Strong female leads, once more

Director/writer/actor Brit Marling wrote a recent NYT op-ed declaring how fed up she is with strong female characters. (hat tip to The Mary Sue). Specifically that as an female actor, her choices were protagonist’s lover, protagonist’s parent or female butt-kicker. While that widened the options some, it didn’t widen them much, and the strong female template was extremely limited: “I became aware of the narrow specificity of the characters’ strengths — physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power … a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.” And that by emphasizing masculine traits, they make it difficult “for us to imagine femininity itself — empathy, vulnerability, listening — as strong.”

I agree with Marling that it’s good to have a wide range of female protagonists. And that empathy and compassion should be acknowledged as strengths. But arguing that they are essentially feminine, or implying that a real female character has to have them, and that rationality, ambition and physical prowess are “masculine” — there we part company.

Certainly rationality is often coded as masculine, empathy and vulnerability as feminine. But I know women who are physicists, IT geeks, chemists, doctors, nurses and accountants all of which call for a lot of rationality. Showing women onscreen with “focused rationality” doesn’t read to me as “male in a woman’s body” it means getting away from stereotype and portraying what some women are like. Ditto for physical prowess and ambition; I’ve known women with those traits too. Marling feels that when she was ambitious as an investment banker and cared little for who got hurt by her financial movies, she “buried my feminine intelligence alive in order to survive.”

Female characters being just men with boobs is a criticism I’ve heard back since the 1970s (it may go back further). It’s one you can find on both the right and the left. There are right-wingers who believe female action heroes just aren’t realistic; I’ve read feminist critiques to the same effect (no real woman would ever choose violence to resolve a problem!). The logic frequently comes across just as much mired in stereotype as the kind of writing of women Marling critiques. I know women who practice a variety of martial arts, and women have been boxing since the 1700s, but these examples often don’t sway anyone. I’ve seen arguments lthat women who watch strippers/are ambitious in business/like physical combat are, as Marling says, burying their real femininity and adopting male standards. If they could find their true authentic selves, they wouldn’t do any of that stuff. Which effectively eliminates all counter-examples: they’re women trying to be men instead of women QED.

And the empathic woman can become a stereotype or a plot device: the nurturer who puts the hero back together, the one who shows compassion and mercy when the man wants to be ruthless. Though it’s clear that’s not the kind of role Marling wants to see more of.

I don’t really have a brilliant conclusion to take from all this. All we can do is write the characters, get female beta-readers (assuming “we” in this context is non-female), improve based on feedback and keep trying to do better.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover image remain with current holder.

 

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Women who fly and men who wander: books and graphic novels

SUPERGIRL: Being Super by Mariko Tamaki and Joelle Jones is an out-of-continuity retelling of Supergirl’s origin because we so need more retellings of origins. That said, I’d be down for a good retelling (Supergirl’s isn’t as overdone as Wonder Woman’s) but this is what I think of as spectacularly okay: not actually bad, but a completely unremarkable execution. Kara Danvers hides from everyone but her parents that she has superpowers, even her two best friends; however it turns out someone knows about her and is plotting Evil Experiments for the greater good. Admittedly, as I’ve mentioned before, teenage life isn’t much of a hook for me, but even allowing for that this wasn’t terribly interesting — Kara’s just a generically broody, insecure teen.

I was much more engaged by THE JET SEX: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon by Victoria Vantoch. When airlines began making passenger travel a thing (initially it was mostly cargo) they started with airline stewards, then switched over to stewardesses in the belief they’d be less likely to unionize (incorrect, as it turned out). Stewardesses soon proved to be a potent marketing image, variously presented over the decades as the typical girl next door (in reality they were mostly college students which for the 1930s and 1940s meant they weren’t typical at all), then as glamorous, globe-trotting career woman, followed by the sexist, sexpot “I’m Cheryl — fly me.” ads of the 1970s. Alongside this we got the Cold War as Americans held up their stewardesses as sexy modern women compared to the soulless unattractive Soviet flight attendants; Russia, by contrast, held up their women as liberated working women in contrast to the er, flighty Americans.

