Joel McHale receiving flak for asking if Joe Exotic should be in jail demonstrates the power of cult figures

Joel McHale receiving flak for asking if Joe Exotic should be in jail demonstrates the power of cult figures
Joel McHale and Joe Exotic (Netflix)

One of the bizarre and contentious issues of 2020 has been a Netflix documentary series. And ‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness’ continues to make news more than a month after its release on Netflix. The latest involves actor and comedian Joel McHale facing backlash for a question he asked. 

On the Netflix special ‘The Tiger King and I’, hosted by the ‘Community’ actor, McHale asked if Joe Exotic should be in jail. It’s not an unimportant question, considering Joe is right now serving a 22-year prison sentence for 17 counts of animal cruelty and for conspiring to murder his arch-nemesis, Carole Baskin. But McHale received a lot of flak online for this. 

He addressed it on Conan O'Brien’s show, and said, “People gave me such s*** for asking if Joe Exotic should be in jail, and I was like, that doesn't seem like a hard-hitting geyser question. They were like, 'How dare you.' and I was like, '19 felonies?'”


“It was a weird thing because I think people see ['Tiger King' subjects] as characters and not necessarily human beings," McHale speculated on why he received the backlash. 

People coming to Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic’s rescue is a phenomenon we have witnessed since the release of the docu-series. Cardi B promised to set up a GoFundMe for him. Celebrities have cosplayed and photoshopped him. People far and wide across the globe have rooted (and continue to root) for him. For all intents and purposes, Joe Exotic is a cultural icon of 2020 (or its first half in the very least). 

But the same people seem to forget not just the disturbing series of things he was accused of, not just in the documentary, but even outside of it. Clealsi Putman, the niece of the controversial mullet-sporting flamboyant polyamorous convict, earlier this month, said, “In the ‘Tiger King’ Netflix series, you can see glimpses of his evil persona but in real-life Joe is 100 times worse. I want people to know who the real Joe Exotic is, not the one you've seen on TV.”

She accused him of spraying a tiger with a fire extinguisher for not reacting the way Joe had wanted it to, selling tiger cubs illegally, selling dead cubs to taxidermists, assaulting monkeys, and even bestiality. 

Less than a couple of weeks ago, Jeff Lowe, Joe's former business partner made similar claims during an 'Ask Me Anything' session on Reddit. He said,  “I think the weirdest thing we found… was a flash drive of Joe and (his ex-husband) and they were having sexual relations with animals in the park.”

With allegations like these and the proven counts for which Joe is right now serving a sentence, asking if he should be in jail is not just okay, but also prudent, especially given his cult status. McHale’s suspicions may be on point here. 

With the hype around the docu-series and general desensitization caused by television and film media, it is altogether possible that people don’t quite treat Joe as a real person who has committed real crimes. In the minds of fans, Joe is an eccentric character who isn’t a good guy but is someone who has been wronged. He then becomes an underdog and who doesn’t like to be on the side of the underdog?

It’s unfortunate that merely raising questions about Joe can lead to a quote-unquote s***storm. But it is the price we pay for partaking in popular culture. Problematic personas will always be mythologized. And there really is no way of stopping that.

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