Photo credit: thesun.co.uk
Netflix documentary series Tiger King was as synonymous with lockdown number one as hand sanitizer. It seems that everyone watched it, but just in case you didn’t, here’s a brief description. Tiger King follows Joe Exotic (no, not his real name), former owner of Oklahoma zoo Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, which homed 176 tigers. The series covers Exotic’s descent into criminal activity and subsequent imprisonment for seventeen counts of animal abuse and his attempted murder of big-cat rights activist Carole Baskin by hiring a hitman.
The story was brought back into the zeitgeist by Louis Theroux’s new BBC documentary Shooting Joe Exotic, in which he revisits decade-old footage of himself interviewing Exotic and meeting Baskin in recent months amongst a host of other interviewees. As ever, Theroux adopts a thorough and unbiased approach and achieves an entertaining outcome, so it’s really a must-watch. Theroux directly references Tiger King throughout, but one comment stood out; he draws attention to the fact that Carole Baskin was given the ‘villain edit’. This article will argue that she most definitely was, and take a look at how Theroux contributed some well-needed perspective.
Throughout Tiger King, Exotic is proven to be not only a criminal, but an amoral character. He is shown to have bred tigers for profit before shooting healthy ones, and is shown in graphic online videos to threaten Baskin’s life, even shooting her mannequin likeness in the head. In addition to this, he gave his husbands drugs which ultimately led to the tragic death of Travis Maldonado in 2017, and probably set fire to his own office. He also consistently displays deeply narcissistic attitudes. For example, at one point he claims that the visitors come to see him and not the tigers. In a more sinister display of his self-centred ways, he reacts to the ripping off of an employee’s arm coldly, coining the popular meme phrase “I am never gonna financially recover from this”.
Meanwhile, Baskin runs her own sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue, and campaigns along with organisations such as PETA to expose and shut down Exotic’s zoo. Seemingly in retaliation to this, in addition to the death threats, Exotic leads a crusade against Baskin claiming that she murdered her missing ex-husband, Don Lewis. Evidence used against her is circumstantial at best, and there is absolutely no solid proof.
Despite all this, many viewers seemed to come away from Tiger King feeling somewhat fond of Joe Exotic, and hating Carole Baskin. This can be attributed to Netflix’ clear choice to apply ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ tropes to these real-life people in the edit. To make Baskin the ‘villain’, a significant amount of screen-time is dedicated to Don Lewis’ disappearance, with interviews backing Exotic’s murder allegations based on little more than funny feelings. Meanwhile, considerably more time is dedicated to developing Exotic as the cartoonish lovable rogue against the backdrop full of eccentric interviewees, complete with vulnerable moments. Therefore, despite far more actual evidence damning Exotic, many took to Twitter to express distain for Baskin.
In Shooting Joe Exotic, this ‘villain edit’ is addressed and corrected remarkably. Theroux spends considerably more time with Baskin herself, and questions the assumptions of those around her without pushing a particular narrative. Baskin is given a platform to show the endless death threats she has been sent since Tiger King, and to explain her side of Lewis’ disappearance having witnessed his struggle with severe bipolar disorder. Evidence mounts against Exotic in transcripts from his court case confirming his crimes, and video footage is uncovered of Exotic shooting a healthy horse for no reason.
Murder accusations toward Baskin are unintentionally unearthed as baseless by Francisco Hernandez, one of Joe Exotic’s lawyers. He sincerely states that “Carole [is] evil. Everybody believes with zero evidence that Carole Baskin killed her husband… just by the way she speaks; she wreaks deception”, before adding that “Joe just reeks naiveness”, even when faced with solid evidence against him.
In light of Shooting Joe Exotic, we must think again about Carole Baskin, and why so many were so quick to turn against an animal rights activist based on the convictions of a proven animal abuser. I don’t know her personally, so I can’t tell you that she definitely didn’t kill her ex-husband. However, I also have absolutely no solid reason to tell you that she did and seemingly, neither does anyone else. Shown here is how whilst portraying true events, we must remain vigilantly aware that documentaries can, and often do mislead audiences by applying fictional tropes to real people such as the ‘hero’ and the ‘villain’. Carole Baskin is a real person who has been met with endless online hate and death threats, showing that irresponsible representations such as that of Tiger King have harmful, real life consequences and need to be considered beyond face-value.