Tiger King and the Spectacle of the Redneck

Jen Joseph


Like I’m sure many of you, I spent last week binging the 8-part series called Tiger King. The series is about internet celebrity, tiger zoo owner, queer magician, and 2016 presidential candidate Joe Exotic. And that sentence barely scratches the surface of what this documentary has to offer.

There are so many things to say on this series, and I highly encourage anyone reading this to watch it. It’s one hell of a ride.

However, I wanted to bring up something that concerned me when I was seeing the way the characters (aka real life human beings) were being portrayed in the documentary. Something didn’t sit right with me about the presentation of these Oklahoma natives talking about their (admittedly outlandish) line of work.

Then it hit me. They were painting them as white trash. 

Now, the term “white trash” has its own issues (for more on this, read this NPR article), but for now I want to focus exclusively on what this means in terms of class differences in the United States. 

To put it simply, one of the big stereotypes we see about working class communities in states like Oklahoma or Kentucky is that they are poor, uneducated, filthy, or otherwise less “civilized” than middle class Americans. In a way, the people in these impoverished communities probably feel like they’re being treated like, for lack of a better word, animals.

One might hope that a documentary such as Tiger King might dispel some of these stereotypes, but instead it digs into them.

Joe’s ex-husband John Finley is portrayed in the series with no shirt and only a couple of his teeth left. We find out in episode 8, the recent follow-up interview episode hosted by Community’s Joe McHale, that Finley actually had a perfectly good set of false teeth that they TOLD him not to wear.

Similarly, Saff, a trans man who lost his arm to a tiger while working on Joe’s zoo,was portrayed as a lesbian woman and repeatedly misgendered by both Joe’s dialogue AND the documentary itself. While Saff himself doesn’t seem to mind this creative decision, I think it speaks a lot to the assumptions of the directors and the story they wanted to tell. Was it possible that Saff being a trans man didn’t fit into the vision the directors had for this type of character in the hillbilly land of Joe Exotic and company?

It’s scary that it’s easy to overlook these small decisions if you’re not paying attention. Documentaries tend to be taken at face value, but even more objective documentaries (which this one absolutely is not) still have a tendency to “code” people in particular character types using tone, music, clothing, or even shirtlessness. These bizarre characters are a whole lot easier to other when they’re in a different social and class strata to the typical Netflix watcher.

As a contrasting example, Doc Antle, whose crimes are probably worse than anyone else’s in the documentary, barely gets any screentime or attention paid to him. Why might that be? Again, this is all speculative, but I get the sense that Antle’s middle class origins and status made him seem a lot more boring from a director’s perspective, and they didn’t want to bother. It could be any number of factors, but I can’t help but notice that the ways the characters in the docuseries are treated by the camera has a whole lot to do with how “trashy” the directors can make them appear to be. 

In sum, I want to warn anyone who plans to watch Tiger King to be wary of the story being told. It’s easy to look down upon those with a different upbringing, but it’s important to remember that love and compassion should extend to every kind of person, not just the folks with all their teeth. Stories are fun when you’re along for the ride, but they get even more fun when you dig deeper and find a bone or two.