When I was a child, I went to a mall and had my picture taken with a tiger cub. I don’t remember much about it, but the sad, cheap, exploitative feel of the encounter has stayed with me. A little more than 20 years later, I married an abusive, drug-addicted, transient man. At first glance, these two life events may seem to have no connection, but they’re both symptoms of a Southern patriarchy that breeds exploitation, objectification, violence, and life outside the law, where even the most heinous crimes become normalized.
Welcome to life in the rural South — and now your Netflix queue.
At first, I avoided Netflix’s popular, new docu-series, Tiger King. At first glance, it seemed like another Duck Dynasty, a garish and insufferable celebration of this kind of toxicity. But as I began to watch, I realized the show’s actually exposing the destructive nature of these types of characters… the likes of which I’m all too familiar with unfortunately.
First, let me say, as a life-long Nashvillian, there are a million fantastic things about the South. The landscape is beautiful, the food is good, and we really do say hello to strangers we pass on the street. I’m currently watching my beloved city rally around its most vulnerable as we deal not only with the Coronavirus, but a series of devastating tornadoes that ripped through our communities, a mere 10 years after recovering from catastrophic flooding. We are strong, and we will rebuild.
While Nashville is a blue metropolis quickly turning hipster, drive 30 minutes out of town, and you’re in the country. Now, please know this piece isn’t meant to insult Southerners; no, my intent is to shine a light on the Southern toxicity that fuels the kind of chaos that has since lead Netflix’s Tiger King to turn heads across the nation. Make no mistake, that culture is real — even in the urban South — and it’s incredibly destructive. And although I’m out of that culture now, I know it well. I grew up next to it. I married into it.
It’s a cult of Southern masculinity, and it rears its ugly head in full display in Tiger King, only in reality, the lion’s den is nothing more than a snake pit.
The Patriarchy is the practice of modeling society after the nuclear family structure with the father at the head. Our society sees this on a grand scale with its leadership, but in the South, it’s particularly prized. In the Bible Belt, male achievement is having a family and providing for it well. For women, it’s landing that man who will provide for you and giving him children. You can have a career, but it probably shouldn’t interfere with your husband’s. This is why MLMs like Mary K and 31 thrive in the South.
But because life is more complex, many Southerners do a complicated dance to maintain this facade. Propping up the ego of the man in your house is prioritized, and so much of my life has revolved around reminding various men that they know best. It’s why nothing was ever good enough when I did it, but my brother got away with failing over and over again. It’s what kept my dad from attending my mom’s master’s graduation ceremony (he didn’t finish undergrad).
Male egos run wild on Tiger King, with Joe Exotic, Doc Antle, and Jeff Lowe constantly using other animals and people to feed that sense of empowerment and entitlement that the Southern patriarchy has told them they deserve.
Lack of Acceptance
In early episodes, Joe is seen as sympathetic. He was rejected by his family because of his sexual orientation, cast out and excluded from the possibility of attaining the nuclear family goal. But because he’s been denied access to the system he’s grown up prizing, he must create this society for himself. And because of the internalized shame this rejection has caused him, he has also internalized his pain.
These two factors combine in a toxic, new community that breeds more victims. The force of his personality (aided by drugs) gives him the ability to convince two teenagers that they are gay and to marry him. In trying to attain the ego boost lost to him when he was rejected, he must dominate others. He needs constant approval, and the ability to have two young, hot men marry him gives him that validation.
When Joe laments about his two apes that sat in cages next to each other for 10 years, only to embrace upon finally being set free, he might as well be talking about himself. If he had been accepted by his own family, he would likely have believed he was deserving of love and not felt the need to fill his ego with external sources. Just like he deprived his animals of being themselves, his culture deprived him of seeking love in a healthy way.
I’ve also felt this lack of acceptance. I grew up knowing that I needed to find a man to marry me, and that my success (or failure) — not to mention, the caliber of man I could land — would ultimately define me as a woman. But we are so much more. Maybe if I felt unconditional love, I wouldn’t have married someone like Joe. Someone who stole from me. Someone who hit me. Someone who caused me to distance myself from my friends. Perhaps if I didn’t feel the constant need to prove my worth, I would’ve felt free to be who I am.
That internalized shame is incredibly toxic. It leads to defying everything in a Fuck It All way. And no, we shouldn’t care what other people think of us, but this often leads to wearing this open defiance proudly in the form of multiple piercings, tattoos, clothing with expletives, and gun holsters. All of these are external signs that show strangers, “I don’t give a fuck what you think. I’m going to do whatever I want, even if it pisses you off. Especially if it pisses you off.” It’s displaced anger from the society that rejected them long ago.
