The Ontological Zoo
Maybe it’s just from all the sheltering in place and self-isolation, but one of the most popular pieces of quarantainment has been a Netflix docuseries about Joe Exotic, a gay roadside zoo owner in Oklahoma currently serving time for murder for hire and animal abuse. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness held the #1 US Netflix spot for a solid month and is undeniably entertaining and addictive, but it pushes the limits of documentary and reality TV in ways that, in their confluence with conspiracy culture, online harassment, and post-truth demagoguery, are misleading and potentially dangerous.
In his influential media studies text Televisuality (1995), John Thornton Caldwell argues that tabloids and reality programming “comprise what might be better called ‘ontological strip malls’ … tabloid and reality strips now promise the viewer quick-stop shopping to meet any and all tastes: for the exotic, the kinky, the violent, and the voyeuristic.” Encompassing all these flavors and more, Tiger King is its own ontological roadside zoo. Its menagerie features much more than exotic animals, including gay polygamists, guns and explosions, a zoo-based sex cult, drug abuse, country music videos, murder conspiracies, tabloid politics, a tiger mauling, an unsolved disappearance, and Rick Kirkham from Inside Edition.
Kirkham is a large presence in Tiger King, not just as an interviewee but also as an influence on the show’s production style. Joe Exotic hired Kirkham to produce a reality TV show and his internet show, JoeExoticTV, but an arsonist destroyed Kirkham’s footage in a building fire that also killed seven alligators. (Without evidence, Joe accuses Kirkham of being paid to set the fire by Carole Baskin, while Kirkham accuses Joe of doing so to eliminate compromising video recordings.
However, some fragments of Kirkham’s work appear in Tiger King as a reality show within a reality show. It is Kirkham, for instance, who christens Joe Exotic “the Tiger King”, constructs him a throne, and directs him to pose magisterially in a robe for the intended series opening. According to Kirkham, Exotic compulsively rewatches this scene for hours in his office, saying, “Yes, I am the tiger king. I’ve always been the tiger king!”
Tellingly, Caldwell mentions Inside Edition along with ET and A Current Affair as genre-defining “tabloid horses” in his discussion of the televisual excesses of the 1990s. Series directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin aim for a more sober approach with their filming, but Kirkham and Exotic’s ontological zoo occupies large portions of the show’s visual real estate.
None of this exhibitionism would necessarily be a problem if it were not imbued with the documentary form’s aura of veracity. The assumption of truthfulness in documentary derives from its proximity to “discourses of sobriety”. As film theorist Bill Nichols explains in his major contribution to documentary studies, Representing Reality (1991), “Discourses of sobriety”, unlike fictional works, “are sobering because they regard their relation to the real as direct, immediate, transparent.” The directness, immediacy, and transparency of any documentary is, of course, to varying degrees an illusion, and Tiger King is far from an exception. Rather than a conduit for unmitigated reality, Tiger King is a highly constructed narrative with a charismatic anti-hero at its center.
The series blends observational and participatory modes of documentary, allowing Goode to dip in and out of visibility as convenient, obscuring the line between prompted and impromptu material. A hybrid composition, Tiger King also combines many sources of footage without always demarcating them clearly. In addition to Goode and Chaiklin’s original footage and fragments from Kirkham’s reality TV show, Tiger King makes extensive use of Exotic’s self-produced promotional materials, which range in their televisual style from infomercials and talk shows to music videos and political campaigns. If the directors ever intended to present an animal welfare message (the big cat Blackfish that some participants thought they were making), it was largely lost in this patchwork of human sensationalism.
Tiger King is an irresistible guilty pleasure, but it exemplifies the corrosive effects of personality cults, conspiracy theories, anti-expertise culture, and the connection of all this to electoral politics. As such, Tiger King has become a new site in the post-truth culture war between populist demagogue “rebels” and professional “elites” with expertise, a relitigation of Trump versus Clinton on a rural carnivalesque stage. Watching it reminds of me of Neil Postman’s warnings against passively ingesting the soma of reality-based entertainment in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). If Postman were still around today, he might want to add a chapter on how overdosing on antiheroes and ironic memes can acclimate us to tolerating, accepting, or idolizing (and voting for) abusers and predators, as long as they are charismatic, entertaining, and compellingly presented on screen. Idolatry of charismatic abusers is nothing new, of course, but popular media such as Tiger King can incubate and accelerate this toxicity.
