Zhana: Netflix’s Tiger King has become essential quarantine viewing. I was first made aware of the docuseries by my students. Like many schools around the nation, we have transitioned to online learning. For our first zoom session, I thought my students would want to share their anxieties and fears about the coronavirus and how this global pandemic was uprooting their lives. Most of my students are college seniors, most have at least one job and also take care of family members. Instead they were far more interested in discussing Tiger King, Netflix’ newest docuseries. “You have to watch it,” my students begged me. “Especially since you are from NYC. I doubt you’ve ever seen people like this,” another chimed in. But how much crazier could these people be from my neighbors in Tennessee? I live in South Knoxville, also known as hillbilly central. I see all kinds of crazy stuff—like one of my neighbors holding a raccoon on a leash in broad daylight. Or my other neighbor who converted her front yard into an homage to Donald Trump. She has installed a life-size U.S. soldier who is saluting a life-size Trump doll surrounded by signs that read “support our troops” and other NRA signage and posters. (About two months ago, much to my relief the Trump doll was missing). I googled the docuseries and the first article that came up was Cardi B’s pleas to free a man called Joe Exotic. She was considering a gofund me page. Now my interest definitely piqued. So, I grabbed a glass of wine and sat down to watch the first episode. My first thought was: “What in the freaking hell?” And I couldn’t stop watching (in the words of the producer) that “redneck, gun-toting, mullet-sporting, tiger-tackling, gay polygamist” and private zoo-owner named Joe Exotic. I know you guys must have seen this show, what do you think of it?
Liz: For the first about 10-15 minutes of the 1st episode, I, like I assume most people, was in shock at the people presented. They are what most people would consider stereotypical “trailer trash,” similar to the people that get arrested on shows like Cops. However, they are honest and endearing and they attract you because of their personal stories and the way they seem to love and care for the animals. As the story unfolds, you start to see a multitude of layers.
You start to see Joe Exotic as:
- a victim
- someone who knows what it’s like to be poor and not have much
- someone who helps out people cast out of society in that he hires ex-convicts
- a narcissist who truly believes he is invincible
- a grown man who takes sexual advantage of young men who are poor and not educated
- a basic capitalist who understands how much people will spend money to hold a baby tiger
- a person obsessively fixated on Carole.
We also begin to see the rest of the people on the show as victims of Joe Exotic’s ideology, more specifically his workers who one can relate to because they all seem to actually care for the animals, but we soon learn that they are severely underpaid, basically exploited, and they share the same expired meat that the animals eat. However, not one person quit their job, most likely because it’s the only place that will hire them.
We also learn that there truly is no place that is actively trying to protect these wild animals, no matter how much they claim they do. There is no one place that does not profit off of the animals, including Carole Baskins’ supposed “sanctuary.” Carole has convinced hundreds of people that she is protecting animals but she isn’t. She uses free labor from people that volunteer at her park, and then she charges visitors to see and play with animals. She’s doing what she has accused the other zoos of doing; the difference is that Carole was a better and more cutthroat capitalist. She utilized the rise of the Internet and social media to be the number 1 hit on Google. She was just more cunning.
And the other big element in this show was Joe’s obsession with Carole and taking her down or even killing her. He reached a clear psychopathic serial killer level with his hatred of Carole. His personal attacks against her were sickening; his shooting images of her or threatening her constantly clearly show a person who was unraveling and really believes that his behavior is normal and acceptable. He needs long-term psychological help.
Jarrod: I think you’ve identified the moral economy of the show, which aptly enough is a kind of “law of the jungle” in which one either exploits others or is exploited. I agree that Baskins is the best capitalist of them all, able to more effectively exploit a relatively smaller population of big cats and an exponentially larger body of free laborers, all the while calling to mind Marx’s words: “You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and in the odour of sanctity to boot; but the thing that you represent face to face with me has no heart in its breast.” Joe Exotic, who seems to be the most childlike, naive, and — perversely enough — innocent of the whole bunch, stands to her as the Trump to Bill Gates: an infinitely more vulgar expression of the same stuff, legitimizing his “progressive” foil by comparison. Baskins’s raison d’etre is not being Joe Exotic. As much of a show as she made of celebrating his conviction, something tells me she woke up the next day slightly bereft of purpose — and hoping her small army of volunteers didn’t feel similarly.
