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Colton Underwood, Carole Baskin, and Netflix’s power to frame a story

Carole Baskin was trending on Twitter Wednesday morning, thanks to her appearance on CNN to talk about a tiger that escaped in Houston, apparently because there are no other big cat experts CNN could find.

When I clicked on her name to see why she was trending—a thing one should never, ever do—many of the tweets were casually referring to her as a murderer. Why are they so convinced? Because of Netflix’s Tiger King, which devoted an entire episode to theories she’s responsible for her husband Don Lewis’s unsolved disappearance.

What happened to Carole Baskin seems to be a version of what I see so often: people harassing reality stars based on a heavily edited scene, or flooding a restaurant’s Yelp page with bad reviews because they’re convinced they saw it on a restaurant makeover reality show. In my 22 years of writing about reality TV, I’ve undoubtedly treated the produced and edited version of events I’ve watched as if they offered incontrovertible proof.

So I tweeted, “Just a reminder that Netflix used its platform to convince everyone Carole Baskin was a cold-blooded murderer despite a lack of actual evidence, and turned the person who’d actually tried to have her killed into a hero.”

The tweet unexpectedly took off. Judging by the likes and retweets, some people agreed. Others categorically rejected my claim that Joe Exotic is a hero to some, but were still convinced Carole is guilty. Perhaps “hero” wasn’t the best word. Perhaps I should have written that the show glamorized him, or turned him into a cultural icon. It certainly made him popular and turned him into a celebrity. But just take a walk around the Internet and you’ll quickly find many people who do love him. There’s a fan club on Facebook, while almost 200,000 people follow the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park page, which seems obsessed with Carole Baskin. His defenders have gotten news coverage

My point was not that I know who Carole Baskin is, or what happened to her husband. But I have decided not to accuse her based on an episode that, among other things, used a stock photo of a massive meat grinder to suggest that Carole used it to grind up her husband, and also presented the episode as “The Secret” even though Carole was pretty open in her interviews with producers. As I wrote in my review of Tiger King, “the editing is ruthless” and “build[s] a case against her by piling on the speculation, and assembling it in a compelling way.”

It is very compelling! And while I don’t know what happened, what I do know, definitively, is that Tiger King suppressed damaging material about Joe Exotic. More specifically, its directors purposefully left out his racism and other “unsettling,” “horrible things” because it did not fit their narrative about Joe. I know this because the directors admitted it in a Hollywood Reporter interview:

[REBECCA] CHAIKLIN: Yes. Joe is a racist, I would say categorically. He said things when we were filming that were very unsettling.

Why did you choose to leave them out?

CHAIKLIN: They didn’t have a context in the story, but he has a lot to learn. I think most of it was ignorance and not having a lot of exposure, and I think he even evolved over the course of the time that we filmed.

[ERIC] GOODE: I would say it’s very important for people to know this, that there seems to be an overwhelming amount of empathy for [Joe’s current husband] Dillon. We had empathy for Joe, but Joe did a lot of horrible things. Joe committed some really serious crimes and Joe was not only cruel and inhumane to his animals, he was cruel to the people around him. I think it’s very important for people to understand that Joe is an actor and he tells people what they want to hear. As much as we have some empathy for Joe and found Joe to be such an incredible character — this mullet-wearing country singer in Oklahoma — he did a lot of horrible things.

Netflix was okay with “the story” that Tiger King decided to tell, one that sanitized the presentation of a man convicted of trying to murder a rival. Netflix was also okay with an entire episode that was edited in such a compelling way that has convinced many people that Carole Baskin killed her husband.

Now Netflix wants us to trust it as it gives the world’s largest entertainment platform to Colton Underwood. The former star of The Bachelor recently come out as gay, just months after his ex was granted a restraining order after detailing, in court documents, “unsettling text messages” and “a tracking device on her vehicles.” The restraining order was dropped months later because of “a private agreement” between them.

Both Netflix’s efforts to convince us that giving Colton a platform and attention is an excellent idea, and Colton’s efforts to blame his abusive behavior on being closeted, received a big assist from Variety‘s cover story this week. The story, written by Elizabeth Wagmeister, is very detailed, and has the kind of depth I typically want from great long-form journalism, and about reality TV show production. It offers some history and context about the representation of gay people on television, and how rarely queer love stories are centered, and also includes information about the show that’s being produced.

The piece also quotes Raffy Ermac, Pride.com’s editor, who says, “we shouldn’t be glorifying someone who has this history of allegedly stalking a woman,” and yet the story does exactly that.

The cover frames the events of the past year as Colton’s “Controversial Confession,” and the story is illustrated by sexy black-and-white photos, including one of Colton gazing directly into the camera lens while tugging at his shirt collar—a shirt from John Varvatos. Variety is helping Colton with his image so much they provided him with two stylists, designer clothing, and a professional photographer, never mind more than 3,700 mostly sympathetic words.

The story even hints that Colton himself may be a victim of the Hollywood machine. “On some days, he imagines himself disappearing from the industry completely, living a quiet life in Denver, where he recently bought his first home, permanently away from TV cameras,” Wagmeister writes, as if somehow he cannot just do that right now.