Personality Cults and Post-Truth Politics
One of the most disturbing things about Tiger King is how many viewers have been charmed by a narcissistic cult-like figure who seduces his employees into exploitive labor conditions, illegally breeds and sells his animals, and films his own propaganda, all at a time when skepticism toward digital media is supposed to have reached new heights. Skepticism toward digital media is incoherent if it does not extend to documentaries and reality television, since these formats are framed and edited into narratives with conflict, just like fiction. Tiger King does not explicitly justify or rationalize Exotic’s misdeeds, but rather overpowers those concerns with Joe’s inimitable charisma and by contrasting him with a less videogenic rival, Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue. The lure for viewers is Exotic’s image and persona: he is an open-carrying dandy cowboy with kitschy tattoos and piercings who lip-syncs in his own country music videos to songs ghost-written by (and allegedly stolen from) The Clinton Johnson band.
He also hosts an Infowars-style internet show, which he obsessively weaponizes against Baskin after she targets his cub petting business. Baskin is straight-laced, restrained in her expressions, and a member of the professional class, a perfect narrative contrast for Joe. A masterclass in audience suggestibility, this framing has spawned numerous “Free Joe Exotic” and “Storm Big Cat Rescue” memes, hashtags, and groups on social media. Tiger King encourages viewers to take allegations, rumors, and speculation against Baskin as proven facts. Baskin and her work with Big Cat Rescue have received legitimate criticism over the years, but her casting as a diabolical criminal genius is far-fetched and lopsided and gives Joe license to excoriate her at every turn. His favorite on-air gag is to simulate the shooting murder and oral rape of her effigy (an inflatable sex doll).
This carnivalesque atmosphere makes it easy to forget the less entertaining fact that Joe Exotic targets vulnerable people — drug addicts, ex-cons, and vagrants — and offers them substandard employment and housing at his zoo. Joe’s workers subside on expired meat donated from Wal-Mart and sorted in dumpsters (they get first pick before feeding the rest to the animals) and live in dilapidated trailers that lack running water and air conditioning. These trailers “can get up to 120 degrees at night” according to Kirkham. For all this, Joe’s workers earn $150 per 70-80 hour workweek.
These inhumane workplace conditions result in depression, dismemberment, and a shooting death among his staff. An employee mauled by a tiger decides to have his arm amputated rather than go through two years of surgeries and physical therapy, because “the media wins” if he doesn’t get back to work as soon as possible. Never one to miss an opportunity for a wardrobe change, Exotic slips into an EMT jacket shortly after the mauling occurs. Much less would get anyone else #canceled, but Joe Exotic has instead become a folk hero through sheer force of bravado and his perfect execution of reality TVisms. He is admired in the same way as a fictional antihero, which is a problem when the abuse, worker exploitation, illegal animal breeding, predation, manipulation, simulated violence against women, fraud, arson, embezzlement, and attempts at hiring hitmen are all real.
We say “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” to allude to Jim Jones’ cult; we could also say “don’t eat the dumpster meat” to allude to Joe Exotic’s fandom. Joe directly compares himself to David Koresh, warning that his heavily armed compound would become the next Waco if it were raided, but the cultishness of Joe’s operation becomes clearest when compared with that of his mentor Doc Antle, whose staff is comprised of women who were groomed as teenagers for polygamy. Antle euphemizes this as a “complex lifestyle”. Similarly, Joe uses a steady supply of drugs, guns, cars, trucks, and other gifts to lure two 19-year-old-drug addicts fresh out of high school into a three-way marriage predicated on rarely, if ever, leaving the property.
