"Tiger King" and the schadenfreude of seeing privileged insanity run wild

For people of color the Netflix series is a frolic through the extremity of "white people s**t." They're not wrong

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 4, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Netflix)
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Netflix)

The precise moment it hit me, I'll admit, is unclear. Was it when "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness" producers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin treated us to our first glimpse of Joe Exotic's magnificently awful hairstyle – a poor taste trifecta realized in a mullet with bangs, highlighted by a sizzled-to-a-crisp bleach job?

Was it the introduction of Myrtle Beach Safari owner Mahamayavi Bhagavan "Doc" Antle, so named at birth by a mother who is not of East Indian heritage – neither is his father – but who "nurtured an interest in Eastern philosophy"?

Or was it when Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin showed up, her head wreathed in flowers, with obsessive husband No. 3 nipping so closely at her heels that she voices her annoyance with him?

Whatever moment it was, it moved me to turn to my husband who was sitting on the couch beside me and blurt out, "This is some straight-up white people s**t." And he, a white guy, responded with, "Why yes . . . yes, it is."

All seven episodes of "Tiger King" debuted on March 20, and in the days since Netflix unleashed it upon the world, it has exploded into a full-blown cultural obsession for a nation of binge-watchers on lockdown.

In week two of its reign, "Tiger King" remains at the top of Netflix's most-streamed titles in the United States. Right on cue, the cultural backlash also is in full swing, the likes of which can only bring more viewers into its sideshow tent to enjoy a deep gander at its Herculean ("The Legendary Journeys" edition) levels of "white people s**t."

A moment, if you will, to address those who may be offended by that descriptor. You have every right to be. But the truth is, "white people s**t" is as real and palpable as America's backyard tiger problem. And you know this. Comedians of all stripes build routines if not entire careers (hello, Jeff Foxworthy) around the concept, acknowledging its singular existence and starring role in American life.

Neither is this a shock to any white person who enjoys a strong friendship, romantic bond or close, trusting relationship with a person of color. Those folks get "white people s**t" pointed out to them all the time, especially when their white friends or partners engage in it. Often we don't use the terms as an insult so much as a reminder that, for example, not everybody in America is a fan of "Duck Dynasty."

To further clarify, the term differs from the late-Aughts "Stuff White People Like" meme born of a blog of the same name. Said site and the resultant book defines the array of Americana that left-leaning, middle-class young liberals tend to identify with, such as an enjoyment of standing still at concerts, lawyers, Bob Marley, and "The Wire."

In contrast, "white people s**t" refers to something more telling than culinary or entertainment preferences. Most commonly it describes performative display of any manner of activity, social practice or trend that white people view as acceptable or normal that people of color know they themselves cannot do, should not do, don't want to do, or might get arrested for doing.  Think public streaking, backyard wrestling, or health advice endorsed by Gwyneth Paltrow.

With regard to "Tiger King," the phrase describes a rare next-level type of lunacy born of white privilege; it is the kind of crazy that operates with little to no systemic consequence until, say, the guy perpetuating the bulk of it gets caught up in a murder for hire plot. That "s**t," as it were, is insane and vicious and allows us to draw satisfaction from watching people who tend evade karmic retribution finally receiving their just desserts. We love that "s**t."

Want proof? Head over to Twitter and type "Tiger King White People S**t" into the search field. Wait for it, and then delight in the commentary that unrolls.

You're welcome. Or: Sorry about it.

Joe Exotic himself, aka Joseph Maldonado-Passage, born as Joseph Schreibvogel, is a gay, gun-toting and trigger-happy, country music lip-syncing exotic animal enthusiast (read big cat collector), erstwhile candidate for governor and president, and the star of the show. He is currently serving 22 years in prison stemming from a murder-for-hire plot targeting Baskin and for more than a dozen wildlife violations, including killing five tigers. He loudly expresses his desire to kill his Tampa-based rival to anyone within earshot throughout the series.

Exotic is a terrible human for oh so many reasons aside from his harassment of Baskin. The series implies that he may have burned down his own large reptile enclosure, killing the creatures inside, to destroy unflattering footage of a reality series being produced about him. During his lover's funeral, and in front of the young man's parents, he voices his admiration for his dearly departed's testicles. And the most memorable of his music videos may be "Here Kitty Kitty," featuring a dead-ringer Baskin lookalike depicted as feeding chopped-up pieces of her dead husband to a tiger.

To be clear: No private citizen in America should be allowed to keep a large jungle predator as a pet. And yet, somewhere between 5,000-10,000 tigers are currently living in captivity in this country, according to information shown in the documentary, while fewer than 4,000 remain in the wild.

And while no cultural group can claim sole ownership over flamboyant derangement, it doesn't take much mental energy to realize that 99.9% of Black, Brown, Asian or Native Americans, including extremely wealthy people, would not get away with half of what Exotic got a pass for doing, starting with building and operating a private zoo that profits off of cub-petting.

Take in all of that. And now, name one community or municipal law enforcement agency that would let a person of color who isn't Michael Jackson or a compound-dwelling international drug kingpin get away with the doolally business afoot around an open-to-the public menagerie, regardless of how many licenses he or she procured.

Heck, the rapper Tyga was forced to surrender the 7-month old Bengal tiger – one! Bengal! Tiger!  – that he was sharing a life with back in 2014 thanks to an anonymous tip that brought California's Department of Fish and Wildlife to his home. (He surrendered the illegal pet prior the authorities' arrival, but emerged in the headlines two years later when the sanctuary caring for the now-adult big cat spilled that Tyga had contributed nothing to his pet's upkeep.)

What about a local Wal-Mart willing to supply that zoo with meat past its sell-by date to care for those animals? Or a local government animal control agency that would work with said zoo owner to provide him or her with procured roadkill? What if it came out somehow that said owner fed the same expired Wal-Mart fixings to his guests at the park's "Pizzaria" [sic]?

