illustration by Ren Rader
As she gleefully danced to “Eye of the Tiger” below the spotlight on one of America’s most famed dance floors, Carole Baskin had all eyes on her. Baskin, an American big-cats rights activist and notable figure on Netflix’s Tiger King, recently raised some eyebrows after being selected as one of the contestants on Dancing with the Stars. Since the show’s premiere, a looming controversy has risen surrounding ABC’s choice to host Baskin as a contestant despite murder allegations against her. Her potential involvement in her husband’s death, alongside her low-rated performance on the show, have given audiences around the country many reasons to question her presence on the show.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, released March 20, is a Netflix documentary series centered on “Joe Exotic,” a famous collector of big, exotic cats at his zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. Being his main source of income, he often used the cats for shows, merchandise and other money-making ventures. The series focuses heavily on Exotic’s role in the deeply interconnected society of big-cat conservationists and collectors; more specifically, the show highlights Exotic’s antagonistic relationship with Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit sanctuary for exotic cats. Despite Baskin’s title as an animal activist, Exotic maintains throughout the series that she is simply another rival zoo owner looking to eliminate any competition. During the series, a storyline about the 1997 disappearance of Baskin’s former husband, Don Lewis, took place and named Baskin as the main suspect. The crime has yet to be solved, and to this day, Baskin has openly denied any involvement in his disappearance.
Many have expressed concern that Baskin’s appearance on the show is just an attempt to gain viewers by ABC. Baskin herself said, “I believe their actions are just a publicity stunt, but if it helps us find Don, then that will be a huge relief.” Many remain hopeful that the attention from the show will lead to more information and support towards solving the disappearance of her former husband. Baskin’s former in-laws have found this situation to be anything but amusing. To show their commitment to finding out what happened to Don, purchased ad time before the show’s premiere, asking for tips and information about his disappearance for a $100,000 reward. The commercial in question sent audiences into a spiral of reactions causing the topic to trend on Twitter the same night.
Why this is all a huge controversy is not an easy question to answer. The aspects of American misogyny and celebrity culture characterizing the attention that Baskin has received over the last couple of months are huge, however. Criticisms of the show have argued that despite the potential involvement of many parties in Lewis’s death, Netflix needed a villain for the show and Baskin was a quick target. Throughout the show, Joe Exotic partakes in harmful actions against her, including creating threats against her, posting highly sexualized jokes about her online and rallying his followers on a campaign of online harassment against her. Writers have argued that the show’s portrayal of Exotic‘s actions against Baskin are part of an “edgy, loony charm” rather than examples of strictly violent, gendered practices. According to Sophie Gilbert of the Atlantic, critiques of the show’s portrayal of her are simply there to highlight “where it indulges in its most egregious displays of false equivalence, as it tries to elevate her eccentricities to stand alongside those of Exotic…”.
Baskin herself has spoken out against the show’s mischaracterization of her persona. “There are not words for how disappointing it is to see that [Tiger King]… has had the sole goal of being as salacious and sensational as possible to draw viewers,” she said.
ABC’s perpetuation of this same violence against Baskin is more subtle. In order to please audiences around the nation, they’ve placed her on the show as a way to expose her to a nationwide audience that was previously given a strictly criminal image of her. It is yet to be seen how this affects public opinion of her. The network’s decision brings attention to a larger issue in entertainment of sensationalizing and profitting off of real crimes. While fundamentally, it may just not be a good practice to place murder suspects on live TV, it is still significant that ABC did so and is profiting off her allegations that have yet to be resolved. ABC’s perpetuation of this same violence against Baskin is more subtle. In order to please audiences around the nation, they’ve placed her on the show as a way to shine a light on her towards a nationwide audience that was previously given a strictly criminal image of her. While fundamentally, it may just not be a good practice to place murder suspects on live TV, it is still significant that ABC did so and is profiting off her allegations that have yet to be solved.