Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, Madness and Misogyny?

cw: animal abuse, violence, sexual violence, drug references

Tiger King, Netflix’s latest doc series, lives up to the mayhem and madness that its title promises. The big cat owners in the series have spent enough time with tigers to become wild animals themselves. From the prototype for Tony Montana, to the bleach blonde mullets, the series encroaches on the unbelievable. What’s more unbelievable is that a documentary about tigers, made by a self-proclaimed conservationist, neglects any discussion about animal rights. 

Who wants to talk about animal rights when kooky characters (to put it mildly) and misogyny are much more palatable?

I said it. Tiger King is sexist. You might have missed this amongst the explosions, tiger snarls and country music. The documentary simultaneously humanises Joe Exotic and demonises the only female figure, Carole Baskin. What better way to boost the appeal of man than to attack a professional woman?

Joe Exotic is not eccentric. 

Joe Exotic is presented as a gay, mulleted, gun-toting, polygamist, country singer. The characterisation of Joe as nothing more than eccentric is dangerous. What Tiger King really shows us is that Joe is a self-centred, violent 50 year old man who preys on teenagers. 

It will take more than footage of rural Oklahoma to convince a worldwide audience that guns can be fashion accessories. Joe totes his guns as a warning to people who tread on his territory. The ultimate threat to a big cat “kingdom” is animal rights activism. Carole Baskin is the archetype of the intruder that Joe detests; his television show is practically dedicated to degrading her. Joe repeatedly acts out Carole’s rape and murder on a mannequin. This isn’t a joke, it’s sexual violence. The public’s reaction to Joe’s behaviour demonstrates the pervasiveness of misogyny to the extent that violence against Carole is blown off as hilarity.

Joe’s personal relationships reinforce his abusive character. He pursues men half his age, and controls these teenagers by enabling their drug addictions. In exhchange for drugs, Joe received two husbands.

None of this is endearing. None of this behaviour is justified. It’ll take more than glittery shirts to hide Joe Exotic’s bad character. 

All these men are problematic.

Throughout the series, we hear about the captivating power of big cats. It seems the same spell was cast over the director, Eric Goode. He continually glamorises the tiger kings despite their perpetuation of cruelty against animals. Doc Antle, Jeff Lowe, James Garretson and Mario Tabraue are kingpins of the captive wild animal trade. These men are problematic egotists, not kooky individuals. 

Joe’s mentor is no better than Joe. Doc Antle grooms and objectifies young women for sexual and economic gain. He coerces women to get breast augmentations in return for days off. It’s no coincidence women accept the offer considering they work 8am to midnight everyday, 365 days a year. Doc is presented as a mystic leader of his own empire. With a name like Bhagavan, meaning lord, he is closer to a cult leader than spiritual guru. He is not impressive for controlling animals, and especially not women. 

Up next, Jeff Lowe. He uses pussy to get pussy; he lures women to sleep with him in exchange for playtime with tiger cubs. Jeff overtly disrespects women on camera and Eric Goode enables him.

Then there’s Mario, a convicted cocaine dealer with a notorious criminal history. And somehow, he’s the least problematic of them all. 

Tiger King glamorises and sensationalises these men. I seriously doubt that their egos need the extra inflation. 

No one is taking Carole Baskin seriously. 

Our first encounter with Carole is at her sanctuary Big Cat Rescue. She is wearing a floral, leopard print shirt and a flower crown. As soon as Eric Goode sees her he comments, “oh she’s dressed perfectly.” As the scene progresses there’s increasing commentary about her interior design and wardrobe choices. Yet we were deprived of the same in-depth analysis of Joe Exotic, despite his sequin button-downs being equally intriguing. The reason for this is that ‘crazy cat ladies’ are easier to poke fun at. Carole is introduced as someone that we shouldn’t take seriously. 

Why not emphasise the fact she wears cat-print to when she talks to government legislators? The show skims over details of her activism, portraying her in the same eccentric light as her rivals. This is my biggest gripe with the show – why isn’t her activism taken more seriously?

She is depicted as an exploitative manipulator who is no better than the men abusing the animals she’s spent years trying to protect. Carole differentiates herself by proactively fighting the sale and breeding of tigers. She lobbied for malls to stop hosting animal shows and succeeded. Currently, she advocates for the Big Cat Public Safety Act to become legislation. This Act would prevent cub petting and private ownership of big cats in the US. Joe Exotic, and other actors in the industry, profit heavily from these practices.

Carole’s professionalism is downplayed. If she were a man would the show give greater airtime to her advocacy? Animal activism is dominated by women. Is it a coincidence that Carole and the animal rights industry is villainised throughout the series? Short answer, no. Tiger King silences the female voice for the sake of sensationalisation. 