How about a community that would turn a blind eye to that owner accepting horses donated to his sanctuary, shooting them in the head and using their bodies to feed his caged predators? To say nothing of the polygamy, meth use, broadcasted death threats, stockpiling and recreational usage of deadly firearms and explosives, and on top of that, reckless campaigns for governor and president? Where would any of this be allowed to come to pass on such a broad scale if Joe Exotic were not a white man?

Not in a big city or a suburb, and certainly not in Oklahoma where Exotic's G.W. Zoo has operated since 1999. People of color and can and do visit them as Shaquille O'Neal is shown doing, much to his current regret, in the series.

A few of POCs might even hold onto a tiger (though, to be clear, no private citizen should be doing this) with some success, as was the case with former cab driver Antoine Yates and Ming. Yates raised the Bengal tiger from a cub that he kept for three years in his Harlem apartment, where Ming's presence "remained an open secret among neighbors who could not ignore the occasional roar or whimpering, or the scent of urine," according to a New York Times story about the cat.

Next sentence: "Ming was never detected by housing authority officials." Translation: none of Yates' neighbors ratted him out.

Indeed, the tiger might have remained undetected had Ming not done the inevitable in 2003 and injured Yates when he unwisely brought a domestic cat into the situation (ergo, "stupid s**t"). An emergency room visit resulted in police officers being sent to the apartment and Ming, along with Yates' other inappropriate-for-New York City-apartment-dwelling pet Al the Alligator, being sent to sanctuaries.

These edge cases aside, though, non-white people generally avoid this stupidity. As such, a number of us may also revel in the near-total absence of representation in "Tiger King." "Even though it is a series documenting reality," remarks an article posted on, "it still could mark the first time in modern history when a lack of racial diversity on a TV show was actually readily welcomed by Black people."

Meanwhile on Vice, Ashwin Rodrigues dives into the tiresome offensiveness of Antle's cultural appropriation of Indian heritage at the heart of his shtick. "Antle is a perfect example of how Indian culture is misappropriated and distorted, furthering the cycle of exoticizing India and promoting troubling archetypes," Rodrigues writes and seals the takedown with this chef's kiss: " I'd just like to remind you that this man may be a predator, and an animal abuser, and have a similar vocal delivery to Kevin Malone from 'The Office'. But one thing he is not, for sure, is Indian."

Aside from the sheer entertainment value offered in these online town squares, this reaction is but one glimpse of many different interpretations of "Tiger King."  Much of the conversation thickening around the show is informed by its sheer depressing spectacle and its circus-like presentation. Few entertainment train wrecks could be better suited to distract and amaze a captive audience, desperate to think about anything else but the plague that's emptied their streets.

The attraction is spelled out in the title and the title card: Here is Exotic, in all his animal print-sporting bizarreness, leaning against one of his fuzzy and fanged wards. "Murder, Mayhem and Madness"? Most shows offer one, maybe two of these things. This one promises three – and the story is entirely true.

And in fairness, much of the true crime documentary genre is devoted to "white people s**t" run amok. Robert Durst, the central figure in "The Jinx," is only now standing trial for a murder he is suspected of committing in 2000; two other people in his life disappeared or died under suspicious circumstances, and one of them he admitted to dismembering but not killing. He was still acquitted in that case. The wackiness of "Abducted in Plain Sight," the sheer brazen grifting at the core of "McMillions," and most of the cases profiled on "Dateline" all qualify.

The overnight sensationalism surrounding "Tiger King" also has brought renewed attention to past coverage of Exotic and his animal park, since rebranded by its new owner Jeff Lowe, a middle-aged fan of baseball caps worn over bandannas, Tapout t-shirts and busty vixens,  as the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. Reporter and podcaster Robert Moor's profile has risen along with the series' popularity. Moor wrote about the convicted felon for New York Magazine in 2019,  and his podcast about his subject is being adapted into a limited series executive produced by Kate McKinnon, from the same studio that gave us USA's miniseries adaptation of "Dirty John."

As subjects go, the filmmakers hit the jackpot. Sharp-eyed fans have spotted Antle in the background of Britney Spears's 2001 MTV Video Music Awards performance of "I'm A Slave 4 U"  – you know, the one where she wore a huge snake as a boa. In "Tiger King" he comes off as an preening master and lord over all he surveys, including his worshipful son and sexy assistants who may or may not be treated like his harem.

Above and beyond all that, however, it's a pile-up of "white people s**t" crimes and misdemeanors, from Antle's congenital case of "India Syndrome" to Exotic's ability to purvey his escalating mania into a run for government office, to the odd devotion of Baskin's faithful, including a singer-songwriter who creates an eye-popping disaster of a music video dedicated to the sanctuary.

And of course, there's the sheer grossness of Exotic himself, an exploitative profiteer who comes more unhinged with each passing episode. People of color see milder versions of Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and their ilk roaming free and wild in the world on a regular basis. Their transgressions are rarely penalized or even remarked upon. They're just, you know, eccentric. We can only shake our heads and hope our paths don't cross.

From a critic's perspective, the troubling narrative is an uneven mess that glosses over the issues of animal neglect and abuse, very real issues anyone with decent eyesight observes behind the madness, to focus on the glaringly outsized personalities at the fore. The way Exotic, Antle, and Baskin are separately presented leaves the impression that there isn't very much of a moral difference between the three. And that may very well be the case. Baskin and Antle have both been quite vocal in expressing the dismay with which they are portrayed. But that's kind of the deal with "white people s**t," as anyone versed in the category will tell you. Generally, it doesn't yield good results.

On the other hand, I can't wait to see McKinnon play her in the TV version. That promises to be some good s**t.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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