Across seven episodes, this Netflix doc takes a big swipe at what happened and tries its best to cover everything, but inevitably, the series leaves some things out while making a few mistakes along the way too.
Among all of the big characters who looked after these big cats, one person who came out of this whole thing with their dignity intact is Saff, one of the zoo employees who worked alongside Joe.
Back in 2013, Saff lost his arm in a tiger attack, and the second episode of Tiger King explores this in plenty of detail, asking him why he opted for amputation instead of reconstructive surgery:
"I knew if I stayed in that hospital, the media wins. I see how much they blew it up into this horror story that I felt like the best thing to do was get right back to work."
While Saff tried his best to avoid this "horror story," the way his own story is told in Tiger King fails him too. According to a journalist called Robert Moor who's investigated the case in more detail, Saff has been consistently misgendered by the show's producers.
8. (Not really “trivia,” but a useful piece of info for anyone discussing the show): Saff, the person who got mauled by the tiger, told me repeatedly that he is trans, prefers to be called Saff (not “Kelci”), and uses he/him pronouns. So please do likewise. pic.twitter.com/hCE9vS55Dh— 𝐑𝐨𝐛𝐞𝐫𝐭 𝐌𝐨𝐨𝐫 (@robertmoor_) March 24, 2020
In a series of tweets designed to fill in some of the gaps, Moor says: "Saff, the person who got mauled by the tiger, told me repeatedly that he is trans, prefers to be called Saff (not “Kelci”), and uses he/him pronouns. So please do likewise."
Moor went on to say that most of Saff's colleagues misgendered him at the time too, as well as the news broadcasts which reported on the attack. Still, that's no excuse. During or after production, it wouldn't have taken much effort to identify Saff correctly.
By using quotation marks around the name he wishes to be known by, the show suggests that this identity isn't real or correct in some way – and plenty of viewers online objected to this following the documentary's release.
However, it now seems there's more to the story than we first thought. Much like the documentary itself, new twists to Saff's story have come out since as well.
During a recent interview with Out, Saff denied reports which claim he's a trans man, saying: "I can honestly say no. I don't know that that describes me. You know, nothing was done. I really just have lived this lifestyle. And, you know, my family knows this. And obviously people closest to me know. This is how I've lived my entire life. I don't know anything else."
Although it seems Moor was incorrect and Saff doesn't identify as trans, Tiger King still misgendered him nonetheless, relentlessly using the birth name that he no longer goes by.
When asked to address that, Saff told Out he isn't personally offended by being misgendered:
"I think the reason that I stay pretty neutral on it all is I've never been one to tell people what to be or what to say or how to handle anything. It's a big community out there so I don't want to pick a side either way. If people are asking me what I prefer, it's very obvious what I prefer, and that's 'he'."
"But I'm not going to tell anyone what they need to or should call me. I think that everyone's entitled to their own opinion, and I'm as obviously as easygoing in that department as I can get you know about it all."
Instead, Saff is more frustrated that the reasons why he left the zoo are being misreported. His misgendering in the series is "literally one of the last things that I really considered worrying about."
Still, the fact remains that the producers involved in Tiger King didn't take time to check with Saff and see what was the most appropriate way to identify him. This is particularly surprising given how long the series took to film. Surely, someone involved would have realised that Saff was being misgendered, and yet, this is never acknowledged in the documentary.
Since its release, the series has also come under fire for bi-erasure too. Tiger King doesn't shy away from queerness, even showing footage of Joe's polyamorous wedding, and that makes it even stranger to see bisexuality sidelined and even denied by everyone involved.
Much is made of Joe's husbands and the fact that they both slept with women outside of their marriage. Indeed, they identify as straight, and in the documentary, they're presented as having married Joe simply because of what he could provide them.
While it's clear that power dynamics played a role in those relationships, it's surprising that Tiger King doesn't even investigate bisexuality as a possibility, rather than perpetuate the "straights going gay for pay" narrative.
Despite these failings, Tiger King excels at least when it comes to exploring alternative forms of queerness, particularly those rarely discussed in the mainstream. Joe Exotic is far from a typical case, but it's worth noting that queerness in red states is more complicated than simple redneck stereotypes, and that's something Tiger King isn't afraid to examine.
It's just unfortunate that this documentary doesn't treat Saff and bisexual themes with the same respect.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is available to stream on Netflix.
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