First, a couple of definitions.
Parody: an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. (Source)
Satire: the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. (Source)
You may be relived to know this post has nothing to do with politics or other serious issues… I won’t promise I’m not going to expose/criticize a bit of stupidity, though.
A while back, I saw someone online discussing the sci-fi television series Stranger Things and saying how much they loved this ‘parody of all things 1980s.’
Wait — what?
(“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”)
So… what, exactly, is this show exaggerating for comic effect?
I suspect that, if I asked for an explanation of what makes this series a parody of anything, I’d get some sort of, ‘Well, that’s just how I feel about it, everyone is entitled to their opinion,’ reply.
(“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” I haven’t actually seen The Big Lebowski yet, unlike The Princess Bride or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, both of which I’ve watched repeatedly. And yes, I’m aware The Big Lebowski is not an 80s movie. If the quote fits…)
Yes, the boys in Stranger Things ride around on their bicycles a lot. If you think this makes Stranger Things a parody of E.T., you know nothing about 1) what parody means or 2) how commonplace it was for kids in the 1980s to ride around on bicycles. Yes, there are numerous references to 1980s geek culture (the younger characters in Stranger Things are fans of The Lord of the Rings, and they play Dungeons & Dragons), but anyone who thinks mentioning geeky things makes the story a parody of some sort is an idjit. Nor is it satire if it isn’t criticizing/pointing out the faults of something. If there is any satire in Stranger Things (I don’t think there is), it’s in the depiction of how the “popular kids” behave, but since that isn’t exaggerated or made into a joke…
(Also, you may disagree with me calling Stranger Things science fiction, because there’s a character with ‘strange mental abilities.’ Argue for a different genre based on alternate universes or freaky monsters or whatever, but not this. Not all exaggeration is done for comic effect; sometimes it’s done to make elements of a story more, y’know, fictional.)
I wonder if the reason the term parody started getting overused/misused is that parodies are protected somewhat by copyright laws. You can lift quite a bit from an original work if you can show that your imitation is intended as a parody of it. However, the label of parody is getting slapped on things that are not deliberate exaggerations for comic effect. Then people become unable to tell parody from fan fiction, or even just something vaguely inspired by something else. (For clarification, see this post for a brief list of things that are derivative works or inspired by someone else’s stories but not fan fiction.)