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Self-declared Tiger King Joe Exotic, wearing a tiger-striped jacket, lounges on his side in a publicity photo, next to a lion, a bengal tiger, and a white tiger cub. Photo: Netflix

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Why Tiger King’s self-absorbed personalities make such terrific TV

Drawing a line through Joe Exotic, Vanderpump Rules, and a reality-TV president

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It’s possible that the most unifying entertainment respite from the global trauma of coronavirus is Netflix’s Tiger King. The seven-episode series has been watched with morbid fascination by millions of people, who seemingly all have opinions about it. The docuseries’ biggest draw is its subject, Joe Exotic (real name: Joseph Maldonado-Passage), a prominent figure in the world of “big cat ownership.” His bizarre charisma, talent for manipulation and deceit, fondness for attention, and tendency toward melodrama were all basically made for television.

Many of culture’s most fascinating celebrity personalities, including reality stars, documentary subjects, and media talking heads, share the same traits. So what’s so compelling about narcissists, particularly malevolent ones like Joe Exotic? Why have Jax Taylor from Vanderpump Rules, Luke P. from Hannah Brown’s season of The Bachelorette, and, yes, Donald Trump all flourished on reality TV?

The simple answer is that the traits that make these people entertaining to watch — the grandiose sense of self-importance, need for excessive admiration, exploitation of others, and lack of empathy — all generate emotional drama and exciting storylines. Take Luke P. from The Bachelorette: Throughout the show’s 15th season, Luke made enemies of everyone (including the viewers) because of his aggression, arrogance, and lies, but Hannah was the last person to see it. Luke consistently gaslit and manipulated Hannah, which established a good-vs.-evil dynamic between him and her more sympathetic suitors, like Mike and Tyler. The resulting tensions culminated in a highly satisfying final act in which his true nature was finally revealed, and Hannah delivered one of the most withering takedowns in the show’s history.

But narratives don’t always have to be so straightforward to capitalize on over-the-top narcissism. The pleasure in Joe Exotic’s story isn’t in watching the forces of good triumph over his reign of terror. It’s simply in watching him operate. It’s his collection of tigers, his bizarre declarations, and his feckless pursuit of self-glorification that becomes utterly riveting — and even, to a certain degree, sympathetic.

a tiger sits on a rock next to a man Image: JoeExoticTV

“It’s shamelessness,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula Ph.D., a behavioral psychologist specializing in narcissism. “Whether it’s a Real Housewife, whether it’s any of these dating shows, and whether it’s Joe Exotic, what they all have in common is that people are behaving in ways that are not normative … So it really creates this form of escapism. And what’s happening is somebody is able to do the shameful, embarrassing things that most of us regulate ourselves and stop ourselves from doing.”

Part of the thrill, Durvasula says, is that the colorful, toxic people on these shows don’t face immediate consequences. That means viewers get to vicariously experience what it might be like to act on our worst impulses.

Diagnosed narcissists lack empathy, which means they don’t care how their behavior affects the people around them. For more ethically minded people, this reckless freedom can be enthralling. Durvasula compares it to watching a belligerent drunk guy at the bar. Gruesome as it is, and as much as we don’t like to admit it, it’s thrilling to watch someone behave that badly. “They’re slurring, they’re falling, they’re standing on the bar. They’re saying absolutely inappropriate stuff, and in our own sick, ‘watching the Roman gladiator’ way, we’re like, ‘I wonder if someone’s going to get into a fight here.’”

On The Apprentice, Trump’s persona wasn’t calculated to inspire derision, but as Durvasula points out, there was a certain cruelty to his characterization. “He was still very dismissive. He was still very unkind. He was still very abrupt. He was definitely not self-monitoring. He definitely lacked empathy.” Trump’s catchphrase, and especially its sharp, cold delivery, “You’re fired,” might as well have been “Get lost, loser.” This willingness to “tell it like it is,” without regard for hurt feelings, taboos, or social niceties, is part of his appeal for his supporters.

So while there’s a pleasure in watching someone act out humanity’s worst impulses without regard for consequences, there’s also a danger when these behaviors become so ubiquitous that they’re completely normalized. Narcissistic characters are everywhere in media and popular culture, from Homer Simpson to Kanye West to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Catherine in the movie Cruel Intentions. And their narcissism and dysregulation endow them with all the attention and celebrity they crave. Tiger King doesn’t characterize Maldonado-Passage as admirable, but he has generated a certain amount of mocking goodwill. The Apprentice harnessed Trump’s narcissistic traits to create a “no BS” persona that the show framed as meritorious.

In shows like Vanderpump Rules, Jax Taylor is undeniably a villain, but other people around him share his narcissistic traits, which encourages viewers to believe, on some level, that they deserve his treatment of them. Take season 1 Stassi, whose characterization was anchored by selfishness and vindictiveness. Jax, her boyfriend at the time, was manipulative, dismissive of her feelings, and casually cruel — but her own propensity for spiteful rage (at least as depicted on the show) made it nearly impossible to root for her. It’s an easy jump to, “Well, maybe she deserved it.” And this, while not exactly excusing the cruel treatment, at least softens and normalizes it.

There’s nothing normal about Maldonado-Passage’s behavior on Tiger King, though, and his backyard zoo of privately owned tigers is just the start. Almost every aspect of his life is leveraged for attention, from the callous treatment of his animals to his bleached mullet. Not only does he seem to use a drug addiction to manipulate apparently straight men into marrying him, he holds a public ceremony in which he marries two men at once, for maximum exposure.

His repeated attacks on rival Carole Baskin, eventually a key tenet of his personal brand, were calculated to achieve the greatest possible shock value, up to and including accusing her of murder in a music video and hiring a literal hitman to take her out. And as Durvasula has pointed out, it’s fascinating to watch him behave in a way most of us never would or even could.

And yet it’s hard to watch the series without being reminded of figures who have actually achieved success on the force of this kind of personality. Trump comes to mind, as does fellow Fox News firebrand Sean Hannity. Kanye West’s self-aggrandizement allows him to conduct “Sunday Service” events, quasi-Church-like performances promoting his own merch and music. These personality traits create scammers and grifters like Anna Delvey and Bernie Madoff. And in personal relationships, behaviors which seem over-the-top and exciting on television can be harder to spot, potentially letting psychologically abusive tendencies go unnoticed.

Good TV narrows, exaggerates, and amplifies personalities like Maldanado-Passage’s, so it is worth reflecting on the more complicated dynamics at play. A person this attention-seeking can cause real damage, even to themselves as well as others, and without careful consideration the harm done can get lost in the entertainment value. Tiger King remains fascinating viewing from a distance, but elevating it into a cultural obsession may be normalizing behaviors that should alarm us.

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