CS Soapbox: Tiger King, the Binge We Deserve but Not the One We Need Right Now
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has next to nothing in common with The Dark Knight. Joe Exotic is no Bruce Wayne. However, both of their dysfunctional relationships with mammals have impacted society. Wayne grew up terrified of bats and embraced that fear to become a symbol against injustice. Exotic isn’t afraid of big cats, quite the opposite. If Exotic inherited the mantel of Batman, he would open the Batcave for business. Batman fights crime while Exotic commits crimes.
Despite its click-bait title, I had no intention of watching Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness a week ago. Since its release on March 20, the Netflix docuseries has gained the kind of popularity previously attributed to Stranger Things, sliced bread, and the caped crusader. I watched it because you watched it… call that my occupational hazard. Full disclosure: it was… captivating.
It wasn’t about big cats. I learned next to nothing about tigers. As its title suggests, Tiger King is insane. Who knew there was this bizarre underworld of big cat breeders and collectors? “Conservationists” who live like demented rock stars. Characters like Mario Tabraue is a former drug lord, Jeff Lowe a swinger, and Joesph Maldonado-Passage AKA Joe Exotic a mullet-wielding enigma (who actually ran for fucking president).
Exotic’s private Oklahoma zoo (where he pays his employees around $100 a week) is like something out of Ace Ventura: The Dark Years… if Ace Ventura did meth. At one point, an employee actually loses an arm. Exotic has hundreds of cats that he breeds and then charges visitors to pet/watch. The whole place is a throne of exploitation—it’s not about the animals, it’s about building his persona. Aside from its peripheral madness, the heart of Tiger King is the relationship between Exotic and Carole Baskin.
These two HATE each other. At first glance, you may get a Seinfeld vs. Newman vibe. In reality, it’s more like Trump vs. Clinton. Baskin is an animal rights activist who owns Big Cat Rescue (she also probably murdered her husband and/or used a meat grinder to feed him to a tiger). Their feud began when she accused Exotic of exploiting the animals he has in captivity.
Baskin wants to end big cat ownership, which is Exotic’s livelihood. Joe seems to have lost sight of his animals’ well-being, he does shoot a tiger in the face… but that might have been fair considering the circumstances (of his creation). In retaliation to Baskin’s campaign against his world, Exotic hosts bizarre chat shows where he verbally attacks Baskin, creates anti-Baskin country music videos, and repeatedly talks of having her killed.
When the final episode fades to black, we are told that Joe was sentenced to 22 years in prison on 17 federal charges of animal abuse and for plotting to kill Baskin. We are also told that 5000-10,000 tigers live in captivity in the U.S while fewer than 4000 tigers remain in the wild. The final scene of the series shows Exotic asking himself a very important question: are his animals happy?
It’s a moving admission and one that seems easily equatable to the current state of our world. However, it’s not comparable. Social distancing, quarantine and COVID-19 have us feeling caged, marinating in the unique madness of four walls, empty streets and toilet paper shortages. We’ve temporarily put our all-encompassing freedom and luxury on hold for the safety of others. However, we’re not wild animals deprived of their natural habitats, even though it feels like that. If Exotic and company have proven one thing, it’s that we are overtly dramatic creatures—weeks ago the world shouted “last call!” and then Tiger King released on Netflix.
Maybe Tiger King speaks to the part of us that has no idea what we’re doing. The part that just wants to be seen. Isn’t that Joe Exotic’s MO? Isn’t that everyone’s MO in Tiger King? It’s not a flattering one. People like Bhagavan “Doc” Antle and Carole Baskin have spoken out against the docuseries, calling it “salacious” and “sensational.” Co-directors and writers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin have responded to this by saying that all participants were forthright—they loved the attention.
Like the symbolic presence of Batman, Tiger King has galvanized people. Stories do that. To slow the spread of a disease, we’re literally doing the opposite of attention-seeking, we’re putting gratification on hold. This pandemic has us on a path of endless binging and we found Tiger King’s alluring brand of batshit. We’re drawn to the boisterous, uncertain and out of its mind. Tiger King doesn’t teach us anything or prepare us for what comes next, it just makes us feel better— comparing our lives to what’s depicted in Tiger King restores an aspect of normalcy. That’s why it’s the binge we deserve, but perhaps not the one we need right now.