The main characters of Tiger King, Netflix’s hit new documentary series, are a flower-crown-and-leopard-print-wearing animal-rights activist who’s trying to criminalize for-profit tiger breeding, and a gay polygamist tiger breeder with multiple piercings and a bleached mullet, who’s currently in prison for trying to have her killed. It’s no wonder folks are hooked. If there’s one thing audiences love more than true crime, eccentric personalities, and cute animals, it’s a messy public feud.
Directors Eric Good and Rebecca Chaiklin spent five years filming Tiger King as tensions mounted between Carole Baskin and Joseph Maldonado-Passage (a.k.a. Joe Exotic), eventually culminating in his conviction on two counts of murder for hire. But despite Maldonado-Passage’s terrifying escalation of the feud, Good and Chaiklin don’t frame the story as a brave conservationist being harassed by a relentless bully — or at least not only that. Baskin, at least according to the documentary, did plenty of bullying of her own. (For her part, Baskin has fairly criticized Tiger King for being “salacious and sensational.”)
Even as the documentary has climbed to the top of Netflix’s top 10 most-viewed content list, viewers aren’t visibly taking sides in the face-off. There are no trending #TeamCarole or #TeamJoe hashtags, and most of the memes stemming from the show have to do with the series’ ubiquity and recognizability, or the subjects’ flamboyant personalities and personal styles, rather than defending one of them over the other. Instead, it seems that the internet mostly agrees that Joe and Carole, along with Tiger King’s other main subjects, like tiger breeder “Doc” Antle, or Joe’s business partner Jeff Lowe, are all terrible people. Rather than arguing over who’s right, Tiger King viewers are only really divided over which character is the most deplorable.
Whether or not that’s a fair conclusion, the nonplussed response is remarkable. It’s rare for viral, sensationalized conflict to have so little engagement when it comes to taking sides.
Part of what made the NPR podcast Serial so successful (and ultimately frustrating) was its ambiguity. Most of the conversations around the show were about whether convicted murderer Adnan Syed was actually guilty of killing Hae Min Lee. But there’s very little of that kind of ambiguity in Tiger King. There’s no questioning whether Joe Exotic should be behind bars. (At least not since Cardi B clarified that she was joking when she suggested starting a GoFundMe to free him.) And while the accusation that Carole Baskin killed her husband and fed him to tigers has become a meme, most of those are jokes rather than serious arguments over whether she’s guilty.
Arguably, Tiger King is closer to a reality show than a true-crime documentary. It’s focused more on bombastic characters and petty personal drama than on creating a case, or making a point. But even reality shows like Love is Blind or the Real Housewives series, which shamelessly craft storylines with heroes and villains, have their share of fans fighting over who really deserves condemnation. For example, Corrinne, a notorious Bachelor villain who was slammed by many of the show’s fans for being rude and obnoxious, had almost as many defenders praising her tenacity.
Really, the famous feud that Tiger King most closely maps to is Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West: messy and at times exploitative drama between a white woman who loves cats, and a brash musician. (Yes, Joe Exotic makes music.) The Kanye-Taylor feud has deeply entrenched sides, with Swifties saying West and his wife, Kim Kardashian-West, are bullies, and Yeezy’s fans tweeting snake emojis at Taylor. True, Swift and West already had huge fan bases when their conflict began, and those bases easily divided into factions as the feud escalated. While Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin have their own small groups of dedicated supporters, most people who watched Tiger King had never heard of them, and if they had, it was through last year’s podcast, Joe Exotic: Tiger King. (The podcast and Netflix series are unrelated.) But now that Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin are on track to become household names, it doesn’t appear that those small groups of supporters are growing much. Instead, the conversation is around how cartoonishly terrible the world of big cat breeding is.
It’s surprising that so many people have now watched Tiger King and come to the same conclusion:Its main characters are all despicable. Some of that certainly has to do with the show’s editing. Our colleagues at Vox argued that it was irresponsible of the filmmakers to focus on character quirks and lurid details — including spending an entire episode on the unsubstantiated claim that Baskin killed her husband — rather than engaging critically with the real harm people like Joe Exotic and Doc Antle have done to their animals and employees. But lots of poppy true-crime documentaries have been similarly criticized (Netflix’s Making a Murderer in particular comes to mind), and that hasn’t stopped fans from arguing over a subject’s guilt or innocence.
Timing may also have a lot to do with why Tiger King fans view both Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin as villains. The show dropped in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only were more people home to watch the show, but those viewers were also more likely to latch onto it and run with its conclusions. Anxiety and boredom are a potent cocktail: Making memes about how everyone in Tiger King sucks is a lot more fun than endlessly scrolling through news about the novel coronavirus. Whether that’s ultimately a fair characterization is a moot point. In a time of uncertainty and fear, it’s comforting to unite behind common enemies that we can see and make fun of, rather than a microscopic existential threat.
Tiger King is streaming on Netflix.
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