Squirrels, Queer Lions, and James Franco: Today’s Recommended Reading

Here at Flavorwire, we pride ourselves on not only writing some of the best content on the internet, but keeping an eye on all of the great writing that other folks on the ‘net are doing, too. We’ve got a beautiful explainer from Slate, which debunks the notion that the recently internet-famous “gay lions” are actually gay. Also: an interview between James Franco and critic Jerry Saltz, which is fascinating for many reasons, but primarily because Saltz and his wife, Times critic Roberta Smith, have not been very big fans of Franco’s artwork. Lastly, two odes: one to squirrels, and the other to Lisa Simpson, unheralded jazz icon.

At Slate, writer Christina Cauterucci takes on the unforgiving task of explainer-ing gay lion sex to a world that is currently in love with gay lion sex. It sounds like the sort of the thing that would warrant plenty of eye rolls, and maybe it does: can’t we all just have some fun with some pictures of gay lions making love? No, not if the gay lions are not gay, and are not even both of the same sex! Don’t live in a world of lies in which gay lions roam free; read this piece, and be educated. 

Meanwhile, the lion world has already moved on to debunking the notion of abiological sex binary. National Geographic notes that a genetic aberration or surfeit of androgens in the womb may have given one female lion the secondary sex characteristics of a male, which were then passed down and repeated across Botswana. Female does not mean the same biological thing, point blank, across an entire species or animal class. Female spotted hyenas, for example, have clitorises that are larger than the penises of their male counterparts, which help them exhibit dominance in a matriarchal social structure.

Pitchfork’s old-school (but newish) publication, The Pitchfork Review, is coming out with a fancy jazz issue soon, and so the site seems to be beefing up its jazz content to prepare its readers for classy stuff like this great piece by Quinn Moreland about Lisa Simpson, an unheralded jazz icon. What’s impressive is not the fact that Moreland even though to write about this — as it deserves to be written about, absolutely — but that it’s gone unsaid for so long that Lisa’s jazz playing was not just a gag, but was utilized in a way to emphasize the power of music in times of grief, among other things. 

But Lisa’s sax playing is less a tool for laughs than a prime mode for “The Simpsons” to explore serious topics beyond the realm of most animated sitcoms. The pint-sized player is able to access emotions that she may not be able to express through her physical form. Season six episode “‘Round Springfield” reunites Lisa and Bleeding Gums to teach the former how to deal with the death of her hero. After initially covering Carole King‘s “Jazzman” at Bleeding Gums’ bedside, the highlight is when Lisa and the ghost of her idol play the song once more, creating a living testament that jazz can take the blues away.

The New York Times Magazine runs Letters of Recommendation every week in what seems to be an effort to get younger writers to write odd things for a magazine that excels in harnessing all of the oddities cast aside by its parent publication. This week, they’re recommending squirrels, which is amazing, because squirrels are just rodents with nice tails. I once saw a squirrel try to jump from a dumpster to a ledge with a full bagel in its mouth. It didn’t make it. 

Writer Avi Steinberg argues that squirrels are the friends of humans. I’m not so sure about that, but they are cute. 

Squirrels, though, are right there with us. They live on our level and toil on the same schedule as humans, in every season. They share our approach to life’s problems: They save and plan ahead, obsessively. They make deposits and debits (of nuts and seeds, mostly); build highways (returning to well-known routes in and around trees); manage 30-year mortgages (they can inhabit a single nest for that many years); refrigerate their staples (in their case, pine cones); and dry their delicacies for storage (mushrooms, as we do). They work the day shift and live in walk-up apartments. And like stock traders, they gamble in the marketplace.

James Franco is a love-or-hate figure in Hollywood, and it’s been that way for a while. It’s ramped up recently, though, as Franco has immersed himself more and more in the world of Art, and so he’s been subjected to hatred from critics in both industries. Jerry Saltz, who writes for New York Magazine, has been one of his harshest critics, so it’s compelling to read the lengthy conversation between the two, which recently graced the cover of the magazine. In it, Franco questions whether or not it’s possible for an actor’s artistic endeavors to be viewed outside of the lens of his fame, and Saltz insists that, no, it probably isn’t possible. Franco maintains the tone of a kid who wants praise, and seems to only be making art in order to get that praise, or recognition, or whatever you want to call it, rather than trying to achieve any kind of artistic greatness. 

I’ve read the thing that you wrote about celebrities going to the art world2— you talked about seeking a certain credibility that maybe we don’t get in our own professions. There was also an interesting idea you had in there that the celebrity persona shrinks the closer it gets to the art world.

Celebrity nowadays is built on the idea of mass reproduction. We are put in front of these cameras and projected around the whole world. The art world is smaller. You have to go into the temple — you have to go into the gallery and be in the presence of it. Yes, we can put it across on Instagram or whatever, but it’s not the way that the art world works, at least right now. There are still temples — the museum, the galleries. When celebrities go into that world, they are shrinking. On the other hand, people can’t help but comment about it endlessly.