Because the person who got a restraining order against Colton did not want to participate in the story, we only have Colton’s voice. Variety lets him “clear the air” about the use of the term “abuse.” While Colton acknowledges that “Controlling situations to try to grasp at any part of the straight fantasy that I was trying to live out was so wrong,” he also insists, “I did not physically touch or physically abuse Cassie in any way, shape or form”—as if stalking is not a form of abuse. (It is.)

The National Network to End Domestic Violence defines stalking as “often one of many tactics that abusers use in order to maintain power and control over a current or former intimate partner,” and points out that “All too often, messages in the media portray stalking as an extreme, even desirable, display of love and devotion. Or, the behavior is minimized and normalized, attributed to a change in social norms that we should accept.” Congratulations, Variety, for doing exactly that: allowing Colton to minimize his actions.

The story also does a lot of work for Netflix, insisting “producers have made sure not to just focus on white privileged gay men” and promising “Underwood will explore his position of privilege.” There’s repeated mentions of the Netflix show helping people. “Underwood decided his story could help others,” Wagmeister writes. Colton’s dad, Scott Underwood, says, “If it just helps a few young men and women come out and be proud of themselves and understand that all parents aren’t going to be upset, it can save lives.”

When I was a closeted teenager, seeing openly gay people on The Real World was life-changing, evidence that I was not alone, so I know first-hand how helpful reality TV can be. That was 1993, and while people absolutely still struggle with coming out, in 2021, coming out stories are everywhere, including on Netflix’s own Queer Eye. Why give Colton a platform? He’s famous for his role in The Bachelor’s heterosexual fantasy, but beyond that, what’s notable here? More importantly: What about the lives of the people who’ve been stalked and harassed like this? Are they helped or actually hurt by the world’s largest streaming entertainment platform giving Colton money, time, space, and attention?

The most interesting part of the Variety story for me was the perspective of one person who’s actually in Colton’s Netflix show. Nicole M. Garcia is identified as “a transgender Latina pastor” who “appears in the series discussing faith with Underwood,” and told Variety this:

“Here he is, a cisgender white man who comes out as gay, and he gets a show. Is it the way things should be? Probably not. The whole system is rigged so that Colton could get a docu-series about him. But we can either just rail completely against it, or we can try to use it to raise visibility.”

That’s an excellent summation of how completely fucked-up Hollywood is. But while I appreciate Garcia’s goal, at what point does visibility become publicity? And when does publicity become complicity?

I wrestle with that frequently, whether covering the latest outbreak of racism on Big Brother or deciding to write this piece. At first I thought I would not, but have obviously changed my mind. I still wonder: Am I just giving Netflix, and Variety, and Colton, the attention they want? Do I just want attention—and money, in the form of about a tenth of a cent for every ad you see? Is this all just one big media ouroboros?

To justify Netflix’s decision to order and eventually stream Colton’s show, Brandon Riegg, Netflix’s VP of reality and documentary TV, told Variety this:

“One person’s experience will not fill the void of queer stories on TV. We have to do better as an industry to highlight more kinds of lives and love. That said, we hope the show will help challenge outdated notions of what kind of stories can or should be at the center of entertainment.

“…Colton has been public about his past and the bad choices he’s made and this will be part of the show, too. While there is tension with providing a platform, we think his complicated story, which includes him taking accountability, is one others can learn from, and we trust Colton and the producers to address it in a thoughtful way.”

I don’t trust them to do that. Honestly, I also don’t trust Brandon Riegg. I don’t know him as a person; he’s very likely a terrific human being, and just trying to make entertaining reality TV that people will watch. I say that because I know that’s true of many producers and network executives in Hollywood. They want to entertain people, and they make a living doing that.

That, however, usually means prioritizing profit over people, and entertainment over ethics. The unscripted/reality/documentary TV industry has no actual standards. There are no industry ethical codes, and there are no laws that specifically govern the portrayal of real human beings in entertainment. There is, however, a massive imbalance of power. The people who appear on reality TV shows—the talent—do not earn a living wage or profit from a show’s success in the same way that actors on scripted shows do. Perhaps they get a per-episode fee, or they get a prize for winning. In exchange, their images and ability to defend themselves are completely owned by the corporations who are profiting off them.

Just read the grossly one-sided reality TV contracts that take so much and give nothing in return except the threat of lawsuits and massive, impossible-to-pay financial penalties. Last fall, a man who appeared on The Bachelor was forced to pay producers $120,000 for simply talking about his experience. The production company that received that $120,000 is part of Warner Bros., whose parent company, AT&T, is currently worth $229.979 billion.

The producers have literal power over the people they’ve filmed, and the television they produce has even more power. While that power can be used for good—perhaps showing the next closeted gay football player in Illinois that he’s not alone—it’s the kind of power that can also be used to sensationalize a story so much it convinces millions of people that a woman is a real murderer while lionizing the person who’s in prison for trying to have her killed. Will Netflix use its power to iconize Colton, a man who doesn’t think the word “abuse” applies to his “controlling” behavior? Might there be a better use of its resources and platform, or a better star for a show about coming out? Or does Colton’s Bachelor fame and the publicity that comes with it, like a flattering Variety cover story, make it all worthwhile?

About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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