Make Joe Exotic Great Again: How our need for shock is distorting narratives

On the morning of 19 January 2021 Joe Exotic was trending on Twitter over reports that he was in line for a Presidential pardon. His legal team went to the press with statements of positivity and images emerged of a 38ft “Monster Ram Truck Limo” being held on standby at the firm’s offices in preparation. The following morning it was announced he would miss out whilst Lil Wayne and Kodak Black were to be granted clemency.

The year is barely three weeks old but has already packed in enough absurdity for a lifetime. The world went from hot dogs in air fryers to an attempted coup at the US Capitol in six days and is showing little signs of slowing down.

The fact that Joe Exotic even had a chance to get a personal pardon from Donald Trump not only raises serious questions as to what the President thinks about Carol Baskin, but is a worrying insight into the clamour for sensationalist home media, and the moral quandaries placed on film makers. 

The titular monarch of Netflix’s Tiger King series was sentenced to 22 years in prison in January 2019 – having been found guilty of 17 Federal charges of animal abuse and two counts of attempted murder for hire – and yet here we were, staring at a Twitter trend foretelling his imminent release.

“This time tomorrow, we’re going to be celebrating,” Eric Love, who is leading Exotic’s legal team, told the Metro on Monday 18.

I hope he kept the receipt.

He added that he had “good reason” to expect a Presidential pardon and was already making arrangements for it – arrangements being a massive limo and a trip to McDonalds, apparently.

There’s honestly no way that gets in a drive-through

“We’re confident enough we already have a limousine parked about half a mile from the prison. We are really in action mode right now.”

Luckily life comes at you fast. In the space of 24 hours, social media love for the Tiger King was revived in all its “Free Joe Exotic” glory, before pivoting straight back to poking fun at the man with the world’s worst mullet. 

What a difference a day makes.

Whilst such is the way of the world wide web and its various social medias, it raises serious questions as to how much we are willing to overlook for a meme and furthermore how is consumer demand for increasingly shocking content affecting the narrative composition of shows?

Originally released on 20 March 2020, Tiger King: Murder Mayhem and Madness, was the first big viral hit of the lockdown era.

The eight-part series was watched by 34 million Americans in its first 10 days [Nielsen] and as its popularity grew, so did its impact on pop culture: The theory that Carole Baskin killed her husbands ended up as a TikTok challenge and the woman herself on Dancing With The Stars; a shot from the show featuring a character riding a jetski in an inquisitorial manner became regular group cat fodder; and countless Twitter handles were changed to ape any number of ludicrous one liners.

I’ve got the jetski, but at what cost?

All this, however, paled in comparison to the response to the Tiger King himself. Exotic was presented through a sympathetic lens for much of the series, his bad deeds hidden by endless animal print silks, boot cut jeans, and the fact that the cast of secondary characters (looking at you, Doc Antle, you awful, awful man) all seemed infinitely worse.

Exotic is presented to the audience as a deeply-flawed, yet seemingly harmless (to humans at first) caricature of American fame-chasing. We are invited to laugh with him as much as we are at him and constantly reminded of his seemingly-altruistic nature by colleagues and partners alike. He is, by and large, the hero of the piece through the first six episodes.

This narrative framing offers little balance when discussing the welfare of the animals – tigers are not exactly a native species of Oklahoma – but focuses its energy towards inter-personal feuds, primarily with Baskin.

The internet is a tribal place by nature, and in establishing the central struggle of Tiger King as Exotic v Baskin the show’s creators successfully primed the core narrative for maximum social media traction.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the tale – with Exotic incarcerated for his many crimes – the die had been cast and Twitter split into teams behind their chosen captain.“Free Joe Exotic” became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter and peaked on Google searches within 9 days of the series hitting streaming services, with the phrase rapidly being adopted as a rallying call by fans of the shows.

“Free Joe Exotic” Google search interest over the past 12 months.

Whilst the majority of support was satirical, as the internet ever is, the rallying cry of justice spawned countless merchandising offshoots, Youtube videos, Twitter rebrands and Halloween costumes. Amazon is still packed to the brim with unofficial Joe Exotic products, as is Etsy, and RedBubble, with demand seemingly still high for the King.

With the aim of any content release being maximum coverage, the makers of Tiger King could scarcely have hoped for better. To have cast Exotic as a criminal who got his comeuppance  would not have garnered the same level of attention, the same level of social media engagement, and plainly would’ve made a much worse show. Tiger King would have not become the phenomenon it did without the application of a sympathetic narrative, but the issue is how this plays to, and alters, social media response.

Much as pop songs are now often written for maximum utilisation on TikTok Netflix Originals are promoted through their meme-ability. The two main avenues to social success appear to be; the ease at which screenshots can be turned into viral hits, and the ability to shock – because nothing generates word of mouth like having your jaw dropped.

The issue with the former, as became the case with Tiger King, is that characters and events can become decontextualised, both themselves and their actions reduced to reaction gifs and meme listicle, after meme listicle, after meme listicle, you get the picture.

Such is not to say that memes are inherently bad, nor should they be vetted by some puritanical committee before being allowed out into the wild, but questions do need to be raised about the impact such decontextualisation has on public perception of figures.

What could possibly go right?

The second issue is one of a growing desire to be shocked, and the effect this has on narrative. It is no secret that modern day viewers like their content like we like our headlines, bold. Whether it be the barely believable revelations of Tiger King, the untapped opulence of Selling Sunset or the ultra-violence of Night Stalker, a broadening media landscape means there is a push to make content bigger and more brazen than ever. 

Problems arise when the narrative framework of what are ostensibly documentaries, are altered to fit a pre-designated story arc and not the other way round. In Tiger King the Exotic v Baskin grudge match arc is placed front and largely washes over the fact that both are neck-deep in awfully shady activity. In the drive to present the two as characters in a leopard print soap opera the actual facts of the matter are relegated to the backseat, but mercifully such is not always the case.

The recently-released four-part docu-series Night Stalker details the heinous crimes of Richard Ramirez in the 1980s LA in alarming detail. True crime documentaries have found increased traction on streaming services, and the release of this bid-budget original would suggest that Netflix has grand plans to make the most of this often-contentious trend. 

Needs more locks

In an attempt to create a more compelling tale, directors often focus the narrative lens on the perpetrators themselves – such as 2016 Richard Ramirez feature film The Night Stalker – but such can lead to moral issues of glamorisation.

Night Stalker director, Tiller Russell, set out to reverse this trend by telling the story from the perspective of the Los Angeles detectives that ultimately brought Ramirez to justice, and offers insight into the killer’s motives only as an aside in the final episode.This reframing of events has not been at the loss of impact as media response, Twitter engagements, and Google search volumes show.

“Night Stalker” Google search interest over the past 90 days.

The subject matter of the two documentaries are of little compare, but the differences in approach are stark. In Tiger King we are shown an overly-sympathetic character narrative that appears tailor-made for viral social media status, whilst Night Stalker rests on the weight of the subject matter to drive interest instead.

Gil Carillo, front runner for 2021 man of the year

With large swathes of the globe still locked at home, the need for entertainment is greater than ever. Viewers are on constant lookout for the next big thing to binge, discuss in group chats, crop, caption and share on Twitter; and producers find themselves in a fiercely competitive fight to release just that thing.

Whilst the rewards on both sides are great it is important to understand the losses. Whilst we are right to poke fun at Joe Exotic missing out on his big limo day, the fact that it was even on the cards, let alone being celebrated, is a worrying insight into the ever-diminishing status of reality. Luckily the Tiger King will remain behind bars and Donald Trump is out of office, the kind of ending Netflix would be proud of.

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