Joe Exotic and the Dangers of Story

Like many people these last few weeks, I’ve had more time than normal on my hands. So I took a moment to flip on the Netflix machine and skim through the titles and what do I see? A little thing called Tiger King, a true crime documentary about big cats and the big personalities that work with them. I figured, sure, why not? Tigers are neat and I’ve enjoyed some true crime podcasts in the past (also, This Sounds Serious which is definitely not true crime but more on that next week). And it was number one in the most watched list so it must have some redeeming value, right?

Not necessarily.

If you’ve watched Tiger King already you’re aware that it’s basically a slow motion trainwreck as the titular tiger collector, who goes by the name Joe Exotic, got so wrapped up in a rivalry with another big cat collector, one Carol Baskins, that he nearly went bankrupt and got himself entangled in a murder-for-hire scheme that would eventually see him arrested, tried and convicted. Pretty grim stuff for a man who ostensibly just wanted to bring beautiful and exotic animals to the public. And if that’s all he was, I’d probably be pretty sympathetic to him.

The problem with Joe Exotic was one I see playing out over and over again in modern life, one I’ve spent a long time thinking about myself and one that culturally Westerners are very, very vulnerable to. Joe Exotic got caught up in his own story, so much so that he lost the plot.

I don’t intend to break down the nuances of Joe vs. Carol in their approach to conservation of wildlife or the nuances of how they cared for animals under their charge. Nor do I intend to delve into the quite torrid details of their personal lives and the various accusations that can be leveled against either of them. Tiger King does that quite effectively itself, if that’s what you want you can watch it. What fascinates me is how far afield Joe went while ostensibly defending big cats and other specimens of exotic wildlife from extinction.

We often say that everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story. While the accuracy of that truism is debatable in some cases, I think it’s more accurate than not. Of course, accuracy is not the point of the saying, the point is to try and inspire a little empathy for others. But in the case of Joe and Carol that was not the effect it had.

Both Joe and Carol were in the process of trying to help out big cats. If the things they said about their efforts are even partially true they both saw themselves as heroes in this endeavor. But they wound up fundamentally at odds, even though they were not located near each other and their methods were not radically different to the outside observer. This opposition seems to have come from the need for a heroic character to have an easily identifiable villain.

Now it is possible for a hero to face stiff opposition without a specific face to put on it, as in some disaster movies. And the opposition doesn’t have to be a villain per se, many sports heroes compete against honorable and admirable men, as we see in the rivalry between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. However humans generally react the most strongly and vividly to a battle between good and evil. So it’s no surprise that, as Joe and Carol grew more and more firmly opposed to one another, that’s the tenor their conflict took. Each wanted their supporters firmly set against the other and strove to expose what they felt were hypocritical and evil actions on the part of the other. That’s not wonderful, and it really didn’t help the cause they espoused, but in and of itself it’s not enough to hire a hitman over.

Where Joe went particularly off the rails is when he tried to pivot to politics.

On the surface it seems like a natural progression – Carol was trying to change the laws, Joe tried to become a lawmaker. The problem was it wasn’t – as really would have made more sense for Joe to lobby as well, rather than take a job that would have removed him from his animals and his zoo entirely. That’s much the same reason many other high profile members of niche causes don’t go into politics. Politicians have to consider the desires of a broad range of people, special interests want to remain focused on their… well, special interests. But by this point Joe was fixed on being the hero of the hour and riding off to Washington, then later the state capitol, to wage war for his cause must have seemed like the next logical move. But instead he nearly bankrupted himself and wound up vulnerable to a series of lawsuits over the next few years.

While those lawsuits were quite avoidable, Joe would not have gotten pushed to the point where he basically lost possession of his zoo, a lifelong project, and spiraled to the point where he could get arrested for hiring a hitman if he’d kept track of the priorities. Instead he fell into the story where he was the hero, battling the villain trying to undo his zoo. Now he’s just a supporting character, keeping America entertained as we suffer through trying times.

I suppose Joe isn’t the only writer to lose track of where his story is going. It’s a tough balance to walk for even experienced writers. But that’s the problem of looking at your life like you’re the main character. Whether the story is good or the story is bad, at least you have control of all the variables, at least you know everything that’s going on. You can make judgements about the parts characters are playing with full information and with the knowledge that things will turn out how you want, whether other people like it or not. In real life, you don’t have the information and you can’t foresee how things will turn out and it’s very easy to go from the king of the cats to another dog in a cage. Maybe sometimes it’s better to play the supporting character and let others decide if you’re ready for the spotlight.