And the women’s view?  Despite the airlines ruthless and restrictive rules for the women (to keep their jobs they had to meet weight requirements, age requirements, beauty requirements and stay single), the flight attendants themselves loved the work: travel all over the world and a chance to fly back when flying was thrilling as hell (while the airline played them as just marking time until they started a family, a lot of the woman wanted their gig to be a lifetime career). Most interesting.

I’m not much of a Rick Remender fan and BLACK SCIENCE: How to Fall Forever by Remender and Matteo Scalera doesn’t change that. This amounts to Sliders fanfic as a scientist’s attempt at piercing the multiverse leaves him and his team jumping from unpleasant world to unpleasant world searching for a way home. Only with more backstabbing because this is the kind of Serious Work where everyone’s scheming and rotten. I picked up two volumes of this at the library, but I’m putting V2 back.

John Claude Bemis’ story of wandering adventuring battling the soulless forces of the will-destroying Gog and Magog wraps up in THE WHITE CITY: Clockwork Dark #3: Ray and his fellow Ramblers must cross the country to recover his father from the twilight realm of the Gloaming, then reach the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair where Gog’s Machine will begin reducing humans to soulless drones in its service. While this kind of conflict is hardly new (the Machine is just Kirby’s Anti-Life Equation) it still works here (though Kirby’s take is more effective, as below).

#SFWApro. Cover by John Hubbard, illustration from Airliners International; splash page by Jack Kirby. All rights to both remain with current holder.

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Runaways, Nancy Drew, assassins and pirates: TV and movies

With Disney sucking all Marvel back to its streaming service, RUNAWAYS‘ third season is its last (I suppose it could have continued there, but as SyFy Wire says, it doesn’t fit neatly with the MCU brand), but at least it went out on a win.

At the end of S2, the alien Gibborim had taken over several of the Runaways’ parents, and one sleeper among the kids. The kids open the season fighting back, trying to stop the Gibborim before they open a portal and bring more of their people through. By the time they succeed, they have a new problem: Morgan leFay plotting to take over the world by mind-controlling people through cell phones! This actually works well as a story (certainly a better threat than S2’s dirty cops) though they hand-wave that the Staff of One is now really magic rather than quantum physics passing as magic (there’s a reference to magic as unexplained science, but that’s not how they’re playing it). We also get a guest appearance of Cloak and Dagger from that short-lived show, which worked okay but I could have done without. Overall a satisfactory season that ends well — too bad it’s the last. “We’ve done a lot of bad things for our kids — it’s time we do something good for them.”

Sophia Lillis, the Nancy of NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE (2019) strikes me as awfully young, but unlike the Emma Roberts version not awkwardly so — it’s probably that I’m at the age where a lot of people just look really young (plus Lillis comes across as wholesome — though not implausibly so — which implies younger to me). This has Nancy and her friends help Linda Lavin investigate her haunted mansion and discover the secret behind the spooks; it’s not as fun as the Bonita Granville films, but it’s reasonably enjoyable. “Only one person has purchased a large supply of nutmeg recently.”

With THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) Alfred Hitchcock finally broke out of the mediocre crap he’d been doing and began the kind of film that would make him a legend. Leslie Banks and Olympic sharpshooter Edna Best are the unfortunate recipients of a dying agent’s message about an upcoming assassination; to ensure they don’t interfere, Peter Lorré kidnaps their daughter to keep them silent. Hitchcock himself considered this the work of a talented amateur and it’s certainly not his best, but it is enjoyable, which can’t be said about Easy Virtue. “Before June 1914, had you ever heard of Sarajevo, or even of Archduke Franz Ferdinand?”

Rafael Sabatini’s The Sea Hawk is a great swashbuckling novel that has nothing in common with Errol Flynn’s swashbuckler of the same name. 1924’s THE SEA HAWK is a faithful adaptation wherein a retired Elizabethan privateer gets framed for murder by his dishonorable brother, then shanghaid by pirate Wallace Beery before he can clear his name. By several twists of fate he winds up as a legendary Barbary corsair and eventually heads back to England with his pirate crew to kidnap his lost love and get revenge on his brother. This is a competent swashbuckler (it also has a lot of white people in brown face for the Arab roles), but it badly needs the screen presence of someone such as Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks. “Nearby lived a matron whose conscience was elastic and whose husband was — old.”