Over and over again, I see my neighbors and family reject factual information that challenges their ego. Toxic Southern “gentlemen” will reject anyone who seems to know more than them or tries to tell them they’re wrong, especially if the one doing so is a woman. If embracing the most outlandish conspiracy theory will keep them from having to admit that they were wrong, they will dive in head first. (It’s what keeps so many rural voters tied to Trump.) Viewed compassionately, this may seem like accepting yourself for who you are — and that’s what they tell themselves. It starts with embracing the rural, “She thinks my tractor’s sexy,” and ends with “the government can pry my assault rifle out of my cold dead hands.”
There’s a learned victim mentality down here. Southern men know how they are viewed from the outside, so they embrace the things that present their definition of masculinity. They assume they’re going to be challenged, so they come out of the gate defiant and combative. I went to a neighborhood picnic where a man had a pitbull on a leash, a gun on his hip, and at least three Confederate flags on his clothing. I asked myself, “What kind of life must he be living that he’s afraid someone is going to shoot him at a church picnic?” The answer is, “A life where he’s internalized that he’s in the wrong. That everyone is out to get him. That not being the best equals being nothing. That the gun on his hip gives him the ego boost he couldn’t find within himself.”
Drama and Harassment
Because the defiant is seen as righteous, people in this system constantly seek out drama. The codependency is strong as is the tendency to create enemies. We see this with Joe’s continued harassment of Carole Baskin. Yes, she is a professional rival, but his response to her is way out of proportion, and would likely be different if she were a man.
My former mother-in-law constantly complained about the dramatic people around her while stirring most of the pots herself. Because she fundamentally saw herself as unlovable, she sought out and forced that love, or at least the illusion of it –from others.
This often manifested in the form of self-pity. Everything was an emergency and I lost count of how many times she told us she was dying. Once we cut off contact, she convinced her boyfriend to send us threatening messages if we didn’t maintain contact with her. In trying to force us to love her, she pushed us away.
Pro Tip: If someone says they hate drama, stay away.
Guns and Violence
We see so many guns in Tiger King that they stop being noteworthy. Almost every man is shown with one on his hip. We see “target practice” that consists of firing into a lake and at mannequins. Joe fires in the direction of his employees “as a joke.” And Joe’s husband Travis accidentally shoots himself in the head. These guns are another outward manifestation of this toxic masculinity, meant to intimidate those who would challenge. No wonder they’re attracted to tigers. The guns are their fangs, and the camouflage (ugh) their stripes.
When I was in elementary school, I slept over at a friend’s house. While playing in her teenaged brother’s room, we came across a baseball bat outfitted with duct tape and nails and a handgun. He claimed to need them as the sole male in a house with his three sisters and single mom. This perceived threat is another manifestation of the defiance so common in Southern patriarchy. Because everything is viewed as a zero-sum game, someone is always out to get them and they must be ready.
Living Outside the Law
Because this amount of toxicity has no place in regular society, pocket communities emerge that exist almost totally outside the law. As we learn, Joe picks up misfits from the bus station who have nowhere else to go. He knows they will be subservient to him because they have no other options. They, too, have been cast out of society.
My first husband would’ve fit right in — and again, while this may sound good on the surface, it leads to rampant drug use, violence, and illegal activity. No one calls the police because no one can, and the result is a different kind of mob.
Charismatic kingpins like Joe and Jeff rule over these outcasts by providing the protection and acceptance that society will not. But it quickly escalates, it always does, and as we see in Tiger King, this eventually devolves into a murder-for-hire plot.
What starts out as frustrated comments about his nemesis — the aforementioned Carole — turns into a daily conversation about her death, to fantasizing about the best way to murder her, to actually paying a hitman to carry it out.
Shake your head all you want, but when everyone is deep in the culture, and no one is stepping outside of it for perspective, this kind of crime doesn’t seem like so much of a stretch.
Felines and Felines
Men like Joe, Jeff, and Doc Antle are drawn to these big cats because they provide a way to dominate the exotic. Characters constantly talk about the feeling of power the proximity to these animals provides, an alternative boost to their fragile egos. But the cats are not the only creatures they seek to domesticate. Doc Antle’s compound is filled with women who are attracted to the exotic animals, but end up members of his polygamist cult — if not his wives. They are worked to exhaustion, pressured to get implants, and promised status if they sleep with him.
