Expecting too much from women

Last week, Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood kindly arranged for me to be invited to a screening of Hounddog last night, complete with a Q&A panel. It was a great opportunity: it’s a film directed and produced by women, about a young girl.

I didn’t go. Why? Because it’s about a young girl who’s been raped. In fact, the rape is in the movie – filmed in a very tasteful manner, apparently, putting across her trauma. That doesn’t help me at all.

I have trouble watching rape storylines, period. I’ve watched a lot of them for this site, and they disturb me for a long time after. There are a lot of reasons some women have trouble watching rape storylines: for one thing, about a quarter of us have lived through it. For another, they often re-victimize the (almost always female) victim. For another, some of us are just plain capable of empathy. We can extrapolate from our experiences of hate and/or violation what rape would feel like, even if we’ve never been through it. And “going there” unlocks a lot of stuff we have to suppress if we’re to go around functioning in life like we don’t have good reason to be paranoid (1 in 4? Yep, they’re after us).

I felt it was important to prove I can watch anything, critique anything – but in the last few months I’ve been on a crusade to alter my perfectionist tendencies, and I decided to cut myself some slack here. And from that one decision, an avalanche of epiphanies followed:

  • What do male critics have to watch that compares to this? What genre/theme disturbs the male psyche with not only its horrific nature, but the reminder that this particular horror happens every day, to many people just like you, and if not to you then to someone you know? There isn’t one. Therefore, it is placing an unfair burden on the female film critic to demand she watch movies about rape.
  • This site shouldn’t need to exist.
  • Blogs about rape and rape awareness and sexism and bigotry shouldn’t need to exist.
  • Movies about rape shouldn’t need to exist, at least not to the degree that they do.
  • Our lives are being wasted on crusading against sexism, in that it shouldn’t need doing. We should have equal opportunities and equal odds of experiencing victimization, and then who knows what we’d be accomplishing? Stuff that would be needed even in an egalitarian world. Everything we’re doing now, we do in the hopes that it will someday be obselete. It is necessary… and yet its necessity is so offensive that I feel squandered.

Don’t get me wrong. Movies like Hounddog need to be made for the same reason this site needs to exist. But who is the audience for them? People who find them cathartic as they work through issues of their own? People like me, who are haunted and disturbed by the theme but have been brainwashed into thinking, “I must watch it, or I’m a bad women’s advocate and a bad film critic. I must prove I… have a pair of balls?” Or people who don’t think rape is so awful, but could be persuaded by a two-hour movie to believe it is?

Good rape movies are made for the first and third groups: those who need to feel they’re not the only ones who’ve suffered violation, and those who think rape is something women sometimes deserve. I don’t think they’re really meant for the viewing of people like me, who already get how awful rape is and wouldn’t be able to leave the house every day if they reminded themselves constantly what their chances of being raped are.

But it’s more than that. So much more. I think most of us get that rape is horrible and unfair, but consider how much energy and time women spend fortifying themselves against sexism. Against the in-law who thinks you’re some kind of witch if your husband agrees to move to the city where you got a better job offer than he did. Against the parent who just doesn’t see your accomplishments in the same light as your brother’s. Against the teacher who calls on the boys first. Against the friend you just found out thinks, well, you’re just asking to be raped if you go out to bars alone and have a few drinks. Against the friend who listens to your complaints about sexism in your life, then hints that you’d be happy if you’d just find a boyfriend, or a different boyfriend, or marry the one you have, or have a baby with the one you’ve married, etc. – the finish line shifts until you stop complaining about sexism, which you realize was her point all along.

It’s not just women, of course. All marginalized groups get these little occasional smacks in the face that don’t sound all that awful on their own, but serve to remind you that the world still sees you as a lesser being. And sometimes these reminders are harder to forgive than a brutal attack. After all, you can assume someone who rapes is a psycho, and not representative of his demographic as a whole. But when the rest of his demographic essentially apologizes for him… that’s when you lose all faith in humanity, and open a website where you are accused of “loving to complain.”

