Netflix’s Tiger King is, without a doubt, the show everyone is talking about at the moment. Indeed, according to Netflix’s own daily rankings, it is the number one most-watched title in the UK and US – and has been in the platform’s top-ranked TV shows for the past seven days.
The docuseries has also become something of a viral talking point, with many taking to social media – Twitter, in particular – to share their reactions to the show. The main source of their conversation, other than whether or not Florida tiger sanctuary-owner Carole Baskin actually murdered her husband? Why, the titular Tiger King himself, Joseph Maldanado-Passage.
Better known as Joe Exotic, the gay, polygamist zookeeper from Oklahoma is currently serving 22 years for ordering a hit on his nemesis, Baskin, as well as multiple animal-rights violations (including the killing of five baby tigers).
It’s made abundantly clear throughout the docuseries that Exotic is not a good person. This is a man who, whether you believe he ordered the hit on Baskin or not, regularly threatened her life on and off-screen. Who bred tiger cubs as a quick way to make a buck. Who manipulated and married much younger men he met (and hired) when they were barely more than teenagers. Who enabled and exploited Travis Maldonado’s meth addiction just to keep him around.
Despite all of this, though, people seemingly love Exotic. His larger-than-life personality and eccentric style has become the source of many a meme, and a fast-growing petition asking for Exotic to be pardoned paints him as the victim of a scheming woman.
It’s a reaction that has prompted directors Eric Good and Rebecca Chaiklin to remind viewers of Exotic’s true nature.
“Joe is a racist, I would say categorically,” Chaiklin told The Hollywood Reporter. “He said things when we were filming that were very unsettling.”
In the same interview, Goode added: “We had empathy for Joe, but Joe did a lot of horrible things. Joe committed some really serious crimes and Joe was not only cruel and inhumane to his animals, he was cruel to the people around him.
“I think it’s very important for people to understand that Joe is an actor and he tells people what they want to hear. As much as we have some empathy for Joe and found Joe to be such an incredible character – this mullet-wearing country singer in Oklahoma – he did a lot of horrible things.”
As previously reported, Theroux – in his 2011 documentary, America’s Most Dangerous Pets – spent time with Exotic. And now, speaking openly about that time in his life, Theroux has explained why he, like so many others, found himself overlooking Exotic’s misdeeds as he found himself warming to the outlandish tiger breeder.
“What stood out, apart from the blonde mullet and the nervous energy, was the blue eyeliner tattooed on the rims under his eyes. He was a strange mix of butch and femme signifiers,” writes Theroux.
“He carried a gun, which never left his side, and handcuffs, but there were also the aforementioned piercings and an air of heightened emotion.
“Altogether, though, Joe struck me as likeable and friendly. I warmed to him, and his ridiculousness was endearing rather than annoying… maybe because he seemed neither to be hiding many of his misdeeds nor to take himself too seriously, not to mention that his emotional volatility – laughter, tears, kindness, paranoia, all in quick succession – inclined me to be a little protective of him.”
Despite this admission, though, Theroux added that he had one gripe with the show.
“If I have a quibble with the series, or maybe just a cautionary note, it’s that the carnival of human folly it depicts should not blind us to the pressing, and less amusing, animal issues at its heart: playthings of a more powerful predator, kept in captivity because of human acquisitiveness, ostentation and control,” he says.
It’s a very valid point. And, while it’s easy to empathise with Exotic, it’s important to remember that he is not an admirable person, nor a ‘hero’. Rather, he’s a misogynist, a racist and an abuser of animals and people – albeit a charismatic one.
Please, please remember that.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.