Written by Garrett Brown – June 1st 2020
Originally published by Film Inquiry
In early May 2020, the state of Oklahoma began to lift COVID-19 related restrictions, allowing businesses to begin to reopen. In response, many families fresh out of lockdown flocked to Wynnewood, Oklahoma to take in what has become one of the most pivotal cultural touchstones of the last few months: the Tiger King Park. The big cat zoo featured in the popular Netflix documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, has gained massive exposure with the sordid retelling of the life and times of former owner Joe Exotic. It is obvious that the current proprietor Jeff Lowe hopes to turn a new page for the zoo while milking the public’s fascination with Joe Exotic for all it is worth.
Like almost everyone else, I binge-watched Tiger King within the first few weeks of lockdown and was initially captivated with the unbelievable circumstances. While the series presented itself as an exposé on the mistreatment of the big cat industry in America, it quickly devolved into navel-gazing, exploiting stereotypes and prejudices to entertain the masses. While there are multiples critiques to level at Tiger King, I believe that one of the outlying issues is how the creators isolate individuals as “others” to be scorned and mocked. The consequence of these depictions includes the documentary reinforcing negative assumptions of queer communities, as well as trivializing misogyny: Tiger King has the audience watch a car crash: we know we shouldn’t look, but we can’t help but take a peek.
A Facebook friend of mine commented that they were worried to watch Tiger King, given that his impression was that it conflated polyamorous relationships with cult-like power abuses. Being completely honest, he had a reason to be concerned: rather than taking the time to outline healthy polyamorous relationships and what they look like, Tiger King goes full throttle in analyzing the dirty details of Joe Exotic’s marriages. The documentary always gently sidesteps the boss/employee worker dynamics between Exotic and his lovers John Finlay and Travis Maldonado, focusing on the salacious details that really reflect the toxic work environment.
LGBTQ+ communities have faced the stereotypes of being “predatory and promiscuous” for a long time, especially gay men. This stereotype places a huge burden on the queer community and can prevent people from speaking up about toxic behaviors. Consider in comparison how Tiger King cites fellow sanctuary owner Bhagavan “Doc” Antle as being controlling and manipulative of his employees. A former worker accuses him of putting his female staff in positions where they felt they needed to have sex with him in order to move ahead in their careers. By allowing Joe Exotic to revel in his eccentricities, the documentary eschews interrogating his actions, and reinforcing perceptions of queer men. It wants us to be horrified at the controlling man with several wives, but laugh at the redneck cowboy with several husbands.
“MEME-IFICATION” OF MISOGYNY
Tiger King lets us down even further in the treatment of women, especially Carole Baskin. The documentary attempts to portray Carole Baskin as a hypocrite, showing her past in tiger cub breeding, questioning the legitimacy of her rescue operations, and implying that she might have been involved with the disappearance of her ex-husband Don Lewis. In fact, Tiger King devotes an entire episode to whether or not Carole Baskin killed Lewis, amounting to nothing more than speculation and ultimately a large diversion to the larger narrative of Joe Exotic. This documentary spends most of the time insinuating that she is a monster while allowing Joe Exotic and his hatred of her to seem trivial and comedic.
It appears that some of the appeal of Tiger King really lives in the meme-ification of misogyny. For some viewers, it gives permission to express vitriol towards a powerful woman by couching it in absurdity. No one interviewed for the show can refer to Carole Baskin without referring to her as “that bitch.” In one episode, a montage is compiled that shows what frequency and ease people like Joe Exotic and Doc Antle can insult her. The phrase “that bitch Carole Baskin” has become a punchline, a scapegoat that is responsible for whatever goes wrong in the world. This is not to say that Carole Baskin is absolved of any wrongdoing in her life: unfortunately, Tiger King fails as a documentary by taking complex people (especially women) and reducing them to caricatures for entertainment.
THE IRONY OF TRUTH
Unfortunately, the irony of a documentary is that it is nearly impossible to present an unbiased “truth”. Any curation of information will be used to convey the story that the filmmaker wants us to see, and that presentation will reflect how the audience should feel about it. Instead of leaning into information, or even exposé, Tiger King goes right to the sewers, appealing to our basest natures with sensationalist gutter journalism. Instead of full portraits outlining the complexities of humans, the documentary turns people into cartoons. By categorizing the subjects of the film as “other”, it turns the documentary from exposé to spectacle and shows no respect for the real impact trading wild animals has on the world.
Of course, Hollywood has never let small things like facts get in between the truth and a compelling story. To a studio, the final decision is always going to come down to whatever will direct a larger cash flow into the studio coffers. This is unfortunate because there are a lot of important things at play in the larger story of Tiger King that deserves investigation. For instance, there is a lack of regulations that allows the continued abuse and exploitation of exotic animals in America. There are the stories of abuses of power by men like Joe Exotic and Doc Antle, and the allowances we make to entertain their delusions of grandeur.
I understand that Tiger King is comfort food for a troubling time, a time of uncertainty: however, I challenge us to be more selective of our comfort food. Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin are real people, and the lessons we take away from stories can reflect the values we want to see in our world. The spectacle is fine for the moment, but Tiger King shows that the producers either don’t think about the impact of their work or don’t really care. And that is unfortunate for all of us.
Do you think Tiger King failed to deliver as a documentary? Let us know in the comments below!