Tiger King: An American Tale
Netflix’s new true crime drama is a distillation of all things American.
It’s a strange time to be alive. A novel form of coronavirus is cutting a swathe through the American landscape, its spread enabled by a president who denied its importance until he had no other choice and who still seems to have no clear idea what to do about it. Most of American life has ground to a halt, with both the economy and social ties have begun to fray under the pressure of enforced isolation.
And, just in case all of that wasn’t insane enough, the cultural text that everyone is talking about is a Netflix documentary about a mulleted man named Joe Exotic from Oklahoma who owned a private zoo and was sentenced to prison for taking out a hit on a woman who was doing her best to close down his operation. Seeing it written down just reinforces how absolutely bananas this story is, even while it also makes it clear why such a bizarre narrative is the perfect distillation of the truly unsettled and nightmarish times in which we live.
As of this writing, the Netflix documentary is the most popular show on television. Everyone seems to be talking about it, and the show has already generated a veritable army of memes (always a good barometer for how effectively a series has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist). While its enormous viewership can be in part attributed to the enforced isolation necessitated by the coronavirus, I would argue that there are also other forces at work that make it so appealing, and that is the fact that it is so profoundly about us. Uncomfortable as it may be for some to admit, Tiger King is an essentially American tale. In many ways, I would argue, it is the American tale, with all of the essential ingredients of the quintessential American tragedy: a rugged individualist out to assert his rights against a (feminized) establishment that seeks to bring him down. He exerts his will on those who surround him, his particular brand of charisma seemingly unstoppable. Ultimately, he is brought down by the very forces that he has sought so strongly to overcome and, caged at last like one of his own animals, he comes to realize the folly of his ways.
It doesn’t get much more American than that.
From the beginning, Joe emerges as a strange sort of American folk hero. Seeing his folksy, strange demeanor, one is reminded at once of such other oddball icons of popular culture as Jesso White (known as the dancing outlaw) of West Virginia, whose own story is a similarly bizarre mix of soap opera and rural tragedy. With his mullet, his twang, and his distinctive brand of charisma, Joe fairly leaps out of the screen and into our living room. Even though, from the outset, we know that things are going to go quite awry, we can’t help but feel ourselves drawn to him.
However, charming as Joe is, we know at once that there is a dark side to him, as there so often is to any American folk hero (one only think of the murderous escapades of Bonnie and Clyde to see this dynamic in operation). Indeed, as the documentary proceeds, Joe becomes increasingly irate at the efforts of one Carole Baskin to shut down his operation, a rage that he makes no attempt to hide. In fact, he makes a point of publicly declaring his animosity toward her, up to and including broadcasting him shooting her in effigy. It may not be classy — in fact it might be downright white trashy — but it makes for incredible television.
Again and again, Tiger King draws attention, implicitly, to the seedy parts of American society and culture that many of us would much rather pretend don’t exist or, at the very least, that we would like to pretend exist out there, somewhere in the darker corners of the American landscape. Yet the series isn’t content to let us get away with that sort of distancing and disavowal. Instead, he holds up a mirror to us, asking us to think about how and why we take pleasure in the spectacle of Joe and his compatriots.
Indeed, what struck me as I sat, absolutely riveted by what I was seeing on my television screen, this strange, heady mix of rural soap opera, crime drama, and documentary, was how the characters often seem so large and excessive that there’s no way that they could truly be real. With some rare exceptions, these are characters out of some sort of grand tragedy: they speak in grand, performative pronouncements; they seem to have little to no sense of self-awareness; they are obsessed with the realities that they try relentlessly to create, whatever the rest of the world might think.
While this is most clearly true of Joe Exotic, it also applies to the many other dramatis personae who strut and and fret their way upon the grand stage of this story. Take, for example, Joe’s bette noir Carole. Though at first glance a slightly batty woman who dresses almost exclusively in “cat patterns” (usually tiger or leopard) she soon becomes something else, a woman who might have murdered her husband and seems blissfully ignorant of the way that her “cat sanctuary” isn’t all that different from the types of places that she wants to see shut down. Then there are the other looming giants of the big cat world: Jeff, a man of dubious provenance who ultimately buys the zoo from Joe; “Doc” Antle, a larger-than-life man who runs a harem in addition to his own animal park; and Tim Stark, a rather uncouth man from Ohio whose bluff manner is both offensive and abrasive. These are characters out of a distinctly American tragedy, all of them set on a collision course.
While Tiger King is about the power of individuals, it is also about America itself, about the pathologies that writhe at its heart.
