Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
**Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers, obviously.**
There are several predators on the Netflix original show Tiger King, and I’m not talking about the tigers. A surprise hit this past month while everyone is sheltering in place, Tiger King is a documentary following the life and work of Joe Maldonado-Passage “Exotic,” a private zoo owner in Oklahoma with a menagerie of big cats. Joe Exotic is much more than a private zoo owner, though, and Tiger King is not a documentary so much as a circus presented to a captive America during a time of crisis while we wait for the government to dole out to us our bread. And like all circuses, it produces a spectacle of real-life “freaks,” captive wild animals, and simmering danger. There is a cost of admission for such entertainment, however—it is never free to profit off the tragic tales of others.
The saga of Joe Exotic began several years ago when filmmaker Eric Goode and his documentary team began to film and follow Joe Exotic, ostensibly to make a documentary about his zoo. What unfolded, however, became much more convoluted as Joe’s larger-than-life personality and personal rivalries necessitated delving into the lives and work of other big cat owners around the country—most notably Carole Baskin and Bhagavan Antle. There are other exotic animal owners who interact with the narrative, but these three form the main characters of a story Goode clearly saw as a potentially sordid and tragic tale the longer he filmed and the more he pulled on certain threads. For not only do Joe, Carole, and Bhagavan each rule as mini-monarchs of their own kingdoms, but the interactions they have with each other, their animals, and the people they subject to their whims is not only deeply manipulative, but dangerously unsettling—in varying degrees.
Animal welfare is inextricably linked to human welfare, and people who don’t care for one will never value the other.There can be only one Tiger King, though, and Eric Goode had a story to tell about that person. For several of the first episodes, Tiger King feels almost silly. Joe Exotic is flamboyant, ridiculous, and gregarious, but he seems to be mostly harmless. All bluster and eccentricity. Despite knowing that the documentary culminates in Joe being in jail for plotting to have Carole assassinated, the real villains almost seem to be Carole Baskin, with the questions the documentary presents over whether she killed her second husband (and fed him to her tigers!), and Bhagavan Antle, with his sex cult.
But then the tone of the show shifts.
I would say it’s around the time that Travis, Joe’s second husband in his gay polygamous marriage, starts to spiral into suicidal ideation that I became jolted with a stark reminder that those were real people on the other side of the screen. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it was about the time the documentarians deemed fit to dedicate a portion of an episode of the show to Travis’s struggles—a reminder that while I had been busy being entertained by Joe’s antics, someone’s life had already passed away simply because they got involved with Joe. There was a strong sense of foreboding as that episode built to Travis’s death, and it was a foreboding I realized had hung over the show since the beginning. I just hadn’t noticed it right away, even as I had felt uneasy with the premise of what Joe and others like him do. Travis’s suicide on the show—accidental or intentional—drives home a clear theme of Tiger King as a story: animal welfare is inextricably linked to human welfare, and people who don’t care for one will never value the other.
And Joe Exotic, as a character in not only a story he knew was being told about him whenever the cameras were rolling, but also as a larger-than-life character for every visitor to step foot in his park, believed himself to be the Tiger King, and as such, a classic, tragic hero. The signs were there that Joe was like this long before Travis died, but after Travis’s death, the pieces of the story Eric Goode was telling, and Joe as a character in that tragic story, started to fall into place with clarity.
If Tiger King is a tragic story, and Joe Exotic is not the hero, then who is the villain by the end of the narrative? All of them.If we approach Tiger King as a classical tragedy, the building of dramatic tension and tragic atmosphere from one episode to the next leads to the anticipation of something terrible that must occur. And, such as the death of Travis, there are terrible things that occur—many of them. But unlike classical tragedy, there’s no true hamartia (error in judgement or fatal flaw) because there’s no hero in this story. Joe thinks he’s a hero, but he never acts as anything other than a villain. Furthermore, hamartia is not supposed to be a moral failing, but Joe’s failings are absolutely of the moral variety. He’s deeply manipulative, displays narcissistic tendencies, and has an abundance of hubris (exaggerated pride or arrogance), which leads to terribly tragic ends. Like a figure in a classical tragedy, however, Joe Exotic brings his own doom upon himself. He brings himself to his knees—dragging his own small kingdom to ruin around him. His fatal flaws, which are also moral failings, are executed by his own hands.
