34 million people watched Netflix’s viral hit Tiger King in its first ten days
Families huddled together inside their homes as coronavirus swept across the globe with an unstoppable ferocity in March. It was the most opportune time for a bizarre Netflix docu-series with enormous shock value, aptly titled Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, to rise to the occasion as an antidote to the relentless pandemic-induced boredom. The latest barrage of news about upcoming films, miniseries and documentaries detailing every nook and cranny of the perplexingly fascinating underworld of big cat breeding is not only a testament to Tiger King’s runaway success but also its significant impact on popular culture.
Tiger King centers on a gay, polygamist, gun-wielding Oklahoma zookeeper named Joe Exotic, and his years-long feud with Carole Baskin, a big cat conservationist. What starts off as a somewhat harmless rivalry eventually escalates into an assassination plot; hence providing a rare glimpse into the sinister underside to the peculiar world of exotic animal owners in America. Often likened to a 'trainwreck' by characters who are best described as oddballs themselves, Tiger King dramatizes the inevitable clash of its eccentric leads, leaving the big question of justice to the audience.
Joe Exotic would have you believe that he is a self-made gay cowboy with a tragic past, an unconventionally dressed animal lover entrusted with the noble task of breeding tigers in cages, thus single-handedly saving an endangered species from extinction itself. Well, Duh! The sense of ambiguity that pervades the series from early on, is rooted in Joe Exotic’s larger than life personality itself – unreliability coupled with panache makes him too compelling a subject to turn away from. After all, trainwrecks make for great TV. Look at Tiger King!
Carole Baskin, a big cat rights activist, left her parent’s house as a teenager and married a millionaire in her early 20s. The couple’s shared fascination with big cats encouraged them to build a sanctuary for these majestic creatures, despite her husband’s admittedly commercial intentions at the time. Everything took a dramatic turn when he mysteriously disappeared one day.
Carole marched on, undaunted, with her plea to prohibit private ownership of big cats in America and, lo and behold, one of her targets became the self-proclaimed biggest tiger breeder in the country - Joe Exotic himself. Well, why the hell not?
Tiger King features a remarkable group of cult leaders, drifters, drug addicts, felons and shady businessmen who come across as more exotic than the animals they trade in, as if the men and the animals were all part of a broader circus act. The ‘white trash’ label might seem increasingly apt in this regard, however, one should be wary of the hackneyed us vs them rhetoric by now. After all, if these men are so repulsive, why were we glued to the screen throughout the seven-part series? Is it the baffling fascination with everything we pride ourselves on not being? A certain sense of relief hidden in outrage? Then, why do we have celebrities today rallying to free Joe Exotic, who has been sentenced to 22 years of imprisonment, and fans who swear that Joe has been framed? Focusing on the white trash label is problematic, because it conveniently absolves us of our own moral failings.
Appearing unduly comfortable with its misogynistic undertone, Tiger King traverses all standard ethical boundaries far too often. Building on the principle of excess, the series seeks to establish a false equivalence between Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic from the very beginning, solely on the basis of their quirky fashion sense. How dare she dress in animal print? Oh the outrage!
While Joe accuses Carole of being another exotic animal owner in the guise of an activist, the series never attempts to delve into what makes Joe’s roadside zoo, which serves to fatten his own pockets, vastly different from Carole’s non-profit sanctuary that provides a safe haven for abused, abandoned and ageing tigers who cannot be possibly released into the wild due to a lifetime of domestication. Her proposed federal bill to prohibit big cat breeding in cages, if passed, will eventually reduce the necessity for an establishment like hers as well.
Despite Joe being found guilty of conspiring to murder his long-standing rival, armchair detectives of today’s internet era are convinced that Carole fed her husband to the tigers, a suggestion so outlandish that the idea is it must be true; all for a case that went cold years ago, in which Carol had been declared not a suspect to begin with.
In a way, Netflix emulated the ways of mainstream media to tell this particular story. For instance, a news anchor would usually present you with both sides’ arguments; however he or she would refrain from telling you, in the name of objectivity, which side is speaking the truth. A frustrating tactic that often leads to dangerous consequences, exacerbated by the phenomenon of confirmation bias. Only here it is not objectivity that concerns Netflix, but the endless desire to elevate sensational subject matters without any regard to truth.
A trainwreck you cannot evade your eyes from. The strange pull of a tragedy. The human tendency to gaze at appalling matters in strange fascination.
Joe Exotic made money because people could not resist the temptation to see wild animals from a close distance; the directors of Tiger King made money because people could not once again resist the temptation to see Joe Exotics of the world unravel from a close distance. An endless cycle of exploitation, in which we remain complicit.
When asked as to why Joe continued on the path that he did, given his past opposition to big cat breeding, he said in a wistful tone, apparently lost in a haze of abandoned principles and wasted years: “Did I do it on purpose? No. I was wrapped up in having a zoo.”
Five years ago, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, directors of Tiger King, conceived the idea of a series, which would aspire to take the model of the 2013 critically acclaimed documentary Blackfish and in a similar vein, expose the underbelly of the obscure and disturbing world of big cat breeding. Somewhere along the line, they too perhaps lost themselves and became wrapped up in having a show.