Illustrated by Michael Shum
Tiger King has taken the world by storm in a way few other shows ever have. Within just ten days of its release, Tiger King raked in a reported 34.3 million viewers, a Netflix record. Tiger King’s smashing success is largely due to the crazy shenanigans of its characters, in particular those of Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic.
In a series teeming with sadistic, deranged, and eccentric characters, Joe Exotic manages to stand out—and not always for good reason. While he has a knack for entertaining the audience (his country music albums, crazy one-liners, and run for presidency, etc), it goes without saying that he has had more than his share of misdeeds. His predatory hiring practices, exploitation of his partners’ substance abuse, among many other things, are every bit as egregious as he is humorous. Yet, there’s something about the gun-toting polygamist that has appealed to audiences and critics alike.
Janelle Okwudu of Vogue writes, “…there’s something oddly compelling about him” after taking a look at his “poor life choices”, some of which she describes as “reprehensible”. The Internet seemingly agrees; memes about the man range into the millions, as a simple Google search reveals. These memes as an aggregate seem to take a net positive stance on Joe. But why is it that this man is so compelling in spite of all the terrible things he’s done?
The obvious answer would be his flair for all things entertaining. His numerous one-liners throughout the series, all equally hilarious, and are nothing short of brilliant. Even those who have never watched Tiger King might have heard of his quips made famous by memes. One-liners such as, “I will never financially recover from this” and “Just about an hour ago we had an incident where one of the employees stuck their arm through the cage and the tiger tore her arm off . . . I can give you your money back or I can give you a rain check” undoubtedly stuck with viewers.
A less obvious and more unethical reason for Joe Exotic’s appeal may be the way the directors glamorize him throughout the series. Learning about his tragic past, from the way his father shunned him after coming out as gay to his beloved brothers death, immediately paints Joe Exotic in a sympathetic light. As the show progresses, Joe Exotic becomes even more of a focus, becoming to the central protagonist. His tragedy becomes more and more central to the story.
While focusing heavily on his personal hardships, the directors glossed over a large amount of his misdeeds—habitual abuse of his romantic partners, mistreatment of animals for personal gain—while portraying other characters such as Carole Baskin as one-dimensionally evil. As one critic puts it, “The misery Maldonado-Passage inflicted on his animals, evidenced in a clip of a newborn cub being pulled from its visibly distressed mother as she was still in labor, was a side note to his stranger-than-fiction personality.” The series also insinuated that Baskin may be responsible for the disappearance of her ex-husband in 1997, even though she is not considered a suspect.
Now, having a morally questionable character is not cause enough to criticize a show. What makes the difference is how it portrays moral wrongdoings. The directors effectively sacrifice morality and the wellbeing of tiger cubs for an entertaining storyline. For example, Baskin, CEO of the nonprofit Big Cat Rescue and who received an award last October by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries for her advocacy efforts, is the closest thing the show has to a principled hero. However, the depiction of a sympathetic Joe Exotic undermines Baskin’s charity work and has brought a torrent of death threats upon her.
Joe Exotic is presented as eccentric, entertaining, and hilarious, which makes him hard not to like. However, “Tiger King” glorifies Joe Exotic’s repugnant character and intentions, while making it all the more difficult for the Baskin, the only well-intentioned person in the show, to continue her advocacy.