These are extreme examples, but it’s not uncommon for Southern women to joke about being trophy wives. I know many women who went to college solely to get their MRS. degrees, and one who told her boyfriend she expected her ring by graduation. They’ve been taught to define their worth by the kind of wife they will be, and if you can’t find a husband to make you a wife, it’s easy to feel like nothing. It’s one of the main reasons I stayed in an abusive relationship. I grew up thinking that my worth was tied to my relationship. After it became clear that I had picked a loser, I shifted my goal to making him acceptable. I would ignore my pain by daydreaming about the kind of praise I would get for having “fixed” him.
So they stay. They’re kept in beautiful cages — the houses they’re unable to leave — filled with statuettes on indoor columns, fake plants, and sponge-paint wallpaper with top runners. They believe their purpose is to be a “good” wife. And there’s nothing wrong with this, the problem comes when that’s all you want to be, and when the person you want to be a good wife for only wants you because of how it makes him look. Doc Antle domesticates the cats just like he domesticates the women who care for them. Yes, this is a cult, but they have bought into the idea that the dominant man knows best, and their place is where he tells them to go.
What’s more, the women and the cats are both valued for their appearance and their ability to breed. While announcing their pregnancy, Jeff horrifyingly mentions that he will soon get her back in the gym. He then goes on to show us pictures of the hot nannies he’s going to hire to help with the baby. This is mirrored in one of the most disturbing scenes of the series, when Joe records a tiger giving birth, then proceeds to drag her minutes-old cub out of her den with a stick. We cut to the newborn cubs in a playpen, all while Joe complains that they cried throughout night. The magnitude of these births mean nothing to men like Joe. They’re merely another way to stroke the ego.
The exception to this objectification is Carole Baskin. She’s presented as a strong and capable woman by the documentary, but the men she challenges see her as a bitch. The victim of a violent rape at a young age, she left home when her “traditional” family told her she must have been asking for it. And in an unfortunately common pattern, moved on to another abusive relationship. She tells us she stayed in it because she was afraid to have a baby on her own. And as a woman who married a terrible man because she was pregnant, that fear is real.
The shame of having a baby out of wedlock is ever-present and can lead you to justify the most destructive actions. Carole is a victim who was denied effective recovery from her trauma and is trying to reclaim power. Her wedding photo, holding a leash with her new husband kneeling in a tiger costume, speaks volumes. She’s attempting to reclaim the power she lost by subjugating others — and this includes her tigers. While she may provide a more natural habitat for these big cats (because as a woman who grew up in cages dressed as relationships, she knows the importance of keeping them well-decorated), she still keeps them enclosed. She still sells tickets. She may be the lesser of two evils, but she’s doing the same thing her colleagues are — only cloaked in self-righteousness.
I briefly dated someone (Guy A) who was then-currently married to the mother (Girl A) of his 10-month old baby. They were separated because she had gone back to her original boyfriend (Guy B) on whom she had cheated on with Guy A when she got pregnant. She also had a child with Guy B. The bonds of family overlap. But because divorce is expensive, they were still married. Point is, disposable relationships and common law marriages are rampant in transient cultures, and because so many of these relationships are based on either mutual substance abuse or sexual conquests to feed the ego, they are often short-lived.
Don Lewis, Carole’s now missing husband, is described as a “sexaholic”, and a serial cheater. It’s notable that Don’s first wife and daughters blame Carole for the destruction of their family, rather than Don. As head of the household, they view him compassionately while she is the evil seductress who stole their daddy away. The look of contempt on their faces as they discuss how they only inherited 10% of his estate tells me this would be one epic cat-fight if they ever got in a room together.
The cats are ultimately disposable too. Viewers not binging might forget that big cat ownership was the hook for the story in the first place, because several episodes focus on the human drama. But we learn that Joe shot five tigers that we know about “in an attempt to euthanize them” And in order to get money to pay for Carole’s murder, he mentions selling some of the cubs. He may also have burned his studio causing the death of several alligators, something he later exploits to try to raise more money. We are led to believe that Doc Antle is gassing his cubs when they are no longer profitable. This expendability reveals their true feelings for the creatures they claim to care about and shows that they only truly care about themselves.
The vast majority of Southerners live outside of this system. We go to work everyday. We raise our children to value knowledge, we accept them for who they are, and lot of us choose this life because we’ve grown up in this toxic patriarchy and don’t want to perpetuate it. We’re scarred and we don’t want to go back.
Eventually, Zookeeper Saff finally brings the focus back to the cats by reminding us that, while there are no winners, there are the true losers. These cats exist to stoke the egos of the men who domesticate them. But if Joe, Doc, and Jeff actually cared for these animals, as noted in the final moments of Tiger King, they would be raising money to protect them in their natural habitats. They would allow them to be cats.
Alas, when the Southern patriarchy rages, no one is allowed to be themselves. We must all play a role, and when we refuse, the cage is waiting.