Love to complain, my ass. It is my fondest wish for this website to someday become irrelevant, a reminder of past mistakes, a chronicle of history we want to avoid repeating.

Comments

  1. Patrick says

    Very well said.

    I’m reminded of one of my favorite movie scenes, from X-Men 2, when Nightcrawler asks Mystique why she doesn’t just use her shapeshifting powers to look normal and avoid all of the problems that come with being a mutant, and her simple response: “Because we shouldn’t have to.”

    I know I come at this from a different place. The visible indicators of my disability are normally concealed by clothes, so I don’t often encounter different treatment because of it. And otherwise I’m part of the straight white male demographic that society insists is the default for humankind.

    I can’t watch rape scenes for the same reason I can’t watch torture scenes: empathy. Seeing people, even fictional characters, in pain is traumatic f0r me. Oddly, I have no trouble with fictional violence of the people-being-shot-or-decapitated (or even simply beating each other up) variety. I have several theories as to why that is so.

    Certain other things will put me through an emotional wringer to the point where I don’t want to watch them – I refused to watch Brokeback Mountain, for example, because it was clear from everyone I talked to that it would leave me a weepy, emotional wreck for days afterword.

  2. Tersa says

    “What do male critics have to watch that compares to this?”
    Deliverance and Pulp Fiction are the only two things that I can think of that even come close. Mostly just Deliverance… that move was messed up.

  3. gategrrl says

    Ah, I remembered the title of a Showtime movie that I STILL remember for violence against a young girl by a near-family member–. It got a lot of critical praise at the time it came it out, in 1997, but…

    Well, I avoid rape storylines as much as possible on television and in the movies. It happens in Real Life frequently, and most often by those who should care for us the most. I can’t shake the multitudes of rape scenes, graphic or implied that I’ve seen in my lifetime. Some of those have been gratuitous and just for the titillation of the viewers, others have been there to Make a Point of some sort or another.

    Either way, whatever the motivation for showing or implying rape scenes as a side show or main plotline just freaks me out. And then I’m forced to wonder what the purpose of showing all these rape scenes is. It’s not “Cinema Paradisio”, where the male character grows up and goes home to find his mentor has spliced together all the kissing scenes from the movies in his childhood. That was romantic and good. My mind splices together the multitudes of *rape* scenes and comes away shaking and nervous about the world around me.

    Men have the luxury of avoiding what frightens them the most. They don’t have to act them, write them, or watch them. The only movie that I can think of that comes close to the male equivalent is “Deliverance”, which wasn’t a prison male rape story. But the rapists were off their rockers and inbred and played on that wonderful backwoods redneck stereotype that I know you all love. After all, it has to be someone especially psycho to rape a male in his prime.

    Okay, I’m stopping now, because now I’m just getting angry.

  4. gategrrl says

    And I don’t know what happened to my previous comment. The Showtime movie I was talking about is Bastard Out of Carolina that came out in 1997. The HTML I used mucked up my post.

  5. Amy McCabe says

    Another thing…even for those women who haven’t been raped, just about every women has a taste of the violation. A guy that kept placing his hand on her knee, even though she kept moving away. A guy that would touch her in a way she didn’t want and called her “frigid” because she complained. A man who wouldn’t take her serious for her gender. Every woman knows what it feels like to be treated as an object. N0, it isn’t rape and it doesn’t compare but it is related. Who wants to relive all those times that happened?

  6. says

    jen-

    Sorry you didn’t make it to the film. The point of why I have been involved with this film is because the critics and other crazies sought fit to define this film as the “dakota fanning rape movie” when the rape scene is about 30 seconds. The film is about a girl whose life is shit, who is abused in some many ways and who struggles to rise above it and make something of herself.

    We get bogged down in the rape because people freaked out that Dakota was only 12 when it was filmed. It’s so much more than about rape.

