Don't Mournshame Me, Bro

Maya Angelou (AP)
May 29, 2014

Twitter was especially fun* yesterday following the death of Maya Angelou. For instance, I learned that if you didn't really, really love Angelou's work, you are probably a racist. (No, really, that was the super serial argument Joshua Foust was making at one point yesterday.) Meanwhile, a number of people were quite angry that NRO's Tim Cavanaugh and Jonah Goldberg highlighted Angelou's support for gun rights and The Simpsons' gentle mockery of her, respectively. As someone who simply doesn't care for poetry and therefore had little to say about Angelou's death, it was all quite amusing to watch go down.

John Ekdahl asked, "Is there an English word for taking offense in not praising someone else strongly enough?" Twitter user @KankoKage suggested "mournshaming," which struck me as just about right. Needless to say, I got mournshamed a bit for noting that Angelou was "easily parodied." I will admit to being confused that others were confused by my words. After all, Angelou was easily parodied. She had a timbre and a pacing and a way with words all her own. She was easily parodied because she was an iconic figure. There's no shame in that.

Again, I have no real opinion on her work or on her life, but it'd be nuts to argue that she wasn't an icon. And, like virtually all icons, she had a style all her own, one that lent itself nicely to parody. For instance:

Not to mention this bit of awesomeness.

Most major artists—especially those with a distinctive style—receive such treatment. It is, in a way, an honor, a method of paying homage to the greats. And it's a testament to their influence and their uniqueness. Who can forget this spot-on parody of Wes Anderson?

I mean, that's perfect! The center framing, the twee outfits, Danny Glover. If Wes Anderson died tomorrow and someone tweeted out that YouTube clip, should I mournshame the offender? Of course not.

There's a great scene in the new film Neighbors during which a fraternity throws a "Robert De Niro Party." Here's the clip:

I love this bit for so many reasons: the allusions in the background (did you see Deer Hunter De Niro?); the conflation of De Niro and Pacino; the black dude randomly playing Samuel L. Jackson from Jackie Brown because De Niro had a bit part in it before switching to Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction because why not? But it all circles back to the fact that De Niro, Pacino, and Jackson are all iconic actors, guys whose distinctive styles shine through and whose roles have given us much to enjoy.

Parody isn't always done with love and affection, of course. Here's Dwight MacDonald in the style of ... well, let's see if you can guess:

He smiled a lot and it should have been a good smile, he was so big and bearded and famous, but it was not a good smile. It was a smile that was uneasy around the edges as if he was not sure he deserved to be quite as famous as he was famous. ... Later on the tricks did not look so good. They were the same tricks but they were not fresh any more and nothing is worse than a trick that has gone stale. He knew this but he couldn’t invent any new tricks. It was a great pity and one of the many things in life that you can’t do anything about. Maybe that was why his smile was not a good smile.

You knew almost immediately that he was doing Hemingway, right?** That essay by MacDonald is one of my all-time favorite pieces of criticism, even though I strenuously object to his general take on the writer in question. I love it because he nails Hemingway's voice, using parody as a damning indictment. Like Angelou, Hemingway is easily parodied. That doesn't diminish him as an artist or suggest he isn't one of the greats. Quite the opposite: I defy you to find an English teacher on this planet who hasn't quietly despaired that their charges don't write more like Papa.

So look: Call me a philistine for hating poetry and not getting worked up when its leading practitioner dies if you want. But don't mournshame me for noting that icons lend themselves to parody.

*Read: especially stupid.

**Assuming you've managed to make your way through one of his novels, that is.