#SFWApro. Comics cover by Jo Chen, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Well my output is good, but the results?

I really, really would like to sell something besides Leaf articles. I’m happy to sell those because they make me a decent income, but would it be too much to sell some fiction too?

This week I got a form letter turn-down for one reprint story, and a rejection for a regional con (I may go in person. We’ll see). Late last week, I was told another submission came within a “handwaving asymptote” of acceptance, or it wasn’t accepted because it was a handwaving asymptote. I wasn’t really clear, but a friend with better mathematical understanding thinks they meant A. Oh, and the artist who’s working on a cover design for me is way behind on responding. I know her and she’s got a lot on her plate, but it would be nice to hear back.

Sometimes, like Blue Beetle it seems there’s no escape, no chance — but then I get back up and resubmit something again.

Like the title says, output this week was good. A little disorganized due to Leaf having switched the way it posts articles; I still got in enough to pay my share of the bills, but not always at the times I’d blocked out for them. I kept working on something though, so I didn’t waste time.

I also lost time because of sleep. Got back in late after going out with the writer’s group Tuesday; couldn’t sleep Wednesday for stress (I wound up with some Leaf articles I was having serious trouble finishing — though I succeeded Thursday); and last night, Trixie woke me out of a solid sleep because she needed to go to the bathroom. As her bad leg precluded her usual body language — running to the door and waiting — I decided she was just being needy, petted her for a bit, then got up and did some work. I should have trusted my gut and taken her out, then TYG wouldn’t have had to deal with poop on the floor when she got up.

Oh, and Plush Dog spent much of today as a lap dog, choosing the most awkward positions for my writing — that is, I end up with my legs spread, tilted slightly over on one side, propping my lap desk up on the arm of the couch. Makes focus hard.

Now, as to the actual output. I got two more chapters on Impossible Takes a Little Longer done, set in the Stardian City I talked about in a previous post. This sequence turned out really well; however I’m looking back at the early chapters, which I changed relatively little, and thinking I need to change a couple of them a lot. The villain’s opening attacks on my superhero, Champion, are just not working in the context of the whole book, though I’m not sure what should replace them.

I put in some work on an as yet untitled short still in first-draft stage. It involves a 1938 socialite and compulsive thief stumbling into a portal fantasy. I’ve never figured out what’s on the other side of the portal for her to deal with, but I’ve got a better handle on her character now and that’s going to help. I hope.

I read the revised Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates to the writers’ group and got some good feedback. Mostly that a lot of background detail could be cut and should be. And that the ending needs more oomph, which I agree with — nobody could pinpoint what, but perhaps I’ll think of something. I hadn’t thought it needed that much tightening, but they’re good judges so I’ll keep that in mind when I review it next week.

And I got a start on redrafting and footnoting Chapter Four of Undead Sexist Cliches. I restructured the chapter and I think it’s in good shape. Hopefully I won’t change my mind as I go through it again.

Oh, and I submitted a story which has not come back yet! In fact all my non-reprint stories are out, so who knows?

#SFWApro. Cover by Chris Wozniak, all rights remain with current holder.

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Trixie in a clothes basket

Due to her leg injury, we’ve been carrying Trixie downstairs in the morning. Thursday TYG did it in a laundry basket.Trixie is actually doing much better this week. She’s willing to pee and poop despite the strain it puts on her leg and she’s eagerly walking as far as we’ll let her. When TYG gets home in the evening, Trixie is excited and eager to play, though we’re careful there too about not letting her over-exert herself. I’m starting to hope surgery won’t be necessary, but we’ll see. Next appointment is in a little over two weeks. By then we’ll have some doggy PT under our belts, both at the vet and at home.