Zoo versus sanctuary

Carole’s sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue, is also not taken seriously. Everyone is quick to discredit the sanctuary, having seen a tiny portion of the property. Big Cat Rescue isn’t claiming to be a national reserve – it’s a place for cats to escape abusive situations and live out the remainder of their lives. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries have certified Big Cat Rescue as a sanctuary. This means it meets independent criteria. 

Hearing Carole’s voice say, “hey, all you cool cats and kittens,” is hilarious. But Carole’s online following and effort to shift interactions with animals to an online forum is ingenious. Joe tried to jump on the bandwagon with his Big Cat Rescue Entertainment ploy. Carole is then vilified further for taking legal action against him. He infringed on her copyright and she rightly sued him. 

Now, you might be thinking, but Carole once bred cubs so doesn’t that make her a hypocrite? She realised the error of her ways and has been making amends ever since. I’m not here to judge the legitimacy of Carole Baskin’s sanctuary or activism because I have only seen a small snippet into her work. And guess what – everyone else has seen as little as I have. She might not be the Ritz Carlton of sanctuaries. She equally might be. What I do know is she is the only one talking about the rights of the cats in this documentary. 

Tiger King discredited the animal rights movement by retelling one side of the story – the side that is averse to Carole Baskin. She was outnumbered by angry men who felt threatened by her. Tiger King played into the same narrative that she was nothing more than “that bitch Carole Baskin”. 

The big twist: Carole might have killed her husband. 

Quite frankly, I don’t care if Carole Baskin killed her husband, fed him to tigers or if he’s in Costa Rica. This is an entirely separate issue. Why is this included? It infers that if she killed her husband then Joe Exotic was somehow justified in plotting her murder. 

Did Carole and her former husband have a healthy relationship? Probably not. But do I think Carole murdered him? No. First of all, he left his wife to marry a 19 year old. Carole was vulnerable. She’d been living independently from age 15, after being sexually assaulted the year prior. This man swept her off her feet into a life of luxury. Carole talks openly about the impressionability of young people to the likes of Joe Exotic and Doc Antle. She may be speaking from personal experience. 

It is not inconceivable that her ex might have run off with another younger woman in Costa Rica. Given his history this seems more likely than Carole killing him then going on a Netflix documentary to incriminate herself. 

Nonetheless, it doesn’t matter. It is an allegation perpetuated by men who want Carole dead. She said herself that it makes wonderful sales of newspapers to speculate that she fed her husband to the tigers. It also helps popularise a Netflix series to do the exact same thing. 

Carole isn’t the only one with a dead husband.

Arguably, the most tragic part of this whole documentary is the death of Travis Moldonado.  Both husbands, Travis and John, were 19 and straight when they met Joe. So how did they end up marrying a 50 year old man? 

In the same way Doc Antle manipulated young women, Joe convinced young straight men to marry him. Joe undermined Travis’ sexuality by talking about porn and feeding his drug habits. Travis was addicted to methamphetamine and relied on Joe for his supply. Travis took his own life because he felt like a prisoner. This is the true tragedy. 

Joe does not receive any backlash for his treatment of Travis. Yet, Carole is painted a mass manipulator and criminal mastermind because of a weightless allegation. The double standards are appalling. Tiger King fails to hold these men accountable for their abusive actions. 

If someone plots your murder take legal action.

Joe enacted Carole’s murder and rape on camera. His attitudes towards Carole were violent and highly misogynistic. This was more than a pissing match over tigers; this was a man manufacturing the assault of a professional woman. The poisonous snakes in her letterbox indicated that he had a more sinister motive than clowning around. 

It was right and just that Carole took legal action against someone who expressed openly that he wanted her dead. As a former cop, Joe Exotic should have expected this. 

Intentions don’t justify bad behaviour. 

Joe Exotic may have started out his zoo with good intentions – to commemorate the life of his brother. Regardless of his intentions, his actions were still harmful. Tiger King failed in its mission to highlight the animal rights abuses going on in the American cat trade. Not once did they clarify that breeding generic tigers won’t save the species from extinction. All energy was put into creating a mind-blowing, theatrical experience. 

Final thoughts.

Eric Goode characterises Joe Exotic as an anti-hero, leaving Carole to be prosecuted by the court of public opinion. We continue to be confronted with misogynistic overtones in popular television. Entertainment at the expense of women is inexcusable. No women or animals were protected in the filming of Tiger King.

~ Frances Lamont

Image sources: 1 2 3 4 5 6

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