This results in the documentary’s darkest and deadliest moment when Joe’s second husband Travis Maldonado shoots himself in the head, presumably on accident, during a drug-fueled major depressive episode. Joe’s response draws on the televangelism strain of reality TV: ever the performer, he turns the funeral into a tabloid moment by donning a priest collar, eulogizing about the victim’s testicles as “golden nuggets”, and karaoking one of his ghost-written country songs, all in front of the deceased’s weeping mother. This would make for a hilarious episode of Trailer Park Boys, but this is not Trailer Park Boys. I find it hard to laugh when Travis Maldonado’s captivity, depression, and death really happened. The #MeToo implications would be obvious and outrageous if Joe’s partners were women. But this too is just fodder for memes that shamelessly lionize a predator while callously laughing at his prey.
But Joe is less successful than Antle in maintaining loyalty among his staff after his control of the zoo has been weakened by investor, con man, and fellow exotic animal abuser Jeff Lowe. Where Antle loses at least one of his “wives” to defection, Joe’s entire staff refuse to intervene when a tiger drags him around the enclosure by the foot; it is easier to sustain admiration of Joe Exotic through the distance of a camera lens and seductive editing. While Joe compares himself to Koresh, Antle wraps himself in the robes of a guru, a habit he picked up while living at the Yogaville ashram in Virginia. Using his given name like a title, Bhagavan, the Hindu word for Lord, Antle appears to be doing his best impression of Osho, the Indian guru whose Rajneesh cult was featured in another Netflix docuseries starring charming narcissists, Wild Wild Country. Of course, the locals and law enforcement in Wild Wild Country (a far more principled and complicated docuseries by comparison) come down much faster on the brown foreign man than their counterparts do on the white svengalis of Tiger King.
The confluence of personality cults and post-truth politics enters Tiger King when Joe Exotic steps into the realm of political campaigning in episode 4, aptly titled “Make America Exotic Again”. This topic is unflinchingly explored in American Horror Story: Cult, but unlike Cult, which calls out its viewers for their own political cultishness, Tiger King encourages tabloid politics by presenting Joe’s campaigning as just another fun reality TV stunt. Joe fails in his attempts to become the next reality star turned politician, but he still manages to get 19% of the vote in his gubernatorial primary race, despite having, according to his campaign manager, no platform of his own and not knowing what libertarianism is while being a Libertarian Party candidate.
Was that 19% an expansion of the Exotic base, or were those voters just “throwing a monkey wrench in the system”, as many Trump voters have described themselves? Either way, a vote is a vote.
Recounting Joe’s subsequent campaign for President, his campaign manager lays the intention bare: “Joe Exotic for President was one-hundred percent a complete and total publicity stunt. It was all about outrage. Get as much views as possible.” This should be the grim point of the sequence, that politics is not just theatrical but also algorithmic reality television, but any possible lesson fails to stick amidst the amusing framing of Joe’s antics. #JoeExoticForPresident is now a popular hashtag, and while most are posting it ironically, the same was true of early memes about candidate Donald Trump. None of this implies that Joe Exotic could ever become president, but perhaps his Achilles heel in the politics-as-reality-TV game is that he never got to hostThe Apprentice for 14 seasons.
If the memes are any indication, most of these aspects of Tiger King have been overshadowed by Joe Exotic’s vendetta against Baskin, who is framed as his perfect foil in the series. Misleading use of Joe’s internet TV footage makes Baskin’s animal enclosures look smaller and less cared for than Joe’s. This creates false equivalence between her accredited 501(c)3 charitable animal sanctuary with volunteer staff and Joe’s inspection-failing, roadside zoo with underpaid, overworked, and inadequately housed employees.
Joe’s footage appears in episode 3, while he verbally condemns the facility. Earlier shots from Goode and Chaiklin in episode 1 contradict Joe’s footage, as they show Baskin riding her bike in front of large, habitat-appropriate enclosures. But these favorable images are in the background during establishing shots, while Joe’s zoomed-in shots are in the foreground. This framing makes the more accurate representation of Big Cat Rescue in episode 1 less memorable and therefore less real than Joe’s misleading and verbally annotated footage in episode 3.
