Where do I even start with Tiger King?
There is, undeniably, a fascination in watching the larger-than-life, especially when it comes from something presented as truth. Personally, I could not look away once I pressed play. I intended to watch an episode or two a day in order to prepare for this review, and somehow ended up watching the entire show in one day. Within thirty minutes of finishing an episode, I would decide to drop what I was doing and return to the show. I just had to watch more, and that was for two reasons. Number one, every episode was more bonkers than the last, and I wanted to see where we could possibly go next. Two, I had to know more so I felt like I could be part of the conversation sooner. Tiger King’s popularity is no doubt a product of its health crisis-induced context. Netflix is highly accessible—even if you do not have an account, you probably can borrow someone’s login—and audiences are hungry for both content and interpersonal connection. Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin memes are inescapable on social media. Articles profiling the show’s characters and lists of trivia are published on an hourly basis. What is a better distraction than discussing something arguably wackier than the pandemic?
If you have managed to miss the premise—aka, you do not use social media—Tiger King explores tiger culture, the shared values and characteristics of the interconnected network of big cat collectors, through the lens of Joe Exotic, a middle-aged, gay, gun-loving, polygamist, pseudo-country singer, and owner of an exotic zoo in Oklahoma (more on this in a bit, there is already so much to unpack here). Like in all cultures, a long-standing “us versus them” conflict exists between those who collect big cats for hobby and those who collect big cats as a means to protect them from exploitation. Enter Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue. Though the series makes many unexpected detours—which, I get the impression the directors did not expect to make until an interviewee said something outlandish worth exploring—the primary conflict of the show rests on the battle between Exotic and Baskin. If you have ever wanted to see what non-superhero archnemeses look like, you’ve come to the right docuseries.
One of the unexpected layers of tiger culture, not that I had any expectations before starting the show, is the collective sexism shared by the men who run these big cat zoos. Doc Antle, who is described as a mentor and role model by some of the other big cat keepers, runs his cult through his unearned and undeserved “power” over women. The comments Jeff Lowe makes to and about his wife and future nanny are cringe-inducing. And then, of course, we have Exotic. Sure, Exotic and Baskin’s feud is based on a variety of ideological, financial, and personal conflicts, but the language used by Exotic when he professes his hate for Baskin specifically serves to degrade her as a woman. The show does directly address the symbolic power of being a tiger owner, but that power comes directly from a masculinist place.
Perhaps because the series predominately follows the perspective of Exotic, a large number of audience members seem to have interpreted Exotic as the story’s hero and Baskin as the villain (for reference, see all memes). However, like I tell my students, protagonists are not automatically heroes, and protagonists can be their own antagonists. In their own way, the directors try to bring nuance to the screen, not by presenting the characters as multi-dimensional people, but by shifting the representational negativity from episode to episode. In some episodes, Exotic comes across as sympathetic and misunderstood. In others, particularly in the last couple of episodes, Exotic is portrayed as an unhinged lunatic. Baskin is introduced as an oppositional, but not opposing, foe to Exotic, until the episode focused exclusively on exploring her husband’s disappearance, in which she is suddenly depicted as a conniving monster. No character gets the opportunity to be a “real” person and are instead subject to the characterization of their own making.
Let’s return to Exotic’s long list of descriptors. Exotic’s character appears so multi-faceted and incongruous that I am confident I missed one of the many other descriptors that could be thrown into the list above. In reality, audiences would probably find Exotic at least mildly less interesting to watch if he was not queer. Does “Joe Exotic, a middle-aged, gun-loving, pseudo-country singer, and owner of an exotic zoo in Oklahoma” sound that out of left field? (Wait, did I just use sports slang?) Maybe the “zoo” part, but the other elements are not too outlandish. The “gay, polygamist” factors really jazz up his persona. On the one hand, am I excited that so many audience members are captivated by a queer character? Maybe. Do I worry that the show allows for audiences to again point their fingers and gawk at queerness? Sure.
One of the reasons that Exotic, and Baskin, for that matter, are so fascinating is because they’ve created characters for themselves to embody. Starting with his own name, Exotic is a persona. He has lived his life as if he is a celebrity. Exotic knows he could never truly be famous—I doubt being the subject of a docuseries is what he had in mind—so he created a personality that could not be ignored in his local setting. Exotic’s story is reminiscent of George Hardy’s in the excellent documentary Best Worst Movie (2009). It is very likely that envy is one of the reasons Exotic so deeply hates Baskin. She has also modeled her life as if she is a celebrity, except that she actually has a following. Baskin’s millions of online subscribers towered over Exotic’s tens of fans. The biggest difference in their personas, though, is that Exotic knows he’s performing. Baskin, with her floral crowns and animal prints, seems to believe she truly is the Mother Theresa of big cat conservation, not that this is an identity she’s actively created for herself, in part due to her online following.
Not to sound like every person at their first interview, but the show’s greatest weakness is also one of its strongest characteristics. Because Tiger King ends up dealing so much with identity and bonkersosity (the academic in me loves to coin new terms, even if they aren’t great), the show never really spends any quality time addressing the tigers themselves. I kept waiting for an episode to focus on the handling and health of the animals. Sure, Baskin talks about Exotic’s inhumane treatment of tigers, but the topic is addressed to further explore the conflict between the rivals, not to provide insight into big cat conservation. The concern exists that the show’s exposé of Baskin’s sanctuary could negatively impact the sanctuaries that truly exist to provide a home to big cats that would not survive in the wild. I’ve actually had the privilege to learn about big cat sanctuaries before Tiger King, through a close family friend who has worked at In-Sync Exotics in Collin County for many years. She informed me, post-viewing, that true sanctuaries, like In-Sync Exotics, never do any of the following: breed big cats, promote ownership, or allow direct interaction between the public and the animals. Tiger King is powerful, fascinating media, but it forgets to encourage its viewers to continue their research into big cat conservation.
- “WTF is happening?”
- “WTF is happening?”
- “WTF is happening?”
The Final Tea
Audience’s interpretations of the series are dependent on the pleasures they get in watching it, whether they be conscious or not. There is definitely an argument to be made that the show allows for comfortable elitism. Perhaps audiences love the show so much because it makes them feel a bit better about themselves? This also brings up questions of exploitation. Does the series exploit the cast of severely low-income characters in order to amuse the more fortunate? It’s highly unlikely that, had the show taken place in Highland Park, so many people would have openly incriminated themselves on camera. These are not questions to be easily answered, but they are questions to reflect on to understand why this particular show has taken such a hold on audiences, myself included. More than any of the outlandish events and people documented in the show, Tiger King is most fascinating because of its undeniable status as a pop culture phenomenon.