But Baskins is only the queen of a crowded field of callous would-be-exploiters. This includes of course the other big cat people — Joe Exotic, “Doc” Antle, Mario Tabraue, Tim Stark — who profit off the misery and exploitation of non-human animals and their workers alike. Antle in particular has fashioned himself as a kind of latter-day Hugh Heffner, paying sub-minimum wages to young women who appear to be conscripted into an orgiastic sex cult. (You don’t get a couch like that to watch movies.) Similarly, the Lowe’s traffic on the intersection of exploiting animals and young women, using tiger cubs as bait for orgies and delighting in the possibility they could compel their new nanny to join them in bed. Jeff Lowe and James Garretson are at once cockroach capitalists, operating with one foot at best inside the law, and simultaneously fall over themselves to set up and snitch on Joe Exotic in exchange for their own protection from prosecution for who knows what.
Alongside these petty hustlers and con men however lurk the series’ apex predators: the documentary filmmakers themselves. Former Inside Edition producer Rick Kirkham brags of having trapped Joe Exotic in a deceptive contract, feigning interest in producing Exotic’s own Internet content in exchange for ownership of countless hours of embarrassing and incriminating footage shot while Exotic was in various states of intoxication. These reels would have made for golden exploitation television — and provided Kirkham’s retirement funds — except that when Exotic got hip to the plan, he (in all likelihood) torched the entire studio, killing seven alligators and weeping crocodile tears of his own in the aftermath. Kirkham’s crushing loss was the gain for Tiger King producers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, who were able to succeed where Kirkham failed: producing a glorified Jerry Springer episode with all the redeeming social value of a nineteenth century freak show. Which is not to say we didn’t gawk! To be fair, I also used to enjoy the Jerry Springer Show, whose titular host was gracious enough to conclude each episode with the pious and somber “Final Thought,” a serving of moral platitudes in a somber tone meant to absolve the viewer of an hour of puerile voyeurism. And surely, like Springer — and Exotic, and Baskins, and all the rest — Goode and Chaiklin will say that they did what they did in the name of animal welfare. Luckily, we all did our duty as good citizens by watching.
Tanzeem: I had seen the Netflix previews for Tiger King early on in the quarantine but had ignored them until people I knew urged me to watch. My initial thoughts were “sweet Jesus white people are nuts” and also wow I’m so glad I’ve never lived in the middle of the country. As I continued to watch the train wreck unfold in front of me my sense of superiority grew. While I was fully aware of the general level of insanity in America (we have Trump as a president after all) I still found myself in awe of the people on the show. That they were all on meth I was sure of; and as I muttered a prayer of gratefulness to have never had the misfortune of crossing paths with people like this, I stopped myself when I realized the people on this show as crazy as they were; also were just poor, and poverty was something I was all too familiar with. How were they any different from the crack heads and heroin addicts I had seen my whole life. Those people all did wild shit and I had people in my life who were addicts whom, despite the crazy things they did, I loved and cared for dearly. As I continued to contemplate poverty, I couldn’t help but think of the 10 years I spent working retail and the array of people I had come across in that time.
My first retail job was when I was 18 at Forever 21. While most of my co-workers were around my age and all black and brown our managers, with the exception of 1 Dominican guy, were all white trash from rural areas. While they would talk to us about how terrified they were of the “ghetto” which is how they referred to our urban neighborhoods and the poverty and criminality that seemed rampant to them, they seemed to forget that similar stereotypes existed about poor white trash. Stereotypes that are perpetuated in Tiger King.
The show highlights the number of ex-convicts on it but never goes into detail as to why these people went to prison. What makes people do things that are deemed illegal? Is it because these people are just bad or is it out of necessity? Our prisons are filled with poor people and that is no coincidence. It also goes into detail about Joe Exotic’s life but never talks about his class background and what would make a person do the things he and the others on the show did. What would make him hold these poor animals captive? Clearly the answer is money and greed, but why is it that we are so ready to condemn him when money and greed are the American way? Look at all the CEO’s, bankers, and billionaires who hoard money, wealth and resources while the rest of us fight over crumbs. Do we look at them with the same disdain we look at the poor? Probably not. When the rich do it, they’re excused; but when the poor do it they are vilified. This is not to make excuses for people’s poor behavior but if we’re going to judge and hold people accountable it has to be everybody, including the rich.