There is no catharsis in Tiger King because although the documentarians are telling a story through the manipulation of footage—the cuts, the music, the editing, and more—it is not a scripted show. Joe goes to jail, but others who should see justice stay free. And most of Joe’s actions remain unredeemed, the people he hurt ruined in his wake. Although Eric Goode and his team act as a sort of chorus, singing a narration of foul deeds, there is no climactic epiphany. In the real-life tragedy of Tiger King, there is only collateral damage, and the audience is invited to contemplate the many facets unbridled sin can take. As Saff, one of Joe’s former gamekeepers, says near the end of the show, “Nobody wins” in this sad story.
If Tiger King is a tragic story, and Joe Exotic is not the hero, then who is the villain by the end of the narrative? All of them. Joe, Carole, Bhagavan, (and others). There are only villains and victims in this story—no winners and no heroes. Not only does nobody win, but everybody loses. Joe may end up in prison, and Carole safe from the murder plot against her life, but her misdeeds and hypocrysy have now been splashed across the television screens of millions of people who are only too eager to believe those things are evidence she murdered her second husband and fed him to her tigers.
It is not entertainment, and it should not be consumed as such.But it is the most vulnerable among them—those the powerful “big-cat people” control—who suffer the most. All the workers on Joe’s park, overworked and underpaid and struggling with substance abuse—just trying to do right by animals they really seem to care about. Saff, who lost an arm working in unsafe conditions, and who felt more concern over the image of the park than her own wellbeing. Women caught in abusive relationships. Women caught in cults. Young men preyed upon for Joe’s sexual pleasure, kept in subservience by drugs and manipulative means. Families broken and financially ruined. Animals born, bred, and raised in captivity that will never know freedom. Almost every weaker person who touches the lives of the three main characters in Tiger King comes out harmed, and that is probably the biggest tragedy of the show.
So, should we watch Tiger King? Light should be shined into dark places in our world so that we know what’s going on, and there are some who shouldn’t look away. But that doesn’t mean this is a show for everyone. It is not entertainment, and it should not be consumed as such. If you enjoy watching powerful and manipulative people subjugate vulnerable people (and animals) to fulfill their own pleasure, then maybe you should take a step back and examine yourself. This is the sort of subject matter that should never be entertaining when we encounter it in real life, because that then encourages us to mock and ridicule people we should instead be caring for. To laugh at and meme a person like Joe’s first husband, John Finlay, because he lost his teeth to meth addiction, a meth addiction he picked up while under the influence of a man holding him as a virtual sex slave–such things should not be done.
Sometimes caring for those souls means turning off the TV. Sometimes it means watching so you are better informed about the world.The participants of Tiger King undoubtedly signed waivers to be filmed, and thus subjected themselves to the court of public opinion and all the judgment that comes with it, but how we consume the media and entertainment that is placed before us becomes a moral test of our own selves. Not all shows are for all people. Can’t watch Tiger King without mocking the people involved? Don’t watch Tiger King. Do you care for the souls of those you are watching on the screen? Sometimes caring for those souls means turning off the TV. Sometimes it means watching so you are better informed about the world. Each case, and every person, will be different.
At the end of the day, the people of the internet will make their memes. Many of them, too, will view Joe Exotic as the hero he believes himself to be. But this is not a show with a script, it is about real people with real lives, and Joe’s moral failings prevent him from being any sort of classical hero. The story the documentarians told is less Greek tragedy and something more akin to gladiatorial combat, complete with the showmanship, wild beasts, and human sacrifices. To engage in watching Tiger King for entertainment is to head into the arena stands to watch blood being spilled. We may consider ourselves to be a captive audience in the time of Covid-19, but we still have a choice of what sort of consumers of entertainment we will be. It is good to remember during these days of isolation that we need bread; we don’t need circuses.