Courtesy of Netflix

Screenshot from "Tiger King" Episode 1

April 12, 2020

Racism and Classism in ‘Tiger King’

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By now, you’ve probably heard about the Netflix mini-series Tiger King. What initially seems to be a documentary unpacking the sad reality of tiger captivity quickly turned into a binge-worthy reality TV show topping Netflix’s charts. Tiger King documents the everyday lives of Joe Exotic, the eponymous Tiger King, his rival Carole Baskin and everyone in between.  But the reasons people seem to be invested in this miniseries is emblematic of why it’s problematic.

As described in the mini-series, Joe Exotic is a “redneck, gun-toting, mullet-sporting, tiger-tackling, gay polygamist” who works as an Oklahoma zoo operator. His attraction to exotic animals began in Florida while receiving therapy following a car accident that left him in braces for five years. Consequently, he started his then successful zoo attracting customers under the promise of uncaged contact with the animals, specifically the tigers. His business soon became threatened when his rival Carole Baskins, an animal rights “activist” and owner of the animal sanctuary Big Cat Rescue, started to speak out against him and other big cat owners alike. Committed to protesting against the ownership of big cats in America, Baskin is adamant throughout the series in protecting her reputation as the good guy, though she is ironically presented as the antagonist.

Still, this documentary turned reality show isn’t just about a long-held feud between the not-your-average-Joe Exotic and his nemesis Carol Baskins for moral superiority. The miniseries, through many unexpected twists and turns, encompasses the potential murder of Baskin’s first husband, Exotic’s marriage to two young, straight men, an accidental suicide, an unsuccessful presidential and governor campaign and all that leads to the imprisonment of Joe Exotic for 22 years.

Although America seems to be completely fascinated with Tiger King, there are countless problematic aspects that make it the moral and ethical disaster it is.

This documentary had the potential to expose the subjugation of exotic animals and the natural world for the profit of businesses and human entertainment. Even as it depicts Joe Exotic, Doc Antle and big cat owners alike often breeding, trading and selling exotic animals, treating them as disposable, that ranks nowhere close to the main conflict: The feud between Exotic and Baskin, and Exotic’s eventual demise.

The mini-series is still successful in building empathy for Exotic, as seen by the subsequent rally of supporters following the release of the documentary, and President Trump’s recent considerations towards pardoning him. Here, we should ask ourselves a surprising, yet important question: What does Tiger King’s success suggest about race and class in America?

Despite being infamous at the local police station, Exotic’s misogynistic comments and countless death threats towards nemesis Carole Baskin are dismissed as humorous until he finally makes premeditated, logistical plans to have her killed. You can easily see the privilege Exotic has when imagining the juxtaposition of this scenario had he been black. This illegal murder for hire plot, along with a number of other charges, is what eventually escalates his threats and lands him in prison for 22 years. Here, the documentary ends.

The privilege of being able to turn the subjects of this once serious documentary into beloved reality stars while glossing over details including a potential murder, the excessive use of drugs by Joe’s employees and many violent threats and pranks against Carole Baskin is not a privilege enjoyed by the black community. Were the cast predominantly black, this show would have unintentionally served as a commentary on the black community, and contributed to many long-held, inaccurate stereotypes. Instead, as an audience we are capable of watching Tiger King without passing judgement on white America as a whole. We live in a time where we’re rooting for Joe Exotic, one of many villains in the series, and feel a sense of sadness once he ends up in prison and Jeff Lowe takes over the zoo. Yet we’re incapable of releasing and apologizing for the wrongful imprisonment of many people of color.

The cast being predominantly white isn’t the only reason America seems fascinated with Tiger King. Class plays a crucial role, as well. It’s clear the low socioeconomic status of both Exotic and his employees contribute to the overall laughable nature of the show. Workers are paid less than $150 a week for 40+ hours of work and many live in rundown trailers. In addition to being dramatically underpaid, many of the employees get their food from an expired meat truck meant to feed the tigers — but don’t worry, the employees had first pick. The show characterizes Exotic, his employees and low socio-economic class individuals as redneck, dirty, desperate, inferior, yet unfortunately entertaining to say the least.

Overall, Tiger King is an incredibly fast-paced show. God forbid you mentally check out for two minutes and you’ll have missed yet another bizarre twist. If you’re looking for a binge-worthy show with profanity, polygamy, embezzlement, drama and exotic animals, you might feel your expectations were exceeded.

Instead, I found it to be a gross failure as a documentary. I expected it to highlight the immorality behind the needless exploitation and commercialization of wildlife but was met with a distasteful reality TV show that has promoted dangerous stereotypes and given (yet another) undeserving white male a platform.

 

Nkemdirim Obodo is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached nobodo@cornellsun.com