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Let’s think twice about Tiger King

Netflix’s hit show invites us to gawk at its ridiculousness. Should it?

A man feeds a tiger.
Tiger King is a strange, strange show. On purpose.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In ordinary times, Tiger King probably still would have been a hit. But the decision makers at Netflix had no way of knowing that the date they picked for the stranger-than-fiction series’ premiere, March 20, would fall just as state-wide shutdowns prompted by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic were rolling out across the country. A wide swath of newly cooped up people wanted something to distract them from existential dread. Seven episodes of weirdos, murder, and giant cats? Sign America up.

So if it’s felt to you as if everyone you know is watching and posting about Tiger King, you’re not alone. The show placed first on Netflix’s “top 10” most popular shows row over the weekend; it’s been the subject of memes and dream-casting for what seems like the unavoidable feature-film adaptation.

And no wonder. It’s an almost infinitely meme-able series, largely thanks to its titular protagonist: Joe Exotic, the “Tiger King” himself, a mullet-sporting former (longshot) presidential candidate with a zoo full of exotic cats and a side career as a country singer. His archnemesis is Carole Baskin, a slightly eccentric animal rights activist who the series suggests might have murdered her last husband (and includes the rumors that she fed him to a tiger). Side characters include one of Joe’s ex-husbands, several former employees, Joe’s former campaign manager, and Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the proprietor of Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina and one of Hollywood’s most sought-after animal trainers, whose massive footprint in the big cat business also takes up a lot of space in the series.

And in the pilot episode, Joe speaks by phone from prison, where he’s serving time for conspiring to murder Carole.

Carole Baskin and one of her big cats in Tiger King.

In seven episodes, Tiger King goes on a wild ride through what brought Joe to that point, Tasmanian devil-ing itself around the world of exotic cats and the people who love them without a lot of direction. The show’s distractedness is both its charm and its biggest filmmaking issue; in my review, I criticized both the aimless storytelling and the way it punts on the big questions it raises. Why are men like Joe and Doc Antle so fascinated by big cats? What about the ways they exploit the people who work for them? And what is at stake in the animal rights fight? If you want answers to questions like these, Tiger King will not help you.

I initially saw the series a few days before its release, and in the weeks since, I’ve continued to feel uncomfortable with it — maybe even more now that some time has passed. While few would deny that Tiger King is an engrossing way to pass time and distract yourself, there’s something inherently troubling, and maybe even repugnant, about the show.

Tiger King’s choices emphasize its true aim

Critics have pointed out some of the biggest issues with Tiger King. It masks the way the tigers themselves are being treated. It turns Joe Exotic’s moral repulsiveness into a series of weird character quirks. It chooses the wrong villain in Carole Baskin. It repeatedly misgenders one of its interviewees, Saff Saffery, a trans man and possibly the only truly admirable person in the series.

I can think of some others. The entire third episode is spent building the case that Baskin killed her late husband, but we never find out why that’s relevant to the larger story. Does it mean Joe is more in the right for trying to have her murdered? A great deal of another episode focuses on how both Joe and “Doc” Antle have kept their tiger empires humming along with underpaid and exploited labor, mostly from either convicted felons who can’t get work anywhere else (in Joe’s case) or beautiful young women kept in a kind of harem/cult (in Antle’s case).

One interviewee, Barbara Fisher, speaks of the horrors of her years working for Antle, being pressured to submit to unwanted sexual encounters for the privilege of working at his zoo around the big cats for peanuts. One of Joe’s ex-husbands, John Finlay, talks about the ways Joe bribed the young men he married to stay with him with drugs and gifts.

Any of the side characters — Saff (a former employee of Joe’s who lost an arm to a tiger) and Barbara in particular — seem like they might have been much better main subjects for the documentary. Both of them got involved in the story because they are genuinely interested in working with exotic animals, and they seem untouched by the seemingly megalomaniacal tendencies of Joe or Antle. Hearing the story through their perspectives, we would have gotten some of the same details, but with a different angle: What attracts people to these big tigers to begin with? What separates someone who keeps animals in order to protect them from someone who keeps them for profit — especially if both make a living from people who come to see the animals? And how does someone morph from one to the other?

