After literal weeks of Tiger King memes, jokes and celebrity commentary, I finally watched the first few episodes of Netflix’s new “docu-tainment” mini-series this week and… I have serious concerns about the internet’s critical thinking skills.
The show is ostensibly a seven-part deep dive into the world of exotic cat collecting, but really, it’s about Joe Exotic, the former owner of an Oklahoma roadside zoo whose business practices were shady, exploitative and unfair to the people who worked for him and the animals he professed to love. Despite all that, he’s also kind of… likeable? Or at least, compelling.
Of all the things that happen in Tiger King—and truly, so many things have happened, and I am only three episodes in—Exotic’s claim that Carole Baskin, the owner of a Tampa big cat sanctuary and his professional rival, killed her former husband (and potentially fed him to her tigers) got the most traction online.
I’m not saying there’s no way Baskin could have killed Don Lewis, who disappeared in 1997 and was legally declared dead in 2002. Baskin did have easy access to tigers, to which a missing husband could hypothetically be fed. And episode three also included compelling interviews with Lewis’ ex-wife, daughters and various employees, who all believe Carole is guilty.
But here’s the thing: there’s no evidence that Lewis was even the victim of foul play. Florida sheriff Chad Chronister told the New York Times this week that his department “still [has] it labeled a missing persons case. We don’t have any type of evidence, not one piece, that suggests that he was killed.” And though he has put a new call out for information in connection to the disappearance, in another interview, he poked holes in two of the internet’s most popular theories about Lewis’ whereabouts, revealing that Big Cat Rescue’s meat grinder was removed from the property weeks before Lewis’ disappearance, and its septic tank wasn’t installed until years after.
Baskin doesn’t actually seem like a great person—at the very least, she exploits the dozens of volunteers who come to her organization because they want to help animals. But that doesn’t make these claims credible.
Let’s look at who’s making these accusations, for one thing. Lewis’ ex-wife and daughters have a reason to dislike Baskin: he left them to marry her. And Exotic hates Baskin with a passion that is, frankly, disturbing. I mean, he’s currently in jail for trying to put a hit on her. (Twice!) The other people who made these assertions against her aren’t exactly upstanding citizens, either. I mean… Doc Antle, who literally keeps a harem of women? And Mario Tabraue, who may have been involved in the gruesome murder and dismemberment of a U.S. public servant named Larry Nash? Baskin’s awkward personality probably doesn’t help her case, but these accusations are hardly coming from unbiased sources. So why did the internet have so much fun with the idea that she could be a murderer?
I think a couple of things are going on here. First, we’re being taken in by skillful—but biased—editing. Reality TV fans are probably familiar with the “villain edit,” where a show’s producers carefully construct a narrative in which one character is clearly the worst—even if they weren’t actually that bad IRL. By this point in the reality TV game, viewers can usually see through these attempts. (There was a failed villain edit on a recent-ish episode of The Bachelor, for example.) But when it came to Tiger King, it’s like all that critical thinking went straight out the window. Somehow, the least problematic person on the show is the one we’ve all decided is the worst. (A dynamic that should feel kind of familiar, tbh.) And that’s because, as Slate writer Willa Paskin argued earlier this week, the idea that Baskin is no different than Joe Exotic “isn’t just Exotic’s claim; it’s the show’s… [director Eric Goode believes] Baskin is no better than anyone else who keeps big cats. [The show] encourages viewers to think of Baskin’s work as ethically bogus, and to see her as another dirty big cat abuser. When it’s not doing that, it’s presenting her as the creepy lady who probably killed her husband and then financially hounded Joe Exotic until he hired someone to kill her.”
The second thing that’s going on is we’re accepting the show’s deeply misogynist framing at face value. As Kathleen N. Walsh, a writer for the Independent, pointed out, “the series provides example after example of Exotic’s violence, cruelty, and narcissism… [It] 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 bitch,’ is a common refrain. [And] the show makes clear that Joe Exotic’s targeting of Baskin was ongoing, obsessive, and explicitly gendered.”
And after the show became available on Netflix and we all binged it while physical distancing, many of us followed Exotic’s lead. “That bitch Carole Baskin,” Exotic’s favourite phrase, became a meme, apparel and a lot of people’s Twitter name. Viewers started GoFundMe accounts to fund investigations into Baskin, a legal team to “take her down” or for her current husband. Others—including Cardi B, who was saying so many smart things last week, sigh—have pledged to get Exotic out of jail, even though the entire series could easily be evidence against him.
The funny thing is, this is not the first time Exotic Joe’s story has been told—he, and his feud with Baskin, have been featured in New York mag, Vice, Mel and more. All the information the doc left out was right there all along!
I’m as obsessed with the show as everyone else, and frankly, I need the distraction, so it’s not like I’m going to stop watching. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to believe the predatory, gun-toting, racist megalomaniac for no reason other than the fact that he’s entertaining. I mean really.
And Did You Hear About…
This funny Backstreet Boys-related story.
Arielle Charnas, the influencer who left New York City to go to the Hamptons–after testing positive for COVID-19. (Celebrities are hunkering down outside of cities, too—and it’s putting serious stress on smaller healthcare systems.)
Merriam-Webster’s Twitter thread of “beautiful, obscure, and often quite useless words.”
The NYT piece that argues the coronavirus is showing us the cracks in celebrity culture.
All of the Instagram Live hip hop battles that have gone down recently. May I suggest a Friday night rewatch/dance party?
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