Zhana: I agree with you Tanz there are so many stereotypes about poor white people that Tiger King reaffirms. The show is an example of poverty porn similar to other shows Jarrod mentioned like the Jerry Springer Show but also Maury and let’s not forget Honey Boo Boo. There is probably a direct line you can make about poverty porn as entertainment and American attitudes about wealth inequality. Watching poor people embarrass themselves and seeing their lives spin out of control makes us feel slightly better about ourselves. It also reaffirms all the worst things about poor people which is that poverty boils down to habits, styles, behavior, etc. So there is definitely an element to this that the show plays on. I mean Joe Exotic is a gun-toting gay redneck with flashy clothes and he and his friends are polygamist cult leaders. Joe’s house is a mess, his boyfriend is missing a tooth, we can go on. But I also do think the show’s popularity is related to the 2016 election and Donald Trump. Joe Exotic and Trump share many similar qualities: narcissism, a love of conspiracy theories and hatred of liberal self-righteous women like Carole. There is also something Hilary-esque about Carole, her smugness, the way she believes she is morally superior to Joe because she is “saving” the animals through her sanctuary work and the fact that she killed someone and got away with it. I was almost waiting for Joe Exotic to start yelling: “Lock her up!”
When a friend of mine asked if the show was all poverty porn, I answered “Well, yes and no.” Because I do think that was perhaps the intention of the documentary filmmakers as Jarrod points out. They focus on what they think will sell but what they end up with is something totally unexpected: rampant sexual abuse, worker exploitation, drug addiction and suicide, we can go on and on. Who knew just how much stuff really happens in the world of exotic animal parks and in Oklahoma of all places? Sure, there’s a lot to be said about the exploitation of animals in the show by both Joe and Carole. But man, the humans go through so much. Every person in that documentary was abused in some shape or form. For me, the women’s stories, including Carole’s life story were the most shocking.
Karen: I finally was able to binge watch the entire series in one sitting out of boredom with my roommates. From seeing the memes and using them to kind of put the pieces of the story together, I knew that I was in for some weird, reactionary, yet entertaining ride.
- Joe Exotic and Doc Antle are predators. They both groomed the young people around them and didn’t really give them a choice. Joe has a nasty disgusting, alarming obsession with Carole so I’m not surprised that he tried to put a hit on her. He’s made several threats and even insinuated it several times. He also lured his young partners through drugs and not allowing them space. Confusing them, getting their names tattooed, giving them guns, vehicles, and other material things to keep them around. Like the example with Travis, a 19 year old man he met who was suffering from a meth addiction. He kept him stuck on the zoo, made him dependent on him financially, and kept him lax with marijuana. This turns to Travis becoming violent, making concerning “playful” threats to others, and eventually killing himself. He exploited his relationships with people like Saff, who was amputated, then felt compelled to protect Joe and other animal “advocates.” He exploited the labor power of drug addicted formerly incarcerated people. Abused, murdered, and sold exotic animals, etc. Doc Antle grooms young women through “apprenticeships,” to then soak them in to some polygamous cult. Like Joe, luring them with this extravagant cool way to be involved with animals. Using spirituality and plain old predator tactics to make them work for damn near free, and make them all his girlfriends. Sexualizes them to lure people to the zoo. He gives me R Kelly vibes for sure. Notice how much he stuck up for Joe because he knew that if Joe was to go down, he would be right in line.
- Carole Baskin most likely killed her husband but he also seemed to be a predator. Like he drove around the block three times when she was outside, clearly vulnerable? So I was a little confused why social media has this hate towards her about that but not the fact that she is also exploiting animals. It was uncovered that she also bred animals alongside her ex-husband. She champions “animal liberation” while boasting how she oppresses the fuck out of human labor power at her sanctuary through “volunteering.” She doesn’t even know the volunteers by name, only recognizes them the longer they come back? She places herself as the most sane and humane player when she herself is of the same vein, but executes it differently. She’s made this persona as this wonderful cat lady at the center of big cat preservation, and uses this persona to rake in money through social media. Her attacks on Joe, Doc, and others are not motivated by pure love of exotic animals, but to further pump up her persona.
- Jeff Lowe and the other informant dude James are also scumbags who benefited until they were screwed over and became informants to benefit themselves. Jeff Lowe has also played a very strong role in the GW Zoo saga but cleans his hands by assisting the feds. Then goes on to want to further exploit animals in a zoo?
