s intention to die by suicide, the reckless and impulsive behavior he and other characters engage in makes it abundantly clear that many of them are mentally and emotionally unwell.
Although issues of mental health and drug addiction get very little mention during the show, they actually are emphasized on the after show hosted by Joel McHale. Of note, a couple of folks very adamantly deny that they used drugs during the time period depicted on the show and fascinatingly seemed to be far more upset by accusations that they did drugs than accusations that they committed violent crimes against animals and other people. And then there’s the scene with Joe’s campaign manager (yes, Joe ran for governor of Oklahoma at one point) where he states his desire to obtain enough money to get psychotherapy and medication for the severe psychological scars he experienced after witnessing Travis’s death. It’s a heartbreaking reminder of the human toll of the events depicted on Tiger King, as well as an indictment of how broken our country’s mental health care system is.
Sexual and gender minority status is not quite the taboo it once was.
I can’t help but wonder how the media and viewers would have responded to this show if it came out in 1995 instead of 2020. Well, first of all, it probably could have only aired on HBO as no major network or basic cable network would have touched something with these themes. But I also think that one major difference is that 25 years ago, or even more recently, the prominence of sexual and gender minorities would have been considered much more shocking than it is now. Even among people those who are still uncomfortable with “nontraditional” sexual orientations and practices in 2020, it seems likely that Joe’s homosexuality and polyamory are at the very bottom of the list of things about him that are shocking. I don’t think that would have been the case years ago and this goes to show that slowly but surely depictions of sexual minorities of all kinds are becoming more common and more accepting. Also underscoring this point is the fact that one of the show’s most stable and (close to) likable characters is Saff, a no-nonsense transgender war veteran.
Our preoccupation with “freedom” continues to yield a multitude of sins.
One thing that unites almost all the characters in Tiger King, with the exceptions of Carole and her husband Howard, is an obsession with freedom and a hatred of the government. They despise any effort to regulate their zoos and they stockpile military-grade weapons, threatening to use them against any one who tries to regulate them. This highly dangerous and ignorant distortion of what it means to have freedom in America is at the forefront of much of Tiger King. The fact that the laws of this country are currently insufficient to stop the animal abuse, weapon stockpiling, and human exploitation on display is the real American tragedy of Tiger King, not government attempts to intervene. As is almost always the case, the loudest voices making the arguments for meeting government regulation with open violent, rebellion are the ones routinely engaging in and benefiting from morally reprehensible acts. Once again, though, we have given those already loud voices a major megaphone and platform to espouse their dangerous fear-mongering messages.
Unsolved crimes are so much more captivating than solved ones.
The folks who produced Tiger King made countless dubious ethical decisions in the process of making the series. Most of these involve not properly investigating or reporting the obvious multitude of crimes that were being committed. One of the most obvious displays of journalistic irresponsibility occurs in the third episode, which takes a deep dive into Carole Baskin. In the episode, the show follows up on Joe’s repeated claims that Carole killed her ex-husband. The producers present some evidence — some compelling, all circumstantial — that vaguely support this notion and heavily imply that it’s true. It’s not particularly shocking to me that the producers went this route as the disappearance of Carole’s ex-husband actually is a fascinating mystery. What is shocking to me is how easily people fell for it. Many people now believe that Carole Baskin killed her ex-husband with no concrete evidence and a good portion of those people seem far more worked up about this than they do the numerous horrible crimes that the are either substantiated or blatantly admitted to. This just goes to show that unsolved mysteries and the provocative insinuations of crime have in many ways become more powerful and attention-grabbing than actual crimes substantiated through due process. This is consistent with how many millions of Americans people were eager to believe conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton but turned a blind eye to blatant crimes and ethical lapses committed by Donald Trump. It’s a sad, not to mention dangerous, state of affairs that I think journalists and documentary filmmakers have a moral obligation not to perpetuate.
Misogyny is alive and well.
One other way that the Joe Exotic v. Carole Baskin rivalry parallels the Donald Trump v. Hillary Clinton rivalry is in terms of gender dynamics. Look at this public opinion poll conducted by Morning Consult and The Hollywood Reporter. Carole Baskin has by far the lowest favorability rating of any Tiger King character. Sure she’s hypocritical and condescending and litigious, but she’s also a victim of childhood sexual trauma, abandonment, abuse, and endless death threats who is working hard to get federal laws passed to protect animals. I am not a particularly fan of her character and she’s not someone I would want to hang out with, but there is no way that sexism and outright misogyny does not play a major role in her being far and away the most unlikeable character on the show. Even if she did kill her ex-husband, that only brings her criminal record on par with many of the other characters. Of course, the show is told from the perspective of the titular Tiger King and she’s his arch-nemesis. Thus, it makes sense that she is viewed negatively. But the fact that viewers have singled her out as the show’s real villain amidst this morass of depravity says more about misogyny in 21st century in America than just about anything I have come across in a long time.
Ultimately, I am glad that I watched Tiger King despite the fact that I stopped finding it entertaining towards the end and felt like I needed a shower and a session with a therapist after each episode. I am glad I watched it because the things that the show depicts, even those it distorts and works overtime to ignore, are things that desperately need to be discussed in this country.