    People have come up to the filmmaker and said the movie has changes their life and that they finally are able to talk about something that happened to them long ago.

    I work on women’s films because we need to hear and tell women’s stories, the awful ones and the triumphant ones because if we don’t we are doomed to live in a celluloid world that is defined by the white male mentality and I for one will continue to fight to make sure that does not happen.

  7. says

    @Patrick, I don’t think you’re the only man who has trouble watching rape scenes. It may not hold all the implications for you that it does for me, just as watching a scene where a gay man is bashed to death would disturb me for ages, even though I can only imagine what it’s like to live in fear of gay bashing.

    As for not minding violence except in certain contexts… For me, it’s all about power dynamics. If there are no particular power implications in the violence, then it doesn’t bother me. But when it’s someone exercising power over a child, or a man abusing power over women, or homophobes abusing power over gays, etc., that’s when it gets me.

    @Gategrrl said: “But the rapists were off their rockers and inbred and played on that wonderful backwoods redneck stereotype that I know you all love. After all, it has to be someone especially psycho to rape a male in his prime.”

    That irks me. First off, I detest Hollywood stereotyping all southern or rural people are criminally insane child molesters and rapists and whatnot. Honestly, as I’ve pointed it out before, I thought the south was very bigoted and then I started working in Hollywood, and realized I didn’t know what bigotry was. At least most Southern bigots are capable of changing their attitudes when they realize they don’t reflect reality. Hollywood bigots run scrambling to the demographic machine to find excuses to continue believing their crap.

  8. says

    Amy, very good point. I was just talking somewhere else recently about the reaction I get on the rare occasion I wear skirts. My legs are very mediocre and I don’t expose much of them, yet suddenly all these jerks stand around staring and commenting, and staring and commenting some more. It’s like by simply wearing one garment instead of another, I’ve… consented to having assholes examine and discuss my body. Now, that’s nowhere near the trauma of rape, obviously, but it is creepy enough to make you wonder what else they think you’ve consented to.

  9. says

    Melissa, I feel a bit chided by your response. If that wasn’t your intent, I misunderstood, but in any case, I don’t think you’re quite following me.

    It’s about a lot more than rape to me too. Aside from the rape, this movie sounds like the story of my life. I suffered an intense abusive childhood. I lived in the South. I escaped into music. I tried to make something of myself and it took a lot of work and sacrifice – years of it.

    Do you have any idea the feelings a story like this triggers for me? Stuff I’ve processed and dealt with and don’t need to go through again? The panic attacks it would trigger? The flashbacks?

    I don’t think one needs as “good” an “excuse” as I have for giving this particular fight a pass. The point of my post is that one can be an advocate for something without subjecting herself to extreme, avoidable stress. I put myself through the stress of openly talking about my chilldhood abuse in other venues (I avoid it here simply because I don’t want it to distract from the site’s focus). I put myself through the stress of moderating comments that sound like they could’ve come from my dad. I am drawing the line somewhere.

    While the crazies are indeed looking for all the wrong reasons to give the film a hard time, and that’s wrong, and I wish I could be part of that fight, it would harm me to put myself through it. If a movement wants me to hurt myself to maintain my credibility, then the movement is no better than what it’s fighting. That was my point.

  10. gategrrl says

    Melissa, I went to the website for this movie and *fully agree* with the aims of the director and producers and understand about the problems it had getting backing in order to be produced.

    I’ve no doubt that it’s well made with A-list actors and a well-written script. And I’m all for making sure that women’s voices are heard in film and television from advertisements to feature films.

    Jenn invited me and one other woman in the LA area to go with her to screen the film–but after reading the themes, and how dark they are, even with an uplifting ending…well, let’s put it this way: I love reading horror novels but simply cannot stomach the stress of *watching* horror movies. I am not equivocating this movie with a horror movie, exactly; but the stresses are simply too much, even with a 30 second scene.

