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Why Tiger King is the antithesis, not the antidote, to the Coronavirus

Rather than being perfect lockdown watching, our critic explains why Tiger King is a guilty pleasure that actually makes you feel guilty.

There are under 3500 tigers remaining in the wild globally. There are anywhere between 5000-10,000 tigers currently in captivity in the United States. This stunning fact ends the docu-series that has taken the world by a storm. In Netflix’s Tiger King, we are introduced to the deranged world of exotic pet ownership in rural America. For just $5000 you can be the owner of a real, snarling, 600-pound tiger –  which is comparatively cheap even within the market of American exotic pets (as Louis Theroux tells us on his ‘suburban safari’, a baby chimpanzee sets you back $60,000). 

The big cats are an aphrodisiac: the roars of the tigers, lions and ligers (crossbred lion-tigers) pull in a menagerie of husband-killing hippies, gun-toting gays, polyamorous cult leaders, and innocently trapped social-distancers looking for something else to kill the newfound time they have. Yet, as directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin soon discovered, those roars and growls seem to beat on like a repetitive background track to the crazy lives of those at the centre of the big cat world – only to be paused when Joe Exotic’s literal soundtrack makes a feature.

Tiger King – and I cannot stress this enough – has literally everything you could imagine and more. If you haven’t seen it already, you have to watch it as soon as physically possible. At every twist and turn your jaw is left hanging on the floor: you don’t think anything crazier could happen until it does. Michael Jackson’s incinerated alligators, genetic experiments to recreate a prehistoric sabretooth tiger, and a GoFundMe for fake prostate cancer are just some of the wild detours the show couldn’t fit in seven episodes. It appears that Tiger King is exactly what we all needed – an unbelievable, blazing fire in our very own houses that we cannot ignore– a fire big enough to distract from the scarier, more absurd inferno that blazes right outside our window in the form of a global pandemic. 

Many have called Tiger King the perfect antidote for anyone in need of a diversion from present reality. Except, make no mistake, Tiger King is not the answer to Corona– it is blatantly its antithesis. In a time of isolation, Tiger King has offered us communal distraction: pulling the world together with an endless supply of memes about ‘that bitch Carole Baskin’. While hundreds of ‘What To Watch During Isolation’ lists populate the internet, the only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that you have to watch Tiger King. Much like Tik Tok, banana bread and risky haircuts, it’s a cultural phenomenon defining the unique moment that we find ourselves in.

However, what sets Tiger King apart from all of these trends is that it is not a product of the Corona era, but instead an unapologetic middle finger to everything that has come to define the last few weeks. While we preach cleanliness, Tiger King advertises expired truck meat pizzas. While the world accesses new levels of selflessness and charity, Tiger King fills our screens with egotistical maniacs who embezzle money from their own mothers. While our freedoms are increasingly restricted, Tiger King’s protagonists exercise unfettered liberty, the sort where owning a striped predator is a god-given, unimpeachable right. Whatever we are told to aspire to, Tiger King is glaringly, brazenly, and often disgustingly the opposite.

Only in America: a graphic representation of the “unfettered liberty” that characterizes the documentary subjects in Tiger King.

Currently, individualized worries have been put on hold while a more pressing concern dominates public consciousness. Yet, in the world of Tiger King, Joe Exotic is almost comically absorbed in a petty personal feud with his nemesis Caroline Baskin. There are not many of us that can say that we truly have an arch-rival, yet the construction of Joe’s ‘Tiger King’ persona requires a villain to give him purpose. From nicking her diary, to stealing her business’s name and rallying his fans to harass her, Joe’s battle with Carole is almost reminiscent of a playground rivalry, that is, until you add the murder, the dildos, and the Carole Baskin sex-doll. Joe is entirely transfixed with the destruction of ‘that bitch Carole Baskin’, so much so that it ultimately leads to his own downfall. 

As many of us find ourselves reconnecting with family or reaching out virtually to maintain our friendships, we appreciate real connections that much more. Conversely, genuine connection in Tiger King is notably lacking. The only glimpses at real endearment – perhaps in Joe Exotic’s marriages or within his zookeeping team –  are undercut by their manipulative and coercive nature, wherein Joe’s supply of meth and demand for money seem to be the only things that keep them going. Even after the tragedy they experience, the dark undertones of the friendship that develops between Joe and Walmart-manager-come-campaign-director Joshua Dial surface in Dial’s lost teeth (a common byproduct of meth usage) and his disheveled demeanour during later interviews. 

Social distancing and increased hygiene measures are now so aggressively ingrained within me that I have started to feel uncomfortable whenever I see individuals behaving as normally as one used to on screen. Handshakes and face-touches set off little alarm bells inside my head, but Tiger King takes my heightened sensitivity to a new level. It cuts straight through any discomfort we might feel as the world is desperately trying to sanitise every environment: it shoves sad animals in tiny cages with visible fleas and puts their keepers’ rat-ridden living conditions right in your face. As one reviewer put it, ‘ask yourself bluntly how badly you felt you needed a shower after watching just one episode, let alone the whole series? Thought so.’

While the internet, newspapers, and your mother are telling you to find things that will make you happy during isolation, Tiger King is a sure way to make yourself feel lousy. If Harry Potter and Friends are your ‘guilty pleasure’ viewings during isolation then Tiger King gives a new more literal meaning to the term. ‘Guilt’ is as good a word as any to name the feeling you have after realizing how excited and entertained you’ve just been by the atrocious behaviour and awful consequences on screen. 

And, the saddest contrast of all: while we are all told that everyone can be a hero by thinking of others and remaining at home, Tiger King ends without a good guy. No one serves a redemptive role: not Bhagavan Doc Antle, the calculating cult-leader who collects young women and hands out breast implants, not the ‘true neutral’ Rick Kirkham whose past involves domestic abuse and a documentary-worthy crack addiction, and not Carole Baskin, who even without Netflix’s assertion of husband-killing would be an insincere woman who knows too much about sardine oil and still keeps big cats behind bars. And, of course, it is certainly not Joe Exotic, who despite Cardi B’s support, remains a narcissistic, selfish individual who coerced men with meth and money and probably abused loads more animals along the way. Everyone in the big cat world is as self-centered at the end of the documentary as they were when it started. 

As The Atlantic put it, the whole show is truly an ‘ethical train-wreck’. It’s hard to say for sure that we would have been able to look away if Tiger King wasn’t providing such a striking contrast to the current situation we find ourselves in. However, I think it is pretty telling that as we all watch it from the confines of our homes with no end to lockdown in sight, many of us fell prey to feeling sympathy for the person who has his freedom taken away.

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