In ‘Tiger King,’ White Victimhood Rears Its Ugly Head
I grew up near the Big Cat Rescue, and these people are more than comedy fodder
Growing up in Tampa, Florida, I knew Big Cat Rescue as the place diagonally across from Citrus Park Mall that my mom never felt safe taking our family to visit. It seemed like a throwback to old Florida roadside attractions, a bit of homespun danger at a fraction of the cost for a theme park ticket. The rescue is set back away from the main street connected by a tree-lined road that in my memory was thick enough to block out the Florida sun. Never would I have guessed that the Big Cat Rescue would be a major part of the latest Netflix sensation, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
The seven-episode series follows the story of Joseph Maldonado-Passage aka Joe Exotic, an Oklahoma-based zoo owner whose eccentric and flamboyant personality earned him some local fame and notoriety when his many threats against his mortal enemy, Carole Baskin—who owns Big Cat Rescue—earned him serious jail time for attempted murder. There are other colorful characters in Tiger King, like Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, a cult-like leader in Myrtle Beach with a cadre of women who serve as his tiger trainers, and Mario Tabraue, the sole nonwhite big cat owner profiled in the series who is a Cuban American former drug trafficker. However, the series focuses on the rivalry of Carole and Joe, and invariably, the privileges that whiteness affords them.
Baskin weaponizes this appearance of an innocent and fragile white womanhood against accusations that she may have had a role in the disappearance of her second husband, Don Lewis.
Before they made headlines and trending hashtags, Baskin and Joe both grew up poor in different parts of the country — Texas and Kansas, respectively — and scrapped their way into a slice of the American Dream, owning their own small business: a zoo. From the outset, Joe Exotic does not look like the typical embodiment of Midwestern male norms. He often wears sequined shirts or leather fringed jackets or vests along with a gun in a holster and a mullet, an unholy cross between a cheap Vegas showman and a country singer with a temperament made up of anger, narcissism, and charisma. He’s outspoken about his quasi-libertarian politics and his double marriage to two husbands — social norms be damned. Baskin comes across as an upbeat cat lady with a disarming sense of Southern charm. A demure but devoted Baskin weaponizes this appearance of an innocent and fragile white womanhood against accusations that she may have had a role in the disappearance of her second husband, Don Lewis. She appears with a closet full of tiger stripes and cheetah spotted outfits to go with a flower crown for her long hair — a chaotic earth mother to Joe’s scorched earth rage.
When asked about the case, she becomes defensive and plays the victim, referring to the way Lewis’ family has mistreated her, yet does little to quell more suspicions about her actions of cutting Lewis’ first family out of his will or filing to declare him dead at the earliest opportunity. It does not bring her to the police’s attention the same way it might have had she been a woman of color, whose perceived goodness is not always a given in the eyes of law enforcement. Because Tiger King sensationalizes this event into its own episode, viewers have twisted Baskin’s supposed actions into a joke, making light about her perceived innocence and the assumption that she’s incapable of committing the heinous crime.
Joe Exotic is given a “Florida Man” treatment in the series and by the media: a troubled figure made into a national punchline — an avatar for the crazy things white people can get away with who welcomes the documentary and audience’s voyeuristic gaze.
For Joe Exotic, Baskin’s shady backstory was catnip. He cited it often in angry videos targeting her, some of which also featured staged acts of violence intended for Baskin like shooting her or putting snakes in her mailbox. He even goes so far as to protest outside Big Cat Rescue in person and make a music video about Baskin feeding her husband to their big cats. Despite these gendered and personal attacks, putting Baskin on a false moral level with Joe makes it easier for him to seem like an anti-hero.
Joe Exotic is given a “Florida Man” treatment in the series and by the media: a troubled figure made into a national punchline — an avatar for the crazy things white people can get away with who welcomes the documentary and audience’s voyeuristic gaze. It’s difficult to think that any person of color could make a series of threatening videos targeting a white woman and get away with it for so long. Because Joe’s persona runs contrary to heteronormative maleness and his whiteness makes him seem less threatening, fans have been able to put the allegations of animal abuse and his intimidating and manipulative behavior aside. It’s not a courtesy extended to someone like former football player Michael Vick, whose name has been synonymous with dog fighting and animal abuse since his 2007 scandal. Today, cutesy memes and anime-style gifs reinforce Joe Exotic’s playful image as a gay cowboy with a strange love of big cats without regard for the real and potential damage he caused.
One of the few souls to emerge from Tiger King with the audience’s sympathy is Saff Saffery, one of Joe Exotic’s former zookeepers and one of the few people of color in the series. Saff, a trans man who is misnamed and misgendered by the filmmakers, survives one of the most harrowing moments captured on camera when he is maimed by a big cat attack and makes the choice to sacrifice his arm for the sake of saving Joe Exotic from any more trouble. His sacrifice is barely acknowledged. The documentary moves along because it’s not deemed as sensational as his boss’ feud.
The series revels in gawking at Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin as if they were modern-day Hatfields and McCoys, a rural blood feud made into entertainment, echoing the previous wave of so-called “Redneck Reality TV” — think Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty — which at times can feel like an invitation for middle-class viewers to have a laugh at the expense of poorer white subjects or feel superior to them in their situations. Furthermore, many of the public-facing private zoo owners in the documentary series are white men, forming a de facto fraternity who see themselves under siege by Baskin and other animal advocates. That many of them also come across as manipulative and possibly abusive to both big cats and humans may not be a coincidence.
If the docuseries wanted to raise awareness about the plight of exotic animals in the U.S., it fails to hold its audience’s attention past its collection of wild characters, functioning more as a tabloid delighting in the foibles of white people behaving badly. The erasure of Saff’s identity and experience is only one of the show’s several missteps when adapting the messy drama between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin for entertainment. There are also some ethical questions about the way one of the directors misrepresented the purpose of the documentary to Baskin and the way it ends with a shoehorned statistic about big cats in captivity. But now that Tiger King has become its own meme factory, some viewers may resist questioning or criticizing the documentary because it delivered what they were looking for: a distraction.