The Tiger King, the Electronic Panopticon and the Human Zoo

The Tiger King documentary series on Netflix allows viewers to gaze into the unsettling world of tiger-breeding. It also reflects legacies of white supremacy. How? Read further.

The Electronic Panopticon

According to anthropologist Andrea Friedus, the “electronic panopticon” allows the public to view the actions and behaviors of working-class people. It enables people of higher social and economic status to participate in the surveillance and public discipline of Othered groups.

The panopticon.
Photo by Paolo Trabattoni (CC 2.0).

In the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham designed the panopticon as a “perfect prison,” equipped with a tower that allowed guards to see out but prevented prisoners from seeing in. Prisoners learned to monitor their actions because they could never be quite sure when the guard might be watching them.

The Tiger King, like reality TV cop shows and the Learning Channel’s “Toddlers in Tiaras,” makes a spectacle of poor and working-class people, including those who have come into money. From the safety of their living rooms, viewers point and titter at the big animals–including humans-as-animals–on exhibit.

Making “White Trash” and Eugenics

In the Tiger King, the camera eye seems to delight in the tooth-missing, tattooed, pierced and disheveled or gaudy appearance of many of its characters. The main figure profiled in the series is Joe Exotic: the now incarcerated, eccentric, gay owner of a huge private animal park in Oklahoma during the 80s and 90s. His employees included societal cast-offs, many of them with criminal records.

Joe Exotic knew he was performing before the camera, and he knew what the public wanted to see. He described himself as “Joe Exotic, otherwise known as the Tiger King, the gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet.”

Big cat owner Bhagavan Antle, also featured in the series, is portrayed as a Southern New Age guru running a sex cult. The series strongly suggests that another key character, animal activist Carole Baskin, married her millionaire husband for money and then killed him, despite any evidence that this is true. Baskin, a Southern woman, grew up in a poor family.

Stereotypical image of “white trash”

Long before U.S. Americans had access to the “electronic panopticon” of TV or the Internet, they relied on magazines, travelogues and journals for a peek into the lives of others. After the Civil War, they could fine plenty of writings about the rural Southern poor, described by northern travelers as degenerate, lecherous, filthy, perverse and vulgar.

The eugenics movements from the 1880s through the 1920s helped to reinforce the stereotype of poor, rural whites as “trash.” The eugenics movement valorized the idea of “human breeding” for genetic (and racial) purity, even though we now know that race is a social construction without any foundation in genetics.

Amidst rising movements in favor of eugenics, the U.S. government legalized sterilization of so-called “unfit” people against their consent, targeting poor people, including whites, on the grounds that these citizens were more likely to be unintelligent, promiscuous, alcoholic and criminal (read more).

These eugenics projects made it clear that certain whites did not have as much “whiteness” as others and therefore threatened to contaminate the “white” gene pool. Poor Southern whites were likely to have interacted with African Americans as neighbors and even as family members, which made their whiteness especially suspect.

By demonizing poor whites, other socially white folks could think of themselves as safely “civilized” in comparison: “Look at those crazy people in Tiger King!”

Think of these stereotypes of “white trash” if and when you watch the Tiger King. Consider how they are perpetuated in this series.

Lynchings

While self-proclaimed “civilized” whites pointed to poor whites in disdain, poor whites pointed to African Americans as the “true” examples of unintelligence, criminality and savagery. They might be poor, but they could still claim whiteness!

In fact, at the same time that eugenics movements were growing across the U.S., the lynching of African Americans increased dramatically, too. Lynchings punished African Americans (and in some cases whites who affiliated with them) who dared to step outside of the bounds of how they were supposed to act. In Oklahoma and Florida, the two states featured in Tiger King, mass lynchings targeted African American homeowners and business owners. These deaths punished those who threatened a racial order by daring to own property themselves.

In The Tiger King, Joe Exotic makes his rival Carol Baskin and animal rights groups the target of his hatred. The many symbolic acts he enacts against dummies of Carol recall the violent tortures of lynching. He ties a dummy to a tree and shoots it. He hangs dummies. He bombs dummies. He cuts off parts of dummies. He portrays Carol as if the superior-acting white person and identifies himself with the tiger.

Scene still from “The Tiger King”

Animal Zoos, Human Zoos

The eugenics movement also coincided with the popularity of World Fairs and their ethnographic exhibits of living people from different tribal and ethnic groups. These exhibits featured not only groups from Africa, Asia and the U.S. (Native Americans) but also Eastern European and so-called “exotic” European ethnic groups that held onto their traditions. Africans were forced to re-enact battles, ceremonies and rituals.

A child put on display in the “Congo Village” exhibit at the 1958 Expo World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium.

These exhibits had a purpose: they helped make ideas of “racial order” and racial difference seem natural. Defenders of eugenics and scientific racism used them as evidence of racial hierarchy. Visitors to these “human zoos,” as critics called them, could feel a certain shared pleasure in feeling collectively “civilized” in comparison to these Others.

These exhibits didn’t just take place in Europe. In 1906, a boy from the Belgian Congo was featured in the Primate House of the Bronx Zoo: Oto Benga. Two years earlier he’d been featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri.

At the zoo, Oto was put in a cage alongside chimpanzees and orangutans, which reinforced the impression that he himself was less than human. According to Pamela Newkirk, who wrote Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Oto Benga, Oto “frequently walked to the door with eyes pleading for his keepers to release him from public view.”

He came from the Congo region where more than 10 million of his people were systemically murdered under the barbaric reign of Belgian king Leopold II, with many more tortured–their hands cut off–and enslaved.

Oto Benga at the Bronx Zoo, 1906. Wildlife Conservation Society.

Thanks to the efforts of African Americans, Oto Benga was released into the custody of James M. Gordon, supervisor of New York’s Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, in 1906. Nonetheless, he committed suicide ten years later.

Visitors to the Bronx zoo gawked and gasped and pointed at Oto Benga, just like visitors whispered and gazed and pointed at the wild African animals in animal parks featured in The Tiger King.

The visitors to these parks, like viewers watching the Tiger King series itself, are also gawking at men like Joe Exotic and the kind of “lower” whiteness they appear to embody. In The Tiger King, big cat owners come across as desperate to be viewed, to be recognized, and to belong–but they depend on the living props that are their animals (and in the case of Bhagavan Antle, women, too).

As The Tiger King documents, animal parks featuring African wildlife persist in part because of public demand to see and pet these creatures. Celebrities, talk show hosts, and professional athletes pet Joe Exotic’s tiger cubs. Thousands of people of all ages visit these private animal parks (and many more visit zoos). African animals are commodities to be bought, sold, bred, displayed, and “put to work,” just as humans from Africa decades earlier.

By the end of the series, Joe Exotic ends up in a cage himself, incarcerated on charges that he killed some of his tigers and planned to have his rival, Carol Baskin, killed. “I’m in a cage,” he remarked, after going to prison. “You know why animals die in cages? Their soul dies.”

Through our gaze, we participate in the surveillance of humans and animals alike. Ask yourself how watching something like The Tiger King reinforces the way you think about yourself. Do you feel superior, like you’re a different “breed” of human?

How much has changed when we put animals or humans in cages–for profit? Perhaps we all need an opportunity to release ourselves from our cages, including the cages in which we put our minds.

If you decide to watch Tthe Tiger King, or even if you’ve already watched it, consider it a testimony to the legacies of white supremacy. And remember both Oto Benga and Joe Exotic. Who ends up in cages, who learns to kill, and who ends up watching, laughing, and pointing fingers?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*