Honk if Carole Baskin Killed Her Husband
I’m sure you’ve seen the memes, even if you haven’t yet seen Netflix’s addictive, moving, and insane docuseries Tiger King. Stuck in quarantine, the Twitterverse isn’t even waiting for Halloween to dress up like the flamboyant, gay, private zoo owner and former presidential candidate Joe Exotic, polygamist, ponytailed cult leader Doc Antle, and leather-clad, Las Vegas conman Jeff Lowe.
But while these flawed, felonious figures ultimately come off as tragic or amusing, there’s been a more hateful response to Carole Baskin, the self-righteous owner of Big Cat Rescue, who devotes her days to caring for big cats and wistfully chuckling at the thought that she murdered her ex-husband, pushed him through a meat grinder, and fed him to the tigers.
I wouldn’t fault you for thinking any of these things. I came away from the docuseries feeling the same way about these people. It certainly seems that Carole Baskin had a hand in her husband’s disappearance. The police reports, that altered power of attorney, the way she laughs…How could she not be guilty? That sentiment is perhaps best encapsulated in this viral TikTok video parody, featuring the lyrics: “Carole Baskin killed her husband, wacked him. Can’t convince me that it didn’t happen. Fed him to tigers, they snacking. What’s happening.” That video spawned others. And when Charlie D’Amelio, the 15-year-old TikTok star with 50 million followers posted her version, the trend exploded, and now a quick search turns up plenty of videos of young children dancing to these lyrics that express the utter conviction that Carole Baskin killed her husband.
In the midst of this, I keep reminding myself: What do I know of Carole Baskin—or any of these people—aside from what I’ve seen in this documentary? The answer: nothing. And is this documentary an objective and comprehensive overview of the facts? Or is it a sensational story whose north star for every important storytelling decision is entertainment, not truth?
In an interview with The Wrap, Carole Baskin claimed that the directors, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, approached her wanting to “make the big cat version of ‘Blackfish,’ the acclaimed documentary that exposed the horrible abuse taking place at SeaWorld.” If true, no wonder she took part. But that’s certainly not the docuseries that Goode and Chaiklin made. A project filmed over five years has to evolve over time, and it’s hard to fault them for following the most compelling story. But were they honest with their participants?
In an interview with the LA Times, Chaiklin said, “I would just say we were completely forthright with the characters.” This may sound like splitting hairs, but Joe Exotic, Doc Antle and Carole Baskin are people, not merely characters in a story. I say this as someone who knows what it’s like to be reduced to a character in a morality play.
I commend the filmmakers for how they were able to show the complex humanity behind the self-styled cartoonish personality of Joe Exotic. That takes empathy, and skillful storytelling. But they didn’t extend that treatment to Carole Baskin. As Willa Paskin writes for Slate, “in a series that is bursting with felons, cult leaders, polygamists, wife abusers, animal abusers, and cruel egomaniacs, it’s Baskin alone who is treated without sympathy.”
I have to agree. Though I would point out that early on, the filmmakers go out of their way to make Doc Antle look foolish. They include footage of Antle suggesting they meet him at his front door in a faux introduction, and they openly mock him for his directorial intrusion. It’s an almost gleeful wink that they are judging these people, not exploring their flawed humanity.
There’s a little known fact about the Netflix doc Amanda Knox, directed by Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst. Every person interviewed for the film—myself, my codefendant Raffaele Sollecito, tabloid journalist Nick Pisa, my prosecutor Giuliano Mignini—everyone was given the chance to see an advance cut of the film, and everyone approved of how they were represented. If you came away from that film disgusted by Nick Pisa (whom my own family used to call “Nick Pisashit”) or Mignini, it’s not because the filmmakers went out of their way to frame these people in a negative light—it’s because those people weren’t self-aware enough to realize how they would come off to an audience.
I can’t imagine that most of the “characters” in Tiger King would have felt validated by how they were portrayed, especially not Baskin, who is positioned as the villain among villains. That’s a shame, and it shows our collective obsession of the moment for what it is: a massively popular doc-series has put a group of human beings into the crosshairs of intense public scrutiny and judgment, and it’s done so without giving them the full benefit of the doubt, innocent until proven guilty. It goads us all into attacking the strawman version of Carole Baskin. I find that not only unsatisfying, but unfair.
I don’t know if Carole Baskin killed her husband. I do know that one documentary, from one directorial point of view, is insufficient evidence for me to write off another human being (not a character) as a killer. By all means, let’s investigate further. Let’s let Carole Baskin have her day in court, if the evidence warrants a trial. But let’s be careful with the impulse to think that we know all the facts and are qualified to pass down judgment because we sat in our pajamas, day-drinking and tweeting during quarantine, while we binged a docuseries on Netflix.
In the meantime, for you dancers out there, I wrote you some new lyrics (which I have posted as a TikTok lyric video here). I’d love to see your moves.
Carole Baskin maybe killed her husband
I don’t know, I’m withholding judgment
Objective that doc series wasn’t
So let’s just have a discussion.