Take, for example, the very enterprise that is the start of it all: Joe’s wild animal park. There’s something both deeply abhorrent and strangely charming about the phenomenon of the roadside zoo, that bizarre American institution that is the “mom and pop” equivalent of the zoo. Looking at such places, one can almost forget the fact that the animals are all too frequently kept in conditions that are execrable by any reasonable standard and that there’s a good reason that organizations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums exists. As I was watching Tiger King and witnessing the atrocious overcrowding, I couldn’t help but think of how truly horrifying the stench must be.
And yet, as the documentary makes clear, these places are often part of an intricate network that is driven by profit more than compassion. Several graphics show us just how widespread these operations are, and we also learn that there are more tigers currently in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild. People pay exorbitant sums to visit these places and, given that so many of them exist in rural areas, it is perhaps not surprising that they are so popular. If you can’t make it to a big-city zoo that’s been properly accredited by the AAZA, why not do the next-best thing and visit a family-run zoo close to home?
Unsurprisingly, those who are involved in the exotic animal trade are deeply skeptical, if not outright hostile, to any form of government intervention in their affairs, as several interviewees make clear in no uncertain terms. To them, their parks are the ultimate expression of their American liberty. It’s their God-given right, they suggest, to own wild animals, no matter how detrimental their particular brand of captivity is for these creatures. In many ways, big cat ownership is nothing less than one big capitalist enterprise, built on blood. Any attempt to crack down on them or force them to adhere to government standards is, in their view, an impingement of liberty to be met by resistance and, if necessary violence (guns and explosions make disturbingly common appearances throughout the series). It’s also worth noting that, when Joe Exotic decides to make an entry into politics, he does so as a Libertarian.
It is also not surprising that big cat owners have a hostility toward both animal rights activists and scientists. In an early episode, the rough-around-the-edges Tim Stark proclaims his incredulity that animal rights activists would want to cease the breeding of big cats in captivity, since such breeding might work to increase the number of such animals in the world, his folksy charm seeming to cut through the tangled fabric of science with a sort of country commonsense. This, of course, misses the entire point that scientists and conservationists are making when they argue for the need to increase wildlife populations, but it is indicative of the type of anti-science mentality that, unfortunately, is all too common in American culture.
Tiger King’s distillation of the dark id of America gradually spreads its stain to almost every other aspect of American culture and life. I was struck as I was watching it by the casual misogyny that was directed in Carole’s direction, not just by Joe but by all of the other men who see her as a fundamental threat to their way of life. While there are some legitimate questions about Carole, her potential role in her husband’s disappearance/death, and whether in fact her own sanctuary is any more ethical than that run by the men that she campaigns against so relentlessly, that doesn’t mean that she deserves the sort of gendered opprobrium that is so frequently heaped upon on. And, of course, there is the fact that Doc Antle seems to have formed his own harem of women, whom he sets out to sculpt and mold into what he wants them to be, sidelining whatever their own desires might be.
Last of all we have Joe Exotic himself, a man who married more than one man at once (at least two of whom were, by their own admission, not gay) and who might have preyed upon them and indulged their drug addictions for their own purposes. It’s a haunting story, one that leaves you feeling empty and hollow, a queer romance turned into a macabre caricature of romance.
Despite its schlocky appeal and its invitation to us indulge in our classist voyeuristic impulses, Tiger King also forces us to confront the very ugly parts of American culture and, just as importantly, our complicity in them. After all, these roadside zoos wouldn’t be able to survive if everyday Americans didn’t continue to flock to them in numbers high enough to keep the lights on. Time and again, the series shows us exactly those people, many of whom are willing to pay a truly outrageous price to interact with animals, even though some of them must surely recognize the tremendous cost associated with this indulgence of their fantasy. What is so disturbing about these legions of paying customers, though, is how absolutely normal they are. They are just average Americans wanting some entertainment, and they don’t seem to recognize the moral implications of what they are doing.
More importantly, the series frequently highlights the very medium of its creation. Joe Exotic is a man who has an uncanny grasp of his own charisma, who knows that, as one television anchor puts it, he is great for television. Tiger King forces us to accept that we are all collectively responsible for the rise to stardom of men such as Joe Exotic and Doc Antle, that it is because we raise them into the ranks of stars that they are able to wield the power that we do. We enable their monstrosity, and we share in it.
Tiger King, then, is the story of all of us, of the parts of our lives and our psyches that we’d rather stay hidden. Instead, we see it brought to life, offered up for our delectation.
Can there be anything more American?