Tiger King and The Power of the Media Jungle: A Decode

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”48″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]T[/mks_dropcap]he Tiger King frenzy has invaded every corner of the Internet: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Although most viewers are bedazzled by the outrageous yet enticing feud between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, the series proves to be a classic example of how influential and impactful the media can be through the characters’ manipulation of media use and through the documentary’s astronomical success. (Warning: Spoiler alert!)

Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin and Social Media: The Triple Threat

Social media has proven its role to ignite and accelerate the hatred between Joe and Carole through their openly vicious online attacks. Joe Exotic is not exactly the quietest hateful type as he brazenly threatens Baskin with violent and vile language through his less-than-popular Youtube videos and Facebook posts. Joe shamelessly bragged that he “fills [Carole’s] mailbox with snakes, makes memes about her crotch, and <…> fantasizes about torturing her with a horse penis.” He even made a music video alluding to the show’s other mystery: Carole’s alleged involvement in her husband’s disappearance. With Joe’s blatant attempts of berating Baskin’s reputation, he is a textbook Internet troll: trying to aggressively gather attention and urge them to believe his conspiracy theories.

Carole Baskin is Joe’s antithesis: composed, care-free, and relatable. With her signature catchphrase, “Hey, all you cool cats and kittens!” Baskin won the Internet over by showcasing the animals and their caregivers enjoying each other’s company. Contrary to Joe’s abnormal media use, Baskin is no amateur: utilizing social media to her advantage and facilitating a loyal fellowship with hundreds of thousands of views on her Youtube channel.  

As we are wrapped up in the show’s stories and the characters’ morally questionable actions, it creates a “feeling of being part of a moment”.

Tiger King: The modern COVID escapist haven

Since I am not Tiger King’s number one supporter, I was bewildered by its exponential fame. As the show has been blown out of proportion, one must wonder: What makes this hellish show so charming, even in its twisted ways? 

Our current circumstances and the documentary form an unusual dynamic. The series provided an escapist paradise where reality is suspended (for seven hours). As we are wrapped up in the show’s stories and the characters’ morally questionable actions, it creates a “feeling of being part of a moment”. Another factor that contributes to the series’ fame are the shockingly stunning visuals. According to The Atlantic, the image of “humans and tigers so intimately connected” feeds into humans’ wildest, glorious dreams of owning these “kings of the jungles.” The prominence of visuals is also demonstrated in the series, where Tinder users feature photos of them touching and petting tigers. Anything for that right swipe, right? 

Exotic Stories, Exotic Reality-TV Stars

However, the key elements that differentiate Tiger King from other Netflix Originals are undoubtedly the compelling narrative and the cast’s enigmatic personalities. As the series uncovers the characters’ mysteries, it constructs this unreal world of “its own rituals and language and images.” It represents the epitome of “pop-cultural imagination,” where Netflix takes storytelling to an extremity: “the more unfathomable and ethically dubious, the better.” The series’ key theme basically surrounds the exploitation of the animals and the people who work for Joe, and yet, we are entertained by it. The show’s creators grasp this mechanism, as the director admits that “the people are almost more interesting than the exotic animals they’re keeping.” This is the series’ biggest weakness: they barely focus on the abuse and cruelty that the animals face. This sentiment is best encapsulated by Rebecca Chaiklin, the co-director:

“We really struggled a lot with the fact that the characters, oftentimes, and their colorful lifestyles and their cult-like facilities trumped many of the issues that we were really interested in addressing in the piece.”

Nevertheless, the series would not receive the same amount of recognition without Joe Exotic’s shenanigans and ludicrous personality. Joe Exotic single-handedly transformed the docuseries into a reality TV show! With a “grandiose sense of self-importance, need for excessive admiration, exploitation of others, and lack of empathy,” Joe is the “perfect kind of reality star” whose actions are designed to incite the “greatest possible shock value.” Before the hit docuseries, Joe Exotic had made a name for himself in local news as the crazy zookeeper whose personal life could entice any viewer. According to Polygon, since the characters are so ridiculous, it creates “escapism” where we “vicariously experience what it might be like to act on our worst impulses,” pulling us and those around them into their preposterous worlds.  

A Downturn for the Film Industry?

While Tiger King does not fulfill its educational purpose, it nonetheless depicts the ever-changing, fast-paced film industry. The series morphs into a cocktail of documentary, entertainment, and reality TV. While it aims towards balanced viewpoints, financial considerations from the entertainment-centric Netflix production can potentially override the creative decisions of directors.

The series’ accuracy is also being questioned, as its portrayals of the zoo owners might have caused disturbing misconceptions. Glen Zipper, a documentary producer and writer, expresses his concern: “If we’re delivering something to you that is factually inaccurate — particularly when it has to do with something <…> critically important — that ultimately could be quite dangerous.” And since the show has not slowed its course, its manifested cultural obsession poses real dangers, “normalizing behaviors that should alarm us.”

This series is only the beginning of the industry’s expansion into this morally compromised universe.


The World Responded, for the Better or the Worse

Memes defending Joe and hashtags such as #FreeJoeExotic and #JusticeforJoe have caused an Internet outburst. Celebrities such as Cardi B, Jared Leto, and Snoop Dogg have expressed their love for the show. Joe, who is in prison for his hire-for-murder scheme, is ecstatic about his newfound fame and anti-hero cult status. However, not everyone became the Internet’s evil hero as memes villainizing Carole Baskin have also taken off, much to her dismay, as revealed in her blog post

This series is only the beginning of the industry’s expansion into this morally compromised universe. However, the extra episode titled Tiger King and I did not receive the same acclaim as the main series, as it is seen as “an attempt to feed the show’s popularity churn with minimal effort.” Many fans have proposed the series being adapted to the big screen, as Joe Exotic himself states his preference of actors Brad Pitt and David Spade to play himself. Investigation Discovery, a true-crime channel, has also announced a sequel titled “Investigating the Strange World of Joe Exotic” that will dive into the disappearance of Don Lewis, Carole Baskin’s husband, through Joe Exotic’s perspective.

Much like how Joe exploits his animals for entertainment, the media will squeeze these captivating and dramatic stories and characters with every imaginable format. Soon enough, the industry moguls will discard the repercussions into oblivion and continue the self-perpetuated cycle of entertainment products until another exotic trend triumphs…


Cover: Netflix via Fatherly

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