Netflix's Tiger King has stirred up a lot of feelings on social media, but perhaps the biggest trend of all is the outpouring of celebration and support for disgraced big-cat breeder Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic. Although Exotic is currently serving time in prison after being convicted of trying to put a hit out on one of his rivals, plenty of fans have taken his side and elevated him to minor celebrity status. While it's understandable why Exotic is able to grab so much attention, it's also important to look closer and realise that this isn't the kind of person we should be celebrating.
It's easy for us to be drawn in by his showmanship, just as we see people within his circle getting sucked into his increasingly bizarre world.
In some ways, Joe Exotic is the kind of figure tailor-made for the social media and streaming age. He's outré and colourful, with increasingly OMG-worthy stunts; he has a crass, bluntly quotable way of speaking; he's a flamboyant, openly gay man who also plays into country-bro tropes; he has the showman personality down to a tee. It's easy for us to be drawn in by his showmanship, just as we see people within his circle getting sucked into his increasingly bizarre world, and it's easy to want to sympathise with a guy who's an outcast and who doesn't "fit in." Is he a gay man who's been wrongfully vilified for being "different" in the grand tradition of queer-coded villains in pop culture, or is his personality actually fulfilling every one of those stereotypes? The sheer fact that he's the ostensible protagonist of the docuseries automatically tilts the viewer in his favour — and, by extension, casts the people who go up against him, such as Carole Baskin, as the villains.
By offering up rivals, the show gives viewers plenty of scapegoats to blame for Exotic's downfall and plays into a whole array of tropes that allow viewers to root for Exotic as a "wronged man" against a shady conspiracy. A fast-growing petition asking for Exotic to be pardoned paints him as the victim of a scheming woman (Baskin): "Consider that poor Joe, was vilified for demanding the truth to come out about a powerful woman. A woman who used her feminine wiles to accrue untold levels of wealth and influence, leaving a path of destruction and dead bodies in her wake," the petition's original writer claims.
When cast in this light, as someone unconventional who's been "persecuted" for "speaking the truth" about a wicked woman, Exotic becomes a touchstone for a much bigger divide in society. This is a dangerously incorrect take, given the fact that even if you don't believe Exotic ordered a hit on Baskin, he still regularly (and vividly) threatened her life on camera.
Underneath that veneer of gleefully bizarre showiness, though, a portrait emerges of a man who's interesting, but not likeable. Throughout the series, his employees are on the receiving end of some truly awful, even downright abusive behaviour from Exotic. Interviews after the series aired revealed that he stole most of his songs from musicians he'd hired and passed the music (and vocals) off as his own.
"Perhaps the most puzzling part of the reactions to Tiger King is the willingness for Exotic's fans to overlook his treatment of his animals."
His treatment of his romantic partners is equally horrific; not only did he manipulate and marry much younger men he met (and hired) when they were barely more than teenagers, he enabled and exploited Travis Maldonado's meth addiction just to keep him around. That's certainly not the behaviour of someone who loves his partners, and all the "You go, dude!" attitudes over him dating much younger men can't get around the power imbalance and the selfishness in those relationships.
Perhaps the most puzzling part of the reactions to Tiger King is the willingness for Exotic's fans to overlook his treatment of his animals. Although Exotic denies all the big-picture accusations of animal abuse, the cameras repeatedly catch him in smaller instances of callousness towards the animals that are supposed to be in his care. His professions of love towards his animals are at odds with the cavalier way he treats their very existence. If he needed money, his solution was to breed more tiger cubs — seemingly unconcerned with the fact that he was bringing another animal into this world that would spend its life in a cage or an enclosure, unable to have the kind of life it should, and all so that he could make more money.
And it's not just the tigers, either: in the last episode, he describes seeing a pair of chimps hugging each other after having been kept in separate, neighbouring cages for a decade. It's presented as a heartwarming moment, but it's actually heartbreaking: those animals were suffering, and there's no way he didn't realise it.
This isn't to say that Exotic is the "villain" of the series. In all fairness, nearly everyone on the show comes across as shady at best and downright despicable and criminal at worst. It's an environment filled with cons and backstabbing and crimes; there's really no one truly likeable, when we stop and think about it. Perhaps viewers root for Exotic because he's the most charismatic, because they relate to his feeling of being misunderstood, or simply because the narrative structure pushes us to. It's one thing to sympathise with him — but there's nothing worthy of celebration here.