Netflix’s docuseries Tiger King is a wild ride from start to finish, mapping the intertwining and often bizarre ambitions, rivalries, and grudges of the insular world of “big cat” ownership. The most contentious of these rivalries is between Joe Exotic, the series’ mercurial and bombastic subject, and Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue. Exotic spends most of the series launching violently misogynistic attacks against Baskin — who he is convinced murdered her husband — and finally ends up in prison for plotting her murder.
But the show is sympathetic to Exotic; it’s Baskin who is framed as the villain. In response to the series, many viewers tweeted using one of Exotic’s favorite phrases: “That b*tch Carole Baskin.”
The series provides example after example of Exotic’s violence, cruelty, and narcissism, while the evidence against Baskin (compelling enough as it is framed in the series) is circumstantial. Maybe Baskin did kill her husband — and the third episode of the series is devoted to the evidence pointing to this conclusion — but so far there is little more than speculation to say that she did. Meanwhile, the series shows clips from Exotic’s erstwhile YouTube series in which he poses alongside a blow-up doll, Baskin in effigy, shoving a dildo into its mouth and shooting it in the head.
“I’m gonna kill that b*tch,” is a common refrain.
The show makes clear that Joe Exotic’s targeting of Baskin was ongoing, obsessive, and explicitly gendered. Most of it was on the internet, but it certainly didn’t stay there.
The online harassment Exotic aimed at Baskin is of the sort that might otherwise be derided as the work of troll bots, largely sexualized memes intended to humiliate: Baskin’s face on a photo of man wearing a diaper, an illustration of some gooey creature with the caption: “Smile everyone, you could have a crotch like Carole does.”
A wannabe country music star, Exotic also wrote a song about the alleged murder, “Here Kitty Kitty,” and the series shows clips from the accompanying music video — which features a Baskin lookalike carrying a severed head on a platter. He led a protest of her park, marching outside the gates in bloodied animal costumes falsely accusing her organization of animal abuse; he joked about sending her snakes for her birthday; and he spent hours on his online show telling his followers she was a murderer.
Baskin was also, notably, a professional rival with considerably better Google game.
The show finally ends with Exotic imprisoned for trying to have Baskin murdered after he was recorded making such arrangements and actually paying someone to do the deed according to testimony. The show seems to suggest he was framed.
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. That audiences seemed to react with hatred for Baskin is disappointing if not shocking.
Think-pieces in general are fond of phrases like “in the age of #MeToo,” and yet the public at large is apparently no more disquieted by threats and violence against women now than it ever was. It’s not as if Exotic’s character is otherwise depicted as unimpeachable. He openly engaged in animal abuse, he manipulated straight men into marrying him by leveraging a dangerous drug addiction, he most likely committed arson on his own office (letting a congregation of alligators die in the process) in order to hide incriminating evidence. And yet he is the sympathetic character. Whatever sinister motivations Baskin has, they are only suggested on film by repeated slow-motion shots of her riding a bicycle with long blonde hair flapping behind her.
The series does show Baskin antagonizing Exotic in one way — repeated lawsuits. But this is hardly surprising considering his copyright infringement of her company name and logo, as well as her lifelong dedication to ending animal abuse of the kind Exotic profited through. At one point, a reporter interviewed for the series muses that she was surprised Baskin pursued payment when a judgment was awarded against Exotic, suggesting she was simply greedy or vindictive. But that Baskin wanted Exotic out of business is hardly surprising, considering his business relied on animal abuse which she had devoted her life to eradicating.
It is worth noting that Baskin’s park, Big Cat Rescue, has the approval of accredited animal rights groups like the Humane Society, which has praised the organization’s “highly effective and tireless work to end abuses,” noting, “Big Cat Rescue has taken in dozens of abused tigers, lions and other wild animals over the years and is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.”
Make no mistake, Joe Exotic is a narcissist who did not care for the wellbeing of his animals, his employees, or even his husbands. What he does have is a perfect personality for television, brash and gleefully over-the-top, which is engrossing even in a documentary detailing his many abuses.
Even accepting that Exotic is terrible, it still appears easier to accept his version of events with regards to Baskin. It’s just more fun to accept his violence towards her as maybe a little much, as befits his personality, but nothing she doesn’t really deserve.
Exotic’s violence is documented on video in every episode of the series, but it took nothing more than an accusation for audiences in general to declare Baskin “that b*tch.” Her demeanor is not made for reality TV the way Exotic’s is. She’s a little awkward and soft-spoken, and in interviews regarding the disappearance of her husband, she is forced to spend all of her time defending herself against accusations, a position that always suggests guilt.
Even the accusations against her smack of sexism, framing her as a kind of femme fatale. The story goes that she and her husband Don Lewis met when each were married to other people, she around 20 and he 40, and he saw her walking one night and liked the look of her. According to accusations, Baskin would later murder him for his money and either feed him to the tigers or bury him under the septic tank, depending on which theory you believe.
Baskin herself wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the series on her own website, claiming the series was filled with salacious “lies” that went uninterrogated.
Of course, Exotic is not the only figure in the series trafficking in open misogyny. There’s Doc Antle and his bizarre “sex cult” populated by young women he allegedly controls, the focus of a single episode and then forgotten. There is also Jeff Lowe, who lured young women into his hotel room in Vegas with tiger cubs smuggled in suitcases, remarking, “A little p*ssy gets you a lot of p*ssy.” None of this is addressed with anything more than a passing remark and a shrug.
Perhaps in a post-MeToo era it’s comforting to believe that we take violence against women seriously. But it really doesn’t seem that we do.
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