I Watched "Tiger King" and I Have Some Thoughts About How We Look at Villains

FILE – In this May 7, 2009, file photo, a Siberian tiger crouches on top of a tourist bus at a branch of Harbin Siberian Tigers Breeding Center in Shenyang in northeast China’s Liaoning province. China says it will allow trading in products made from endangered tigers and rhinos under “special circumstances,” reversing a previous ban and bringing condemnation from conservation groups. A notice from the Cabinet issued Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, avoided mentioning any change in the law, saying instead that it would “control” the trade and that rhino horns and tiger bones could only be obtained from farmed animals for use in “medical research or in healing.” (Chinatopix Via AP, File)

I’m just going to write this article under the assumption that you’ve seen the Netflix special that became about as viral as the Wuhan coronavirus. So, if you haven’t seen it yet and you continue reading, then be warned, there will be spoilers.

Like you, I’m completely blown away by this entire display of a subculture in America that I didn’t know existed. Tiger King is what it would look like if you fell down America’s rabbit hole, and instead of seeing mad hatters and hares that are late for something, you saw what amounts to harem cults, husband murdering environmentalists, and Milli Vanilli acts by a man who wooed two straight guys into being gay with meth. Oh, and then he ran for president of the free world.

Oddly enough, that’s just a small sliver of the craziness that goes on in that show. You come to realize that every main character in that show is a villain, with secondary and tertiary characters directly playing into the villainy or being a victim of it.

Weirdly, after watching Tiger King, we sort of forget this or understand that these are villains but are just kind of okay with it because their big personalities are entertaining. We forget that what we watched was essentially hours worth of animal and people abuse. Tiger King is an amazing watch, but it’s a tale of woe like we haven’t seen in a long time.

Regardless, our society has fallen in love with the show’s main focus, Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage or, as he’s more popularly known, Joe Exotic. Like everything America loves, Exoctic has become a meme and everyone from random internet denizens to Hollywood has taken to treating the man as a national celebrity. Many people are already putting their Joe Exotic Halloween costume together or even just cosplaying as him now. To be honest, there is something about the guy that makes you want to like him despite him being a breathtakingly horrid person.

It’s the same feeling we get about characters in our own media who are clearly villains but with whom we’re made to sympathize. You can see this sentiment in shows like “Breaking Bad”, where we’re meant to root for Walter White, and “Rick and Morty”, where the sociopathic and possibly genocidal Rick is a beloved character. Exotic is no different. We should, for all intents and purposes, hate the guy, but we like him. Even the documentarian who saw it all confessed that he couldn’t bring himself to dislike the Tiger King.

But we, as humans, want there to be a good guy in everything we see. In a show full of villains we make heroes out of the person we like the most and Exotic gets that privilege. He’s just crazy enough to be lovable despite his many crimes, ranging from animal abuse to trying to have the series’ main villain, Carole Baskin, killed. His deepest loyalties were based on meth. He fed his tigers, his staff, and his customers expired meat that Walmart threw out. There’s a tinge of sadness in us because Exotic went to prison but let’s be very clear, he got what he deserved.

So why are we so into the guy?

Gizmodo looked into the subject of why we tend to empathize and give attention to the bad guy a while back and as it turns out, we’re naturally wired to do this:

Based on the findings of a study conducted by Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of the Brain and Creativity Institute of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, we have a vested interest in paying close attention to, and even empathizing with, the physical pain of our enemies. And by empathizing, the researchers aren’t necessarily suggesting that we feel sorry for them, or that we sympathize with their point of view — it’s just that we are more tuned into the pain they’re experiencing. We are biologically inclined to want and need to understand their pain.

“When you watch an action movie and the bad guy appears to be defeated, the moment of his demise draws our focus intensely,” explains Aziz-Zadeh in a press release. “We watch him closely to see whether he’s really down for the count, because it’s critical for predicting his potential for retribution in the future.”

In short, we’re obsessed with Exotic because of his big personality plus his villainy, and that math adds up to us wanting him to become something better. We’re wired to want him to turn it all around and become the hero we see it in him to be.

Certainly, he can be that. Before he was “Exotic” he was just “Passage,” a man whose main mission was rescuing endangered tigers and releasing them back into the wild. He was soon corrupted by his need for fame and the money he made off of displaying and selling the tigers. Near the end of the series, Exotic expresses his regret over having kept two primates apart, showing that he was capable of being remorseful and learning lessons. He tells the documentarian at the end that the reason tigers die so fast in captivity is that their soul dies, and he, now in prison, knows what it feels like.

He’s a major demon and that fuels our desire to want him to be a greater angel.

It’s okay to want the best for Exotic, but we need to get some things straight. As it stands, Exotic is not a good guy. He’s a horrible person who did harm to nearly everyone and everything he came into contact with. The “best” for Exotic is a “come to Jesus” moment where he’s confronted with every villainous thing he’s ever done to the point where it pierces the very thick wall of self-importance and stupidity that he’s built up around himself. That’s what we cheer for. We cheer for Passage, not Exotic.

The other thing we should get straight is that Carole Baskin totally killed her husband.


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