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Tiger King Producers, Learn from Errol Morris: This is how you portray ‘bad’ people.

Run in the shadows

Damn your love, damn your lies

Break the silence

Damn the dark, damn the light

The Chain, Fleetwood Mac

 

Sometimes, to tell your side, you gotta stand alone.

I’m being a little dramatic here, and I’m quite aware that I might be alone in my opinion, but I really am disappointed in the fact that Tiger King has become as big as it has… On one hand, I do get it’s appeal; I have watched some of it, and here’s what I’ll say: watching a bunch of weird people due weird shit is very entertaining, especially in times like this, where most of us can’t even do normal shit…  And Joe, for all of his bullshit, has an odd charisma to him…  A lot what happens in the show is fucked up, but so is life.  I ain’t mad at that.

But on the other hand, watching a celebrity cult form around the predatory, misogynistic, and self-absorbed person known to us as Joe Exotic really bothers me (#freejoe and all that).  To me, this worship is symptomatic of a failing on the show’s behalf: that of honesty, and giving into the sexism of its protagonist.

And let me just say, before I address that comment, it’s not like I have a problem with shows/films about fucked up people.  I don’t think understanding fucked up people, and how they work and why they do what they do is necessarily an ethical failing. In fact, I think it is quite ethically important for all of us to try and do.  Not really a real point, but I love The Sopranos… I also love American Dharma, and if there ever was a ‘toxic’ person to devote a film to trying to understand, it is absolutely Steve Bannon. In fact, some of the most evil people in all of history yet seemed capable of love, or at least remorse (I think a good documentary on the remorse angle is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing; it’s Errol Morris approved)

But even saying that, I think it’s an important lesson, evil people are still people.  Their evil is not necessarily derived from an errant thread of inhumanity in them.  And how can we prevent bad things if we don’t even understand their causes?  I’d argue that the contradictory nature of us as people, to be capable of both great good and great evil, is about as human as it gets.  And if that is true, I think that is hard to come to terms with.

This is really what I like about Errol Morris’ films… He doesn’t shy away from portraying individuals who’ve done really fucked up stuff.  Lying, war crimes, holocaust denial, the deliberate undermining of democracy… The list goes on…  And while I think this is a great thing, Morris does this with honesty.  He’s not trying to paint someone one way or the other.  Showing them for what they are is enough.  Or at least, it should be. (Mr. Death is polarizing in how successful this approach is, I think)

This is why I can’t stand Tiger King, and what it represents… It might be entertainment, sure, but it’s not honest… Like at all.  Placing Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin in equal lights, to me, seems ethically irresponsible.  Deliberately trying to paint Carole Baskin as a villian, and as a possible husband murderer with no real evidence, and then sizing her up as equivalent to Joe Exotic, who actually did put out a hit on someone… (And has abused and killed tigers, abused his employees, taken a violent video of himself shooting a blow-up doll made to resemble Baskin… etc etc)

To me, the phenomena almost seems analogous to Trump in a way…  You know, even as I’m writing this, I don’t like Carole Baskin (or Hillary Clinton for that matter) but watching either of them get called a “bitch” at every turn online, while seeing the men they are pitted against, who have done veritably evil things in provably higher quantities, get raised to cult levels of worship seriously rubs me the wrong way.

And again, the internet is not really ‘real life.’  As Lady Gaga once said, ‘social media is the toilet of the internet.’  But even saying that, I think acting like what people say on the internet doesn’t matter is a mistake.  Clearly, it does (point of reference: 2016 United States presidential election)

What’s the point of this post?  Well, I guess I wanted to rag on Tiger King for a while…  In my opinion, Morris does their shtick of exploring an obscure ‘Southern’ subculture much better (Vernon, Florida, yo).

And I don’t like seeing misogyny like this get ignored on behalf of the speaker’s “quirkiness” or “charisma,” or because the target of it ‘sucks.’  I don’t think anyone who watches/enjoys the show is a bad person either, for the record.  That’s such a foolish metric to define morality…  I just think it is important to examine what’s really going on with this show.  Is it really all just entertainment?  Is it normalizing or glorifying some things that maybe shouldn’t be so?

If I’m honest, I think it’s deliberately misleading and that pisses me off. Especially because, as we’ve seen in this class, you can honestly portray weird, harmful, or some combination of both (Rumsfeld, Leuchter) people and still make an emotionally powerful, interesting thing.

Dear Tiger King producers, you didn’t need to lie.  Take a lesson from Errol Morris: the truth is interesting enough.

 

 

Further Reading:

The Harmless-Sounding Phrase That Is Terrible for All Women

The Most-Watched Show in America Is a Moral Failure (inspired this post)

Carole Baskin feels betrayed by ‘Tiger King,’ gets death threats

Tiger King Is Cruel and Appalling—Why Are We All Watching It?

Tiger King is less fun when you actually think about the victims

4 Comments

  1. Your contrarian take on Tiger King is a breath of fresh amid all the memes and obsessing on social media. I have to admit I haven’t seen a single second of the show and your post makes me think I made the right call. To me it seemed like it had nothing of substance to offer beyond the outrageous personalities of the people involved, and to learn that it has a dishonest, misogynistic streak is even more off-putting. I have no doubt that it might be entertaining at first, but if I’m gonna dedicate six hours of my life to watching something there kinda needs to be a little more to it than just laughing at a bunch of stupid assholes. It kind of irritates me that something like this can become a pop culture sensation while Wormwood, a legitimately great and fascinating true crime doc, still flies under the radar.

    (The Fleetwood Mac quote was also a nice touch.)

    • Thanks, Wiley!! Yeah, honestly, I was feeling pretty heated when I wrote this, haha. I also agree with you about Wormwood. A long time ago, I blogged about entertainment for consumption and convenience vs entertainment for nourishment and reflection. I definitely think Tiger King is the former.

  2. The demonization of Carole Baskin is very similar to the demonization of Skylar White from breaking bad. The main character was a murderous meth dealer yet the most hated character online was his (justifiably) adulterous wife. Obviously the creators of Tiger King are more responsible for this given their deliberate portrayal of Carole and, you know, her being a real person but the misogynist trends of modern tv viewers are evident.

    • I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re so right. I noticed that happens a lot… With so many things!

      I think you’re correct in your assessment that the average TV viewer definitely has a bias here.

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