“Doc” Antle and one of his tigers in Tiger King.

Instead, Tiger King heads straight for the most salacious parts of the story and hovers there: the messy and sometimes abusive sexual relationships, drugs, guns, embezzlement, suicide, attempted murder, lost limbs, yelling matches, smuggling — it just keeps going. Co-director Eric Goode is a conservationist and philanthropist, and the series seems as if it been started as an exposé on what’s happening to exotic cats in captivity in the US. Goode appears in the series once in a while, looking more and more bewildered by what’s happening as Joe becomes increasingly obsessed with fighting Baskin. It feels as if the story spun out of his control, and an attempt to drive home a point about the plight of exotic cats in the final episode winds up feeling tacked on and unimportant next to everything else that’s happened over the past seven hours.

Tiger King’s subjects aren’t victims. But in getting us to treat them like jokes, the series breezes past its ethical aims.

The series’ salacious focus is, admittedly, exactly what makes it so watchable. But it’s also what makes it gross. The animal rights activists largely object to two things: the breeding of animals in captivity to generate profit for zoo owners like Joe and Antle, and their “pay-for-play” businesses, in which the general public lines the zoo owners’ pockets in return for getting to pet or hold or have their photo taken with an exotic cat. (As the series briefly points out, photos with exotic cats are very popular in online dating profiles.)

But oddly, that kind of exploitation is echoed in the series itself. Yes, Joe and Antle and Baskin all agreed to be part of the documentary. In Joe’s case, he gave the filmmakers unbelievably wide access to his life for over five years. He’s hardly the first documentary subject whose willingness to have cameras follow him around seems self-destructive. (Think, for instance, of former US Rep. Anthony Weiner, the subject of the unfathomably intimate and damning 2016 documentary Weiner.)

Still, is it right to take that footage and turn it into seven hours of strained-neck gawking without a point to make? Is it ethically sound to spend hours dwelling on what the audience will think is weird about someone?

Or is Tiger King more like a “pay-for-play” scenario of a different kind? We, the audience, are coaxed to rubberneck, to ogle these people — carefully edited to look like hicks and freaks — as they do and say strange things. Then we make memes and jokes out of the version of their lives that the series presents, trading quips with each other that make us feel like we’re in on the gag. Or we ironically celebrate the show’s “characters” as folk heroes. The memes go viral, prompting more people to watch the series and boosting its popularity. (That there’s undoubtedly an element of class prejudice involved — look at these vulgar rednecks! — makes this extra icky.)

Joe Exotic and one of his tigers.

As with some reality TV shows, the goal isn’t to let us look into others’ lives. On Tiger King, it’s to let us judge them for being weird and thereby feel better about ourselves. It taps the same impulse that used to drive people to freak shows at carnivals: Through their supposed abnormality, we feel normal.

That isn’t to say Joe, or Baskin, or Antle, or any of the people in Tiger King are victims. But Tiger King’s slipshod filmmaking turns it into something that exploits its subjects without any goal in mind other than hooking the audience on the exploitation itself. Reminding us at the end that exotic cats are being mistreated in the US isn’t enough to rectify what’s come before.

There’s nothing inherently wrong in the act of watching Tiger King. It’s made to be entertainment, and it certainly is entertaining. And its moral dubiousness might be part of why it’s so successful: It’s a show that’s impossible to watch without forming an opinion of its characters, then arguing over them later.

But anything worth spending seven hours on — even during a pandemic lockdown — is probably worth thinking about a little more deeply, and Tiger King gives much opportunity to think about the ethics of exploiting others for our own entertainment. Our reactions to a show like this one are probably as worth contemplating as the show itself. If you feel uneasy after watching something, there might be a good reason.

Tiger King is streaming on Netflix.