The Netflix series ‘Tiger King’ has gripped the world, amassing over 64 million viewers to date. It follows the life of U.S. tiger park owner Joe Exotic, and specifically focalises his long running feud with his rival, ‘Big Cat Rescue’ owner, Carole Baskin. Although the accusations and personal drama eclipses the issue of animal cruelty, it has undeniably brought this heavily corrupt world of big cat ownership to global attention. The global response to the show, however, is also very telling.
Every show needs its heroes and villains and somehow ‘Tiger King’ Joe Exotic is turned into a victim, whilst Carole Baskin, the only person in the docu-series showing active concern about animal welfare, is made the villain. Joe Exotic spends the series pushing the narrative that Carole Baskin murdered her husband Don Lewis, who mysteriously disappeared over 20 years ago, and fed him to her tigers. If there is any validity to these claims then of course they absolutely need to be investigated, however, Joe Exotic doesn’t strike me as someone particularly concerned with social justice. In the documentary, Carole Baskin is filmed trying to push legislation to end the private possession of big cats in the United States. This makes her a threat to Joe Exotic’s empire, and one does wonder whether he would still view her as public enemy number one if this wasn’t the case.
In the final episode, Joe Exotic is sentenced to 22 years in prison for a string of offenses including hiring a hit man to murder Carole Baskin, killing five tigers and also selling tigers across state lines. He is a strong Trump supporter and now seeking a presidential pardon. The documentary provides a character portrait of this gun-slinging polygamist who creates effigies of his enemies to blow up yet, with the addition of a few tearful moments, he is still portrayed sympathetically. He has received punishment, but even the thought that there are people seeking to vindicate him after just one year is worrying.
My main issue with the program is that it feels like Carole Baskin has been type-cast in a cultural archetype of this Simpsons-esque ‘Crazy Cat Lady’ that fits all too neatly in the category of the villain. As journalist Kathleen N Walsh puts it: ‘Carole Baskin may or may not be a murderer, but the fact remains that of the two of them, Joe Exotic is the only one shown again and again to be violent and the only one who made explicit, constant threats, and eventually acted on them’, it seems that the word of a man clearly still has power over the word of a woman, even when that man is a convicted attempted murderer himself. Society has long since come to accept the lawless, gun-slinging archetype that Joe Exotic represents. His newly re-branded ‘Tiger King Park’ is reportedly thriving.
Both Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin have tragic backstories, with both suffering greatly in their early years. It is important to take a moment to analyse the public reception to the Netflix series from an anthropological perspective. The stories that are untwined in the seven-part drama are simply too multifaceted for viewers to truly have a clear, justified notion of who the heroes and the villains really are. One thing that is revealed from the reception to the series is that misogyny certainly appears to be alive and well in 2020.