Someone who stood out throughout the documentary was Saff. Saff, like others, drank the kool aid of Joe Exotic and felt compelled to continue defending him, even after being disfigured by a big cat. In the end, Saff said what others were not really saying through the documentary. All sides claim to be “animal advocates,” but no animals were actually being protected. They commodified big cats to fund their narcissism, used them as bait to lure vulnerable people, and rake in money.
Jarrod: I’d like to pick up on the Carol hatred that Karen mentioned, and loop into the comparison Zhana made between this show and the 2016 election. At a moment when traditional gender roles and — even gender itself — have never been more destabilized in the modern era, the ridiculous television character named Donald Trump represents a kind of campy throwback, with a vengeance, to traditional masculinity of mid-century Hollywood, which not coincidentally produced celebrity-cum-president Ronald Reagan. In a vulgar materialist sense, we might expect the erosion of the traditional nuclear family and the downwardly-mobile gender desegregation of “feminized” occupations to undercut the cult of masculinity which has caused so much misery for so many women (and men!). But ideology brays and kicks the hardest at the exact moment it has been rendered hollow. Low-end office and service sector work await large swaths of young working class men who in an earlier moment may been able to claim a little dignity through self-destruction via living-wage manual labor in fields deliberately gender-segregated. Meanwhile the single-paycheck family is a distant memory for the US working class. Deprived of the flimsiest of alibi’s, the cult of masculinity flails with great violence.
The great film of this phenomenon, Fight Club, captivated my entire generation of young men, with none of us having the slightest inkling it was (allegedly) intended as a critical take on masculinity. More recently, creators of the TV classic Breaking Bad discovered that to their (alleged) chagrin many male viewers had adopted an uncritical worship of Walt’s absurd and sociopathic tough guy alter ego Heisenberg, and a seething hatred for his “normie” wife Skyler, for standing in the way of his rampant antisocial behavior. At a certain point Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skylerso wonderfully, began receiving threats in real life! Heisenberg, Trump, and now the swaggering “Tiger King” Joe Exotic, represent the absurd excesses of masculinity deprived of any excuse for itself and therefore insisting with great force that it doesn’t need one. Male enmity toward the scolding women (Carole Baskins, Skyler White, Hillary Clinton) standing in these antiheroes’ paths could be displaced from the female supervisor that a young male Breaking Bad fan can’t believe he has to listen to at work, or the wife who demands their husband do his share of the housework since they have the same work schedules, or the family court judge who demands a father help pay for the social reproduction of a human he has created. And to add insult to injury, there’s just something un-American about placing any fetters whatsoever on the free and unreflective deployment of the male libido, which is more or less a synonym for “freedom” as our culture understands it.
Zhana: I really dig your point there about Joe Exotic’s masculinity. Here is this gay, gun-toting country-singing polyamorous man who is just as shitty to his partners and co-workers as any other straight man in a position of power. And all I know is that I will never get his song “Hello Kitty Kitty” out of my brain. It is seared in the deep excesses of my unconscious right next to Trump’s “grab her pussy.”
Tanzeem: I agree with all these points you guys make about poverty porn, the connections to the recent election, masculinity, gender and exploitation. For me Tiger King represents the ways that living in our society which creates and perpetuates these structures forces us to reproduce them in our own lives. I think sometimes there is this desire to believe (particularly among the left) that these types of systems are only reproduced by the wealthy and those in power but oftentimes the poor and working classes are just as willing to engage in these abhorrent behaviors as the rich. When I think about exploitation and masculinity in particular I can think of a million examples of how poor people are more than willing to perpetuate these things. The reality is that we are all to various degrees willing to partake in these systems so long as we perceive that we benefit from them in some way. It’s the consequence of capitalism, patriarchy, the blame the poor ideology and every other systemic oppression which has been rammed down our throats. Part of creating something new will be rethinking how we think about and engage with the world. I just hope it happens sooner rather than later. Maybe this global pandemic will push us further towards that.
Zhana: Any last thoughts on Tiger King ya’ll?
Karen: As entertaining as it was for me to watch, I’m actually appalled at what is really going down in some of these poor communities in the South.
Jarrod: I believe you Carole please don’t sue us.
Liz: Oh, please Carole Baskins did kill her husband.
Zhana and Tanzeem: #freejoeexotic
Shout out to our special guests Liz, Tanzeem and Karen. And while we have you here, check out Karen’s piece on Harlem’s very own Tiger King.