The best part is Trixie being so happy again. She’s such a lively little dog that when she was just quiet and listless the first couple of days, it felt awful.

It’s still disrupting our schedule — taking them out separately when I’m home alone takes more time (the shorter walks balance that out) and we haven’t taken her to daycare in a couple of weeks. But maybe the end is in sight. If not, and it’s surgery, so be it. Fingers crossed though.

#SFWApro. Photo is mine.

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Undead Sexist Cliche: College education destroys women’s lives

Lynne Peril’s book College Girls does a very good job tracking the American stereotypes about college girls from the 19th century onward: were they just in college to land a man? Were they sluts? Or worse, frigid, sexless grinds devoted to a life of the mind instead of a life of motherhood? And what if education destroyed their ability to be a wife and mother? They might learn Greek but not how to cook, or learn math and not learn how to look attractive (the really important skill for a woman, of course).

Depressingly, this bullshit hasn’t gone away — well of course not, that’s why it’s an undead cliche. Perhaps the most infamous example was Newsweek‘s once legendary 1986 article reporting that college-educated women over 40 had more chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married. This was based on a study (not the terrorist claim, that was all Newsweek) that applied to women in their 30s and up at the time of the research, but the article presented it as a universal rule, something all educated women, of any age, would have to live with. The study’s authors retracted it later but the media and dating-advice books kept invoking it on into the current century. It just fits too well with the ambivalence many people have about women who aren’t stay-at-home moms.

And pundits are still discussing how education is going to ruin women’s love lives. Mona Charen, in her book Sex Matters, says that as more women than men are attending college and women want a man with more education than they have, lots of those women will indeed end up alone. Male supremacist Suzanne Venker says she’s was totally focused on being a wife and mother when she was in college but now “you don’t go to college to find a husband; you go to find your own single life and your career.” She seems to think this is a problem. So, I imagine, would Susan Patton, the Princeton grad who recommends young women marry before completing freshman year, and that they spend 80 percent of their time husband-hunting. And former NYT columnist and sexist John Tierney who sadly writes about the increasing number of women attending college:  “You could think of this as a victory for women’s rights, but many of the victors will end up celebrating alone.”

Venker is also down on millennial women taking on student-loan debt to get a college degree (I can’t find the link right now, sorry): they’ll get their degree but debt will make them unmarriagable! An online blog post about how women should be “debt-free virgins without tattoos” says the quiet parts out loud: college will put ideas into your head your future husband may not approve of! Better to stay at home and avoid having any independent life.

Implicit in all these critiques is the assumption that nothing is more important to a woman than landing a man. And that if it is important — if she’s going to college because she values education and a career over marriage, or isn’t worried about landing a man yet — well, she’s wrong!

Oh, and contrary to the antifeminists, women who do want to marry after graduating college are okay marrying less-educated men. And women with college degrees do better getting and staying married than less-educated women. But as women such as Venker and Charen have built their career on punching down at other women, I doubt they’ll stop preaching bullshit.

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Getting by by being “meh”

For much of the 20th century, and maybe still today, it was perfectly possible to be mediocre and have a career in the arts. Mediocre actors, mediocre writers, mediocre artists, they’ve all been able to make a living.

If there’s a magazine or a newspaper someone has to fill it with articles. A comic book has to come out every month (or quarter or bimonthly, whatever), TV stations have to fill their broadcasting time, mystery or SF series have to deliver a new installment to fans and so on. Ideally they fill it with quality stuff, but that’s hard; even Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone couldn’t do it every time. So they try to do good work and occasionally fail or they just settle for “meh” and don’t worry about it.

Which is how I feel about DC’s Tales of the Unexpected, having just finished a TPB of its first twenty issues. Under the editorship of Julius Schwartz, DC’s Strange Adventures and Mysteries in Space read like the creators are trying to tell fun, entertaining stories, and frequently succeed. Unexpected editor Jack Schiff was a much less effective editor and everyone seems content to just churn out stuff to fill space, as they did on Schiff’s My Greatest Adventure. Jack Kirby contributes some stories, but they’re not as lively as the monster stories he worked on at Marvel during the same time.

