Why Tiger King deserves to have its documentary status revoked

Credit: Unsplash

Ella Bagameri

Whilst Joe Exotic might claim to be king of the jungle, he certainly shouldn’t be championing your social media feed.

In many ways, Netflix’s new documentary series Tiger King resembles a Baroque painting: it’s unnecessarily complicated, grotesque and full of drama – but you can’t look away. Due to its compelling nature, the series has swept through the world like a mullet-wearin’, gun-shootin’ tornado and it seems that there is not a single segment of the internet it hasn’t reached. From people dressing up as Joe Exotic in quarantine, through hundreds of TikToks about “that bitch” Carole Baskin killing her husband, to the thousands of memes shared on social media about the show, Tiger King is the reigning monarch of documentaries. And while its success is undeniable, there are aspects of the show that just aren’t right. 

When I first heard about the series I was reluctant to watch it because of my very low tolerance for animal abuse. But it just kept getting bigger and bigger and my friends were nagging me to watch it, so I decided to give it a go. Luckily for me, the show completely lost focus of the animal abuse after the second episode and shifted it’s attention to the petty drama of its whimsical characters. For a show that had the potential to spread awareness about the exploitation of wild animals and the horrible circumstances they face it did surprisingly little. Eric Goode, one of the directors of the show admitted in an interview to Vanity Fair that Tiger King’s outsized personalities “did trump the issue of the ethicacy of keeping these animals in captivity, and especially the way these people were using these animals—exploiting them for profit,” he said. “Personally, I had originally set out to do a slightly different story.” With documentaries like Blackfish as its predecessor, Tiger King feels more like a self-indulgent reality show masquerading behind serious topics than an actual documentary. Nothing proves this point more than episode three, titled “Secret”, which brings me to my next point. 

The conscious decision on the filmmakers’ part to do a whole episode on Carole Baskin’s missing husband while conveniently leaving out parts about Joe Exotic that would make him unlikeable – for example that he’s racist – perfectly showcases the producers’ narrative. They set out to create a flawed hero, a character that did bad things but is ultimately good at heart – and being racist didn’t fit into that narrative. And since every hero needs a villain, the decision has been made to completely vilify Carole Baskin, as a weirdo who killed her husband. The directors even went as far as to interview Don Lewis’ ex-wife and kids – whom he left for Carole – who of course, were entirely convinced that Carole killed Don. As a result of the cherry-picked information shown in the documentary, one has no choice but to walk away with the overwhelming feeling that Joe Exotic is a cool guy and Carole Baskin definitely killed her husband. 

This problematic message is extremely harmful, not only because there is absolutely no evidence that Carole Baskin had anything to do with her husband’s disappearance but also because it reinforces certain stereotypes that women fought hard to change. The portrayal of Carole as a fake and manipulative individual, greedy for her husband’s wealth is an ancient stereotype about women that is being utilised in this series to spark dislike against her. It’s easy to hate Carole because whether we like to admit or not, these stereotypes live in our heads and are waiting for a chance to pop up and say “I told you so”. Carole stepped out of her traditional gender roles by going up against Exotic and taking away his power, which plays a substantial part in creating a terrifying amount of anger and hatred towards her. In fact, in a recent vote on Cinemablend, she was voted the biggest villain of the show with 41%, while Doc Antle, the man who underfeeds and underpays his all-female personnel, makes them change their name and appearance, and allegedly euthanises cubs once they get too big, only got 10%. 

Tiger King’s narrative is so powerful it generated the movement #FreeJoeExotic that seeks to have Joe pardoned and released from jail. At a recent press briefing, a reporter asked President Trump if he would consider pardoning Joe Exotic, to which the President replied: “I’ll look into it”. It is absolutely clear that the directors of the show not only failed to convey the message they set out to deliver but they actually built a narrative that might get an animal abuser and the conceiver of a murder-for-hire plot out of jail. For a show that originally set out to spread awareness about the exploitation of wild animals, it did nothing of the sort and managed to ruin a woman’s life in the process. 

Now, you don’t have to like Carole Baskin or think she’s a good person. But I think it’s important to take a step back and think about why are we as a society so quick to jump to a woman’s throat, against whom there’s no evidence and in the meantime so hasty to forgive a man who exploited and killed cubs, lured young men into his life by entertaining their drug addiction and has been tried and convicted in a court of law.


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