“Carole Baskin killed her husband!”
If you haven’t heard that sentence a million times, you’re lying. We’ve all seen Tiger King by now (or at least are familiar with the premise), as well as the reactions. Some folks are just memeing, others legitimately believe in the conspiracy. The general population seems to view Joe as the hero in this feud, and are certain that he shouldn’t be imprisoned.
Now, let me just give everyone an overview of his acts, so you can really understand how insane that last sentence was. He murdered several tigers, abused hundreds of other tigers, groomed three young men into marriage and ensured that they never left his property, made death threat after death threat to Carole Baskin, and quite possibly tried to hire someone to kill his rival. And those are only the drastic criminal offenses. That list went on for five lines, there is no possible way you can say Joe Exotic is the hero of this narrative.
So why are we solely targeting Carole Baskin? Sure, she’s not a good person either, why are some people hating on her while defending Joe Exotic?
Because Joe is our protagonist.
Tiger King isn’t just an exposé on the exotic animal industry—it’s a narrative of how Joe Exotic landed himself in prison. Whether or not it was intentional, centering the narrative around Joe makes people more empathetic towards him. We see the world through his eyes, we see his tragedies, we feel bad for him. Take the arson of the alligator exhibit. We first see everyone’s melancholy, then the view is centered around Joe. His grief towards the loss of the alligators, how that affects him. We’ve already empathized with his loss. Sure, there are a few accusations and even proof that Joe had a motive to burn the exhibit himself, but that empathy has already set in. And this empathy is reinforced throughout the entire series, masking his terrible acts with our own feelings.
And our empathetic protagonist has himself an antagonist. Evil Carole Baskin is stalking Joe, she’s trying to get his whole zoo shut down, and look! There’s a whole episode on how she killed her husband! Not to mention Joe hates her guts. She must be the bad guy!
While we get to see Joe’s numerous low moments, we only hear of Carole’s previous tragedies. And while Joe is front and center throughout the whole show, Carole has one episode of her own, which is dedicated to her possible murder and nothing else. Then she falls into her role of antagonizing Joe and nothing else. Just as the narrative framed Joe to be an empathetic character, it framed Carole to be an evil antagonist.
Your narratives have the same power. You can make the worst characters seem more empathetic, and vice versa. Make sure you’re portraying the narrative you desire, and that people will take away the morals they should. Take the lessons from Tiger King:
People will automatically find your protagonist empathetic. Make sure they’re a character you actually want to empathize with.
If you want an unempathetic protagonist, don’t give them chances to show empathy. Cast doubt before, not after possibly empathetic situations.
Enemies of your protagonist will automatically be seen as worse than they may actually be.
If your antagonist is meant to be empathetic, give chances for them to be seen as such.
The morality of your text reflects the morality of your characters.
Overall, realize that morally ambiguous characters must be written/portrayed with care. People will accept whatever narrative you present without question, and more impressional readers will accept the morality of your protagonist and go against whatever your antagonist stands for, unless you take the time to cast doubt. Tiger King failed to take that needed precaution, and because of that, people accepted Joe Exotic as moral and empathetic. You can learn from those mistakes.