The Trouble with Joe Exotic’s American Individualism

During this crazy period, many of us have had more time than ever to watch whatever digital content we desire. And never in history has there been so much to choose from. What does it mean, then, that the #1 TV show on Netflix right now is an outrageous docu-series entitled “The Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness”?

Tiger King' Star Joe Exotic Sues Government, Former Business ...

I began the show one morning simply out of curiosity. By the evening, I’d completed the entire series. There is admittedly an addicting quality in the utter absurdity of the story. The show focuses on Joe Exotic, a zoo owner, gubernatorial candidate, and country singer who has an obsession with tigers, two husbands, an arch nemesis, a mentor who runs a sex cult, and an… eccentric personality.

To be honest, Joe Exotic’s highly entertaining ego-centrism encapsulates the very worst of American individualism. The sheer hubris of Joe and his tiger-loving friends (and enemies) makes for great television, but it’s also eerily familiar to witness. With no training or qualifications, the main players in the show think they have the ability and right to completely control giant, dangerous, wild animals. They think they’re physically invincible and completely above both natural and political law, which puts themselves and those around them in almost constant peril. In short, Joe Exotic and his pals are exactly the kind of people who would refuse to self-isolate during a pandemic.

Thousands of Americans refused to go into quarantine when this crisis began, resulting in the precarious emergency we now find ourselves in. Like Joe, they figured the natural forces at work in the broader world would never touch them. Of course, the spring breakers who flocked to Florida beaches at the start of the quarantine or partiers who gathered in droves on St. Patrick’s Day were about as safe from COVID-19 as a man in a tiger cage is from a mauling.

The young, healthy people unlikely to experience significant health problems from the coronavirus had to begin thinking in a new way: not about their individual well-being, but about the collective. We are social distancing to protect a broader whole, which is difficult for some of us ingrained in American culture to fully embrace. Rugged individualism is a staple of this country. Maybe that needs to change now. 

It is this same individualism that causes people to vote against bills that do not directly improve their own lives, or worse, ones that improve the lives of the less privileged at their expense. It is this individualism that causes the terrible misconception that economic achievement is directly correlated to effort. It is this individualism that causes likability and relatability to be at least as important for political candidates as actual ideas and values (After all, Joe did manage to get 19% of the vote when he ran for governor of Oklahoma!). Maybe we’d be better off with a shift away from this individualism and toward a culture more conscious of the needs of the whole.

All hail Joe Exotic, the problematic king of wild style | Dazed

As Hope pointed out in her great blog that got me thinking about this topic in the first place, freedom is the number one American priority, no matter the cost. Which brings me back to Joe Exotic. In this time where we are being asked to set aside our personal freedom for the sake of others, Joe exists as a strange comfort that the indomitable individual still exists. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s strangely charismatic and perversely likeable throughout the show. Joe shows us that we always have our free choices, no matter how outrageous or irresponsible they might be. But if this pandemic teaches us anything, maybe it should be that sometimes the public good should come before our own interests and, yes, maybe even before our own liberty.

In the end, Joe ended up with a 22-year jail sentence for 18 separate charges. I guess even American individualism has its limits.


P.S. I do recommend the show. It’s fascinating. Give it a watch if you get a chance. 🙂

Note: Any opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vanderbilt University.

3 thoughts on “The Trouble with Joe Exotic’s American Individualism

  1. Hi Audrey,

    I admit I also watched a bit of this show. I first rolled my eyes and continued scrolling through Netflix… and then halfheartedly returned. I will say Joe Exotic’s death threats and extremism are most definitely inappropriate and individualistic, but as far as the tigers go (I didn’t finish the show, so maybe my opinions are a bit off), I wasn’t sure that Carole Baskin, or any other zoo for that matter, was doing anything better. If Sea World can profit off keeping a whale in a tiny pool, why can’t Joe Exotic keep tigers in cages? Perhaps because his workers get their arms eaten off and he tries to murder his rival… anyway. Food for thought.


  2. Interesting post, Audrey! I am not at all familiar with Joe Exotic, but from your descriptions, he does seem to embody aspects of “American individualism.”

    I’m curious to know if Joe protested his jail sentence as much as many people seem to protest self-isolation measures even after they have been exposed to COVID-19. I couldn’t help but again think of how different the US response has been in comparison to other countries’ actions. My mom’s friends in China have told us how the government enacted real, enforced “lock-downs” of entire apartment buildings and had food individually delivered to people inside. Meanwhile, the building I’m currently residing at refused to enforce any kind of extra precautionary measures after a resident contracted COVID-19. Maybe the decision doesn’t have a whole lot to do with American individualism, but the difference still seems notable.

    I think it’s also really valuable that you brought up how just being a bystander to an issue often makes us a part of the problem. We need to hold not only ourselves but also others accountable, and this concept is particularly essential in the present circumstances.


  3. Fellow Tiger King devotee here, and I loved your post. I’m also really fascinated by this massive phenomenon that seemed to come out of nowhere. Of course, we all have an obscene amount of time on our hands and this is exactly the kind of “you have to see it to believe it” thing that’s so easy to latch onto. Also, most of our day-to-day lives are probably the dullest they’ve ever been, so it’s a good escape to watch a human trainwreck whose life is consistently full of surprises.

    You bring up a good point about rugged individualism and the cult of personality that can threaten our country’s political sanctity. I definitely agree that this crisis has pointed out an urgent need for more collectivism (ironically enough, the shared experience of watching this has developed a pretty strong collective). In our current moment, it’s aggressive individualists (i.e. people defying self-isolation orders, governors resisting pressure to implement stay at home policies) that are most saliently threatening our lives. For once, I think the American public is starting to grasp that.

    Lastly, I think we’re all looking at Joe Exotic and knowing that no matter how bad we are, we can’t be THAT bad.


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