Building on this framing, Exotic and Antle, in a classic blame-shifting move, create the impression that Baskin is the true cult leader, not them; they do this in demagogue fashion by simply repeating it until it seems true. The directors sync Joe and Antle’s editorializing with decontextualized footage of enthusiastic Big Cat Rescue volunteers. Dedicated to passing the Big Cat Public Safety Act and making her sanctuary obsolete, Baskin is the only actual conservationist in Tiger King. And she believed she was participating in a Blackfish for big cats, not a postmodern Tobacco Road story.
Joe and Antle muddy the waters by pretending the abusive practice of cub petting is educational while denouncing Baskin as a hypocrite for being a breeder — 20 years ago — before becoming an animal rights advocate. Joe’s position changed too, but in the opposite direction, when he realized the profitability of breeding and cub petting, but no one in the documentary calls him a hypocrite for becoming the self-proclaimed biggest breeder in the country.
Carole Baskin (IMDB)
Letting no good scandal go to waste, Tiger King emphasizes the disappearance of Baskin’s second husband Don Lewis and theories that she murdered him. Raw meat for armchair investigators, the series explores rumors that Carole fed Don to a tiger, ground him up in a meat grinder, or buried him under a septic tank. These theories are supported by clips of Joe in full Alex Jones-mode and suggestive shots of an industrial-sized meat grinder and installation of a septic tank. Unsurprisingly, Joe Exotic presents all of these theories as true instead of picking one and sticking to it, logistical contradictions be damned. As Joe himself notes, tigers’ stomachs are so acidic that no bones would remain, which would make it impossible for the tiger feeding and septic burial scenarios to both be true (there would be nothing to bury, according to Joe’s logic).
Despite the flimsiness of these claims, “That Bitch Carole Baskin”, as she is called in countless memes and posts quoting Joe, is now the star of her own PizzaGate-esque conspiracy theories. PizzaGate led an armed man to investigate a Washington, DC pizza parlor, Comet Ping Pong, believing he would liberate the child sex slaves of powerful politicians such as Hillary Clinton from the restaurant’s basement. (Comet Ping Pong doesn’t have a basement.) Fortunately, no one was physically hurt or killed, but Comet Ping Pong continues to suffer from harassment campaigns, plausible threats, and pressure to close from the psychological and organizational strain.
The Joe Exotic fans who now plan to storm Big Cat Rescue, ironically or not, are similarly suggestible, especially after hearing and seeing their folk hero repeatedly dehumanize and threaten Baskin, who now shares Clinton’s conceptual space in the zeitgeist. The risk of escalation is real enough to strongly criticize the lack of discretion in constructing Tiger King‘s central conflict.
At a 2016 campaign stop in Iowa, Donald Trump bragged that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose a vote; conversely, Clinton is still routinely denounced as a murderer because of debunked “Clinton Body Count” conspiracy theories. Correspondingly, I find it hard to believe that Joe’s reality TV persona would do anything but benefit from rumors that he fed someone to a tiger. Doing precisely that which he accuses Baskin of would only add to Joe Exotic’s mythos.
In this latest episode of the sports entertainmentization of society, the heels are the heroes and the normies are the villains, just because it’s more entertaining that way. Heels turned heroes easily deflect accountability while holding their opponents under a microscope. Illustrating the constructedness of Baskin’s character in Tiger King, the salacious claims against her could have been spun to portray her as an Aileen Wuornos-style vigilante who exacts vengeance for abused women and animals, but that would make for one too many antiheroes and deprive Joe Exotic of a foil.
Instead, Baskin more easily fills the role of the humorless scold intent on ruining a flamboyant rebel’s good times. This is the same script that informed many reactions to Clinton vs. Trump, which is perfectly reflected in memes that put Clinton’s face on Carole Baskin and Trump’s face on Joe Exotic. As a new site in the post-truth culture war, Tiger King meme pages frequently include posts supporting Trump/Exotic while denouncing Clinton/Baskin.