    I think it’s possible (and I’ve said this elsewhere about novels and fanfics, etc) that often, I think that rape is overused and can distract from the true, main issues that a writer/filmmaker/creative person is trying to get across. You said yourself that it’s seen as “the Dakota Fanning rape movie”. Isn’t it possible that it was a mistake to include a rape in the movie?

    I’m not saying it’s *wrong* to have a movie that includes rape or violence against women (think Lifetime) but I think that part of the vocabulary has been so taken over by the established film studios that it sends a message contrary to what I know I’d like to see.

    I might watch the movie once it’s on DVD so I can control the exposure I get. A movie theater is just too intense. I can’t stop a scene and FF if it’s too disturbing for me. My husband and I do it all the time with certain films we like, but can’t stand certain scenes that disturb us too much.

  11. says

    I got to wondering the other day how I managed to watch Dolores Claiborne, and remember something kind of interesting:

    –I didn’t know about the molestation storyline when I first saw it.
    –It was watching that movie that actually triggered a bit of a meltdown for me, as I realized a few things about my own childhood, which I’d always known was fucked up, but never considered “abusive.” That’s the power movies can have. I’ve now worked through all that stuff – it was very rough, as Gategrrl and several others around here can attest – and I was in a bad place for a long time. I don’t want to go back. I don’t dare risk something sending me back, even for a few days.

    I, too, may be able to watch Hounddog on DVD. I echo what Gategrrl says regarding the theater – the sensory deprivation of the dark room and lost sense of the world outside, no FF button, etc. – being too intense.

    Movies about any sort of abuse are intended to arouse intense sympathy or empathy. The problem is, for some individuals, the kind of empathy such stories arouses is not healthy. It just doesn’t make sense for a person to distress herself to that degree for a cause, when there are always going to be other ways to help, other fights to fight. That’s all I was saying: we expect too much of women, particular of feminists and other equality advocates.

  12. says

    Don’t get me wrong. Movies like Hounddog need to be made for the same reason this site needs to exist. But who is the audience for them?…Or people who don’t think rape is so awful, but could be persuaded by a two-hour movie to believe it is?

    I think the last one should be expanded (clarified?) to include education about the reality of rape – something that’s easy to forget because Hollywood almost always mis-educates people about rape.

    Most everyone “knows” that rape is bad, but as everyone here knows, there are all kinds of myths about rape that contribute to lack of justice and re-victimization.

    I think a lot of the problems with rape in movies is that they are so short that it’s hard for one scene to not be a huge chunk of the movie, especially emotionally. (Also? So agreeing with you all on watching movies like this at home versus in the theatre.) At the same time, their shortness necessitates limited character development, which means that we have an easier time distancing ourselves from the people on the screen. The events in Buffy episode The Body would not have worked as well as part of a movie not only because the time spent on the events themselves would have been truncated, but also because we wouldn’t have had the same familiarity with the characters.

    I know I’ve raved here before about Criminal Minds, and I’m going to have to do so again now. (Although, definitely not suggesting that anyone here has to watch it.) I remember mostly writing this show off when I first heard about it. Yet another crime drama with a bunch of guys and a bunch of nameless often female victims. And that’s pretty much what the pilot is – but even in that there are hints of what it’s become. What used to be a bunch of mostly white guys talking about men hurting women is now a show that passes the Bechdel test in practically every episode and tries every trick in the book to smash myths about who is victimized, who does violence, and why.

    One of the neat tricks of the show is that the criminals are all mirrors in some way for our protagonists. Sometimes our heroes even cross the line and fall from grace. All of which not only nicely de-mystifies and humanizes people who do violence (a goal that’s explicitly stated in several episodes) it more importantly shows that murderers, rapists, and the like don’t go around being assholes to everyone all the time. They aren’t inbred crazies living in the backwoods, they are usually fathers, brothers, co-workers, neighbors (and sometimes mothers, sisters, etc.).