The magazine in the 1950s was an odd mix. We had SF stories, supernatural horror stories and fake supernatural horror stories. In The Face Behind the Mask, the woman’s mask hides that she’s eternally youthful … except this is actually a scam to con an elderly man into paying a fortune for the youth treatment. Other stories involved crooks haunted by supernatural threats, except they turned out to be fakes designed to trick them into confessions.A whole string of stories involved crooks acquiring supernatural/SF powers only to get their comeuppance: either they break the terms of the magic, or they screw up the deal in some other way. In one of the better stories, for example, a crook kills a scientist and steals his duplicator machine, they creates a duplicate of himself to go to the chair for the murder. He learns too late that whatever happened to the duplicate happens to the original … Most of them weren’t that clever. Lots of other stories culminate in a twist or reveal that falls flat. The reveal of The House Where Dreams Come True is a rare exception — it looks sinister but it turns out to be a rather sweet tale.Despite the bland, unimaginative scripts, Unexpected kept running all the way through the Silver Age, though getting more heavily SF as it went along (for a while DC’s uninspired Space Ranger was the resident hero). After that, like House of Mystery and House of Secrets, it converted to a supernatural horror format —

— and kept going on into the early 1980s.

My point (I do have one) is that you don’t have to produce great work or even good work to stay afloat as a writer or artist; as one old saying goes, editors want someone who meets deadlines, is easy to work with and does good work, but they’ll settle for two out of three. But as comics writer Steven Grant once put it, readers don’t care that you’re easy to work with and meet deadlines. They care about what they’re reading, not how it was created. Of course if it hits the right buttons or fills some empty times, something that’s formulaic and “meh” may meet their needs perfectly — but is that what we want to aspire to? Isn’t it better to give readers our best, not just whatever mediocrity we can get away with? Admittedly circumstances may force us to compromise — the budget’s low, we need a quick sale, we’re approaching deadline — but if we have the chance to shoot at the moon and miss, as they say, at least we’re out among the stars.

#SFWApro. Covers by Leonard Starr, Jack Kirby Ruben Moreira, John Prentice and Neal Adams, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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Important advice for cosplayers

Always get costumes from a reputable dealer you can be confident hasn’t placed any magical spells on them!#SFWApro. Art by Dick Dillin. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Bad lawyers, abused kids and other links

Alan Dershowitz says during the impeachment hearings that if Trump thinks his re-election is good for America, anything he does is a valid use of his power, including the quid pro quo with the Ukraine. At the link, Dersh frantically tries to walk this back after getting savaged for it on social media. As Paul Campos of LGMs ays, why is Dershowitz trying a defense he knows will make him look like a legal moron or a totalitarian toady? I’m sure we’ll soon hear him whining about how it’s so unfair people refuse to hang out with him just because he’s become both.  More here.

Attorneys for a child-molesting Catholic cardinal insist that his sexual assaults are no big deal, just “plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating” — deserves leniency (happily he didn’t get it) A useful reminder about how some rape apologists are ready to excuse or dismiss any abuse of power, not just male/female. Yes, I know he’s a lawyer, but that’s no excuse, any more than smearing a rape victim for what she wears is justifiable. The lawyer, having received flak for it, now apologizes.

And here’s another familiar rape excuse regarding priestly pedophilia: the kids wanted affection.

Immigrant minors in federal care have been abused. Thousands of children.

Oh, and ICE wants the option to destroy records of sexual assaults and deaths in custody.

Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of abusing kids. His boss Joe Paterno knew and did nothing. Malcolm Gladwell tries unconvincingly to explain that nothing was a completely understandable reaction so we shouldn’t fuss about Paterno.

Paul Campos wonders why some Republicans don’t at least think about their place in history.

“Hillary Clinton is the only prominent supporter of the Iraq War to pay any material price for supporting it, although her vote was causally immaterial to it happening. Ralph Nader, on the other hand …”

The Navy Seal Trump pardoned for war crimes is retaliating against his accusers by posting their photos and names online.

