How did we get so funky about media literacy?
Back in 1978, Steve Martin debuted a new bit. It centered on how Americans will turn anything profound and monumental into a commercial phenomenon given the right circumstances.
In this case, it was a traveling museum exhibit of the treasures of Tutankhamun “King Tut”, meant to signify a new relationship with America and Egypt during the Nixon administration. The exhibit, given on loan to America from Egypt in exchange for the U.S.’s help in rebuilding the Cairo Opera House, became a massive hit. People stood in blockbuster-length lines to get a glance at it. President Jimmy Carter called it “one of the most exciting experiences” he had ever had.
And visitors spent almost $100,000 a week, in 1976 dollars, on souvenirs and trinkets from the exhibit, while museums capitalized on Egyptian culture. That’s what Martin was lampooning in his “King Tut” Saturday Night Live bit where he dressed up like King Tut —the American propensity to turn a quick buck off of anything, even a revolutionary archaeological find. He even stated his intention in a monologue before the skit: “One of the great art exhibits ever to tour the United States is the Treasures of Tutankhamun, or King Tut. But I think it’s a national disgrace the way we have commercialized it with trinkets and toys, T-shirts and posters.” Highlighting the absurd is Martin’s whole deal as a comic.
Without that context, the “King Tut” clip that went viral over the weekend on Twitter may not strike you as funny (or maybe you didn’t watch SNL in the ‘70s). Several people said so on Twitter, wondering what was so funny about a white man dressing up like an Egyptian. There weren’t a lot of calls to “cancel” Martin for a joke made more than 40 years ago, but some called the point of the joke into question. Most people defended Martin on Twitter, and brought up the context surrounding the joke. This isn’t the first time the joke has been scrutinized, and probably won’t be the last. The trending moment came and went on Twitter, as most do, but it’s emblematic of a recent trend in media literacy where people fail to understand the context or history of a piece before judging it.
We still see it all the time with book bans and challenges. Adults fail to take the time and place books like Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher into context, and end up banning them instead. People share movie trailers and clips on Twitter devoid of context to gin up outrage. It seems like every week there’s a random Twitter account that “discovers” an old joke or acts like their interpretation of a piece of media is the only one that matters.
Recently, the French film Cuties was attacked before it was even released. More recently, people called The Northman into question because some white supremacists identified with the film. Nevermind that Robert Eggers’ film clearly does not endorse much of what it depicts.
And we see this every year with every awards season, where people pick apart a film’s merits based on whether or not it meets the cultural checklist of the day instead of what the fim is actually saying about its subject matter. This is how we get Licorice Pizza and Last Duel discourse. Certainly, there’s reason to challenge outdated morals and harmful jokes when applicable, but coming for Steve Martin for making fun of American consumerism and cultural appropriation isn’t one of them.
The funny thing is that all of this happened the weekend before Elon Musk made a $44 billion bid to buy Twitter in an effort to “restore freedom of speech” to the service. No matter what Musk does, there’s no way to go but up when it comes to how social media discusses pop culture.