    The victims are also often mirrors for our heros as well, which allows us to take the violence done to the victims personally even though we don’t know them. Sometimes the episodes are even about ways in which the protagonists have been victims in the past – without crossing over into cliches about going into law enforcement for revenge (or, more specifically, women fighting crime to avenge their rapist). The victims also have agency. Whether they are fighting back or making other decisions – decisions which always make sense, are never shown to be a “cause” of the violence done to them*, and are sometimes even heroic – they are people, not just vessels for our fears. All of which also smashes myths about who is victimized and why. Prostitutes are often victims in the show – but they characters explicitly state in several different episodes that this is because our apathy towards the violence that sex workers often live with makes them easy targets.

    However, it’s not always an easy show to watch; when re-watching the episodes, I tend to wander into the kitchen when the victims are being hurt and wander back into the living room when Garcia, Reid, or Prentiss start speaking geek.

    I don’t think the value of the show lies in getting us to sympathize of even empathize with the victims – or even the killers/rapists. I think it lies in the whole of the storytelling – how it uses our empathy to shine light onto things that many people ignore, rather than simply using plot to get us to sympathize with a character enough to see what happens. It’s a show that’s meant to be “read” not just watched.

    So, yeah. It think the shows that deal with this subject best aren’t always meant for “feminists and other equality advocates” – and so, despite my like of (certain) crime dramas, I tend to tread carefully around movies like The Accused (which I have yet to watch), Hard Candy or The Brave One. I tend to worry “will they do right?” and “will I need to walk out/turn off the TV?”

    *ok, so this part isn’t actually true. But when victims are partly the cause of the violence done to them, it’s because they were bullies themselves or the like, not because they went out to have fun one night.

  13. fourthwave says

    Mickle: I’ve been watching Criminal Minds for the past year or so (all caught up now), and I think it might be one of the most feminist shows on television. I’ve actually been meaning to write about it for some time now. Not only are the several strong female characters who have roles equal to those of their male counterparts, but the show doesn’t ever use the “well, she’s just a woman” excuse or treat the female characters differently because they’re women. Besides what you mentioned about CM’s extremely pro-victim (anti-victim-blaming) mindset, it seems worth mentioning that the female agents aren’t treated like women but fellow agents, which is exactly as it should be. When, in a recent episode, Agent Prentiss got beaten up by one of the suspects, it wasn’t because she was a woman, it was because she was an FBI agent (and this was not a matter of her being too weak to defend herself, but a situation in which she couldn’t fight back for logistical reasons–I’m being deliberately vague because I don’t want to spoil anyone). Her colleagues were worried and upset, but not because they perceived her as fragile, and they didn’t rush in to save her, as it would have compromised their investigation. She was treated no differently, by both her fellow FBI members and the show itself (cinematography, camera-work, etc), as a male team member would have been treated under the same circumstances.

    I know it seems weird to defend Criminal Minds by citing an example in which a female agent gets beaten up, but it’s a unique scene because it was so obviously not about her gender, as so often these sorts of violent scenes are. Very different from the ways women are often victimized in film and television (and that’s just it, Prentiss isn’t a victim in this scene, in any sense of the word).

    Segueing into your comments about Hounddog, Jenn, I completely understand what you’re talking about. I cannot watch rape scenes. I remember having a serious breakdown during Boys Don’t Cry. Luckily, I was watching it at home and not in the theater, since I had such a violent emotional reaction to it. In a similar vein, I also once had to vehemently protest the programming of a certain lesbian film at a LGBTQ festival where I volunteered as part of the Programming Committee. The film was kind of weird overall–sort of ghost-y horror/thriller–but it ended with these hideously graphic, awful rape scene that was completely unexpected and deeply upsetting. We didn’t end up showing it, thankfully, but some of the other programmers (mostly male) could not understand why I was so invested in keeping this film out of our lineup. They figured that after all the other violent acts in the film, the rape wasn’t really that surprising or awful by comparison. It totally boggled my mind.