Having shat on gays, women, trans people and Muslims, now Trump dumps on the disabled. And Medicaid recipients too.

A student at a Christian school had a rainbow birthday cake. Didn’t bring it onto school property, just posted about it in social media. That was enough for the school to expel her.

WaPo’s Jennifer Rubin says Republicans have become exactly the kind of weak opponent to international tyranny they claimed Obama was. Actually Republicans have never been antagonistic to tyranny except Communism, but it’s still a good column.

“We believe that the United States has the human resources to provide capable and willing leaders, and that together a more just and respectful future can be forged. Acknowledging that all human community and leadership is a mixture of blessing and brokenness, health and dysfunction, we stand with all those who believe this country deserves and needs a constitutional and peaceful change in leadership.” — The Dietrich Bonhoffoer Society, calling for an end to Trump’s presidency. Court evangelical Eric Metaxas thinks he understands Bonhoffoer better than the scholars so they’re wrong. Metaxas also thinks the Bible has a story about the Good Samaritan’s brother (it doesn’t).

 

 

 

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Stuf’ Said: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the Marvel Method

KIRBY & LEE: Stuf’ Said! by John Morrow (the only book I have to review today) is an attempt to sort out the longstanding question among Marvel fans about what exactly each man contributed to their partnership in Marvel’s Silver Age. Both men have claimed to be the real writer of most of their joint work and due to the Marvel method it’s difficult to figure out for sure.

The standard Golden Age approach to writing comic was for the writer to create a detailed page-by-page script, then the artist would build the visuals based on the script. The Marvel method put more of the work on the artist: they and the writer would put together a rough synopsis in a story conference; the artist would draw the story based on the synopsis, effectively handling the detailed plotting; then the writer would dialog the result. As Stuf’ Said makes clear, this was Lee’s solution to his workload as Marvel took off: if he was working on a script when an artist came in to talk about an upcoming issue, he’d tell them to come up with an idea themselves.

This approach worked spectacularly well with storytelling talents such as Ditko and Lee, less well with artists who were more comfortable working from a full script. Even less so as Lee left more and more of the plotting to the artists (as Brian Cronin discusses in some of his Avengers history articles). As artist Marie Severin said, they sometimes wound up plotting the whole story and not getting paid for it (though her example involves Gary Friedrich, not Lee).

Morrow combs through decades of interviews, reminiscences and comments by both Lee and Kirby and concludes that both men sincerely saw themselves as the “real” writer of their works together. Kirby, after all, had done most of the plotting so he was the writer; Lee saw himself as coming up with the core idea of each story and developing character through dialog, so the artist was just a hired gun carrying out Lee’s vision. It’s an interpretation of their statements I’ve heard before, but I don’t find it convincing here. From all the Silver Age anecdotes and quotes Morrow collects, it seems clear Lee presented himself as the writer even when he left the artist to come up with the idea. I still think he contributed a great deal, but he hogged more of the credit than he deserved, while sometimes going out of his way not to credit the artists with plotting or writing (this is perversely amusing as Stan claimed, inaccurately, that he broke new ground by giving his team credits in the stories — Julie Schwartz had been doing that for years).

That said, Morrow does do a very good job recounting both mens’ careers, their accomplishments, the eventual dissolution of their partnership and Kirby’s shoddy treatment by Marvel afterwards (Lee had the advantage of being related to publisher Martin Goodman). Money was part of the problem: Marvel went from being a struggling small-time comics company to a big bucks enterprise but Kirby’s pay rate didn’t go up any. Another was creative control because when they disagreed, Lee got it his way. He rewrote Kirby’s origin of Adam Warlock, wrote the Silver Surfer’s origin when Kirby planned to do it (as Kirby created the Surfer, that was a particularly sore point), and rewrote the ending of a Galactus arc in Thor (maybe one reason I found that era of Thor so forgettable).

There are a great many other little details that made the book worth reading, even though by the end of the book Lee and Kirby’s quotes tend to repeat what they’ve already said. It’s definitely a book for comics nerds, but hey, I am one.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders. Art by Kirby.

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