Tiger King: Why are we so drawn to dumpster fires?

According to Urban Dictionary, a dumpster fire is 1. A complete disaster.
2. Something verydifficult that nobody wants todeal with. The example sentence they give for context reads This project is a complete dumpster fire. Urban Dictionary might as well update their new example to Joe Exotic, et al. is a complete dumpster fire. Most everybody who has watched Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness now has complete connotation of the term dumpster fire.

In 2016, the American Dialect Society named “dumpster fire” its Word of the Year. Charley Locke, in Wired Magazine, explains the choice of the winning word, stating it “best represents the public discourse and preoccupations” of our world. The public preoccupation with Tiger King is undeniable. Anybody who has spent time on social media has been inundated with memes of Joe Exotic well before they chose to start the documentary.

And what isn’t in this Netflix documentary? Homosexuality, drug use, murder, polygamy, animal rights, suicide, misogyny, politics, lions, tigers, and bears, oh my— this thing is damn near Shakespearean.

Every once in a while, television comes along that makes the audience feel better about ourselves. The wife and I can sit down for an hour, or seven hours in the case of Tiger King, and feel like our lives are headed in a decent direction because we don’t have to deal with that bitch Carole Baskins.

Dumpster fire: 1. A complete disaster.

Tiger King is the newest but not the singular in this genre. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Friday Night TykesThe Real Housewives, and Mob Wives are titles that come up in a quick Google search. It seems that there is no shortage of shows that seem designed not just to distract us from our lives, but to make us feel better about our lives.

I blame it on The Real World. As a member of Generation X, I cut my teeth on MTV’s reality show. It seemed the worse the roommates were to each other, and the more incompatible they were, the better the ratings and the more people watch. It’s like the people who watch NASCAR just for the wrecks. We couldn’t wait to see the next dumpster fire.

The key to understanding Joe Exotic, The Tiger King, could be the nation’s closeted craving for voyeurism. This voyeurism is the basis of the theory I tie back to the dumpster fire. We can’t look away. Wendy L. Patrick, JD, Ph.D writes that “reality television provides an easy (and legal) way to peer into the lives of others.” Stealing a few hours of distraction watching a gay, gun-totting, mulleted zookeeper is speaking to our desire to watch. However, according to Psychology Today, this does not mean voyeurism in the sexual sense. This desire to watch, and inevitably compare, is what leads us to the viral dumpster fire.

Fredrik Stiernstedt and Peter Jakobsson, in a 2016 study, found that reality television tends to present an over-representation of the upper levels of society. People love watching The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and seeing that even the rich don’t have it all. This is a lesson that audiences have been internalizing since F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby.

I argue that reality TV appeals to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, as well. People love watching the woman who possibly killed her first husband and fed him to her tigers, all the while playing antagonist to the leather-coat wearing Gubernatorial candidate from Oklahoma who is married to two men. We sit on our couches, transfixed, trying to figure out why we can’t look away.

John Finley without a shirt (Buzzfeed image)

The dumpster fire is no clearer than when John Finley, one of Joe Exotic’s husbands, is on screen. Why doesn’t he wear a shirt?! Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, the people behind the documentary, obviously did this on purpose, because it was the question that screamed at me through the entire seven episodes. Meth teeth and tattoos greeted an audience that had a hard time believing he was gay. It came as no surprise when we found out he had gotten a former female zoo worker pregnant. The gun-toting, Deep South persona that Finley exudes through most of the show seems paradoxically to make sense and not make sense in the context he is presented.

Dumpster fire: 2. Something verydifficult that nobody wants todeal with.

The tragic suicide/accident of Joe Exotic’s other husband, Travis Maldonado, coincidentally captured on security camera, just deepens the something difficult that nobody wants to deal with. Guns had been a part of the show from the beginning. It isn’t just Joe always wearing his pistol, but gun culture and shooting as a hobby is portrayed throughout. When the accident happens, the audience can’t help but consider their stance on gun safety and feel superior to what just happened.

Even though Joe Exotic was married to two men on screen, there was something decidedly un-homosexual about the whole thing. Both marriages ended in different ways and was quickly replaced by a marriage to Dillon Passage. Two months after the death of one husband and another one leaving, another good looking guy much younger than Joe becomes a central character. When the possibility of Joe Exotic as Sugar Daddy is raised, paying his husbands in quads, guns, and drugs, it just fuels the flames of the dumpster fire for those watching at home.

Tiger King reached its viral fanfare by having multiple sub-dumpster fires that were not central to the story. Killing baby tigers, petting baby tigers, illegally selling tigers — everything is a backdrop to the Carole Baskin’s feud. Doc Antle, the possible cult leader for young women, is another documentary waiting to be made. Carole Baskin’s missing husband is another documentary waiting to be made. The illegal trafficking of tigers, snakes, monkeys, lions, and a lot of other animals was the documentary that filmmakers started to make, but it quickly took a back seat to Joe Exotic’s dumpster fire.

In an interview with The Washington Post after the documentary was released, Eric Goode captures the power of the dumpster fire in a single quote. Asked that while this show displays some terrible behavior, what do you think makes it so captivating? Goode answered:

“If you would pitch this story to anyone in Hollywood as a scripted series, they would have thrown it back in your face and said this is just not believable. How could you possibly have these characters and all of these things happening in one story? But reality sometimes is stranger than fiction.”

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness is 1. A complete disaster.
2. Something verydifficult that nobody wants todeal with. And like so many other Americans, I couldn’t wait to watch another episode

Written by: NathanWhite