Baskin is not above reproach or suspicion. Legitimate questions surround her approach to staffing volunteers, her litigiousness, and Big Cat Rescue’s track record, and investigation of Don Lewis’s disappearance has been reopened (Baskin is still not currently a suspect). But, for narrative purposes, Tiger King allows its most sensational allegations to stand without question. Sticking strictly to the presented evidence, Baskin’s major crime in the Tiger King universe is being an unentertaining, middle-aged professional woman who sought to constrain a highly entertaining man’s ability to do whatever he wants.
Anna Gunn reported similar experiences during her time playing Skylar White on Breaking Bad. Failing to separate reality from fantasy, aggrieved male fans of Breaking Bad publicly harassed Gunn, because as Skylar she opposed the transformation of husband Walter White (one of the most popular antiheroes of all time) into a tyrannical but entertaining drug kingpin. In this toxic and gendered pattern, men with far more damaging records receive folk hero status while their women opponents become folk demons.
In Clinton’s and Baskin’s case, the demonization is based on speculation, rumor, and conspiracy theories popularized by those same male rivals. Because reality doesn’t have to worry about being too on the nose, Baskin even has her own #LockHerUp posts, while #FreeJoeExotic petitions and social media campaigns have led to Trump’s offer (sincere or not) to look into the possibility of a pardon.
These reactions are dripping with unexamined misogyny, and it’s hard to believe the directors didn’t anticipate this framing as an ethical problem, since documentary viewers can also fail to separate reality/fact from fantasy/speculation, just like Gunn’s harassers. Documentary’s nonfictional subject matter can amplify this effect. To be fair, according to Goode, Netflix pushed him away from an animal rights focus and toward the exploits of his zany cast.
Taken in themselves by the drama, Goode and Chaiklin foresaw their focus on the zany cast of Tiger King as a selling point for the animal welfare issues, not a distraction from them.
But the price is not theoretical, as Carole and Big Cat Rescue now receive increased volumes of harassment, death and rape threats, and calls for invasion from “protestors”, all because of the exaggeration, false equivalence, innuendo, blame shifting, conspiratorializing, and modeling of abusive behavior in Tiger King.
It’s strange to uncritically accept everything you see in a tawdry Netflix documentary while also saying you don’t believe “the media”, but this is precisely the sentiment filling Tiger King meme groups across Facebook. The potential for fabrication and manipulation in a sensationalist docuseries far outpaces that of a nightly news segment, especially when that documentary is heavily based on reality TV footage and self-produced, Infowars-style propaganda designed to slander the main character’s arch-enemy. The overlap with post-truth, anti-expertise culture is palpable, and unconscious gender biases tend to aim these attitudes more forcefully when the targets are women.
Reality TV, fake news, and post-truth culture signal-boost, and glamorize the personality cults of demagogues, not just as sources of support and branding but also as shapers of how society consumes politics as entertainment and conspiracy theories as news. The effects include the opportunistic rejection of oppositional media (“if it doesn’t confirm my beliefs, I’ll just call it biased”) and the inversion of real news to “fake” and fake news to “real”.
And given that anti-expertise culture is endangering countless lives by bungling the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tiger King — released during and dominating the streaming-in-lockdown era — exemplifies in real-time the feedback loop between entertainment and ideology. If this sounds outlandish, consider the fact that Joe Exotic’s fandom is predicated on distrust of institutions such as the Humane Society, which educates the public on wet markets and factory farms as sources of animal-to-human viral pandemics. According to the cult of Joe Exotic, we should trust charismatic showmen over research-driven professional organizations.
The documentary subgenre of Tiger King is long-form tabloid. It must be taken with the same wheelbarrow of salt as an issue ofThe National Enquirer, especially when calls of freedom for the rightly convicted protagonist and unwarranted threats of violence for the designated antagonist are the result. Many documentarians do take the ethics of their craft very seriously, but their work is less likely to make as many waves across popular culture, just as serious journalism struggles to compete with misinformation and conspiracy memes while being denounced as the “enemy of the people” by audiences — and elected officials — hungry for tabloids.