    Regarding movies that make men uncomfortable, apparently men especially had violently strong reactions (vomiting, screaming, etc.) to The Exorcist when it first aired in theaters. I wonder what that’s about?

  14. says

    To me, I don’t think Melissa and Jennifer are contradicting each other. I think they both see value in the movie; Jennifer just can’t watch it. I understand that and I’m not sure I’ll see it either, for that reason.

    I don’t have the answer to this, but it does bother me that there’s a sizable chunk of the population that gets off on movie rape scenes.

  15. SunlessNick says

    I know it seems weird to defend Criminal Minds by citing an example in which a female agent gets beaten up, but it’s a unique scene because it was so obviously not about her gender, as so often these sorts of violent scenes are. - fourthwave

    I don’t think it’s weird. A crime drama is inevitably going to show many scenes of violence done to women, and how those scenes are framed and presented is going to be a big thing that differentiates a good one.

    Another example is that one of the biggest ways CSI New York scores over Las Vegas is how cases that victimise or otherwise personally affect Stella and Catherine (respectively) are handled.

  16. says

    And that’s just it…the scene isn’t about her being a woman at all.

    Regarding your CSI example, Nick, what do you mean exactly? I enjoy both CSI and CSI: NY, but I only started watching the latter recently, so don’t really have a good point of comparison. How do you see Stella and Catherine handling cases differently? (Have you written about this already somewhere? I don’t want to hijack Jenn’s thread.)

  17. says

    “A crime drama is inevitably going to show many scenes of violence done to women, and how those scenes are framed and presented is going to be a big thing that differentiates a good one.”

    Yup.

    And to go back to Jenn’s original point and why this post made me think of CM in the first place: one of the reasons I can actually look forward to Wednesday night – but still have yet to see The Accused even though I love Jodie Foster – is because CM does a really nice job of giving you just enough of what the victims go through. And since they are discussing violence on a level that takes “no one deserves this” as it’s baseline, rather than the final point, “just enough” manages to be both extremely emotional and not anywhere near as graphic as it seems at first glance.

    They don’t waste time explaining that it’s possible for prostitutes or drunken women at bars to be raped. They assume that the audience is smart enough to know this and so they jump right on ahead to why people do violence and to victims fighting back. There are few lingering scenes of torture (unless, of course, we are talking about poor Spencer) and quite a lot of reaction shots. (In the ep where the killer is sending the victims parents videotapes of their daughters being tortured, we never have an unobstructed view of the video and a less time is spent on the than is spent on the parents reacting to it and Garcia – the tech – coping with what she has to watch to save potential victims.) The audience members who may still be confused about definitions of rape – or whatever is the topic of the day – are set straight by the team’s reaction to the crimes and the way in which various victims and their loved ones deal with what happened.

    A side note for fourthwave – I’m going to the Paley Center discussion – or whatever they are calling it. If they allow for questions from the audience, I really want to ask Ed and the other writers and producers something about feminism. Do they mean for it to be a feminist show? Do they see it as a feminist show? How /why did the show shift from a mostly male group to a more evenly gendered group?

    But I’m not quite sure of what the best question would be or how to phrase it. Any suggestions?

  18. SunlessNick says

    Here.

    Sbg also wrote a piece on Catherine.

    Movies about any sort of abuse are intended to arouse intense sympathy or empathy. The problem is, for some individuals, the kind of empathy such stories arouses is not healthy.

    And the kind of person for whom this is the case is pretty much certain to have learned the lessons the film might teach.

    As a parallel, you wouldn’t expect Mississippi Burning to add anything to a black person’s awareness of institutionalised racism.

  19. says

    Thanks, Nick. I’ll check those out!

    Mickle: I’m so jealous…wish I lived in LA. I would love it if you could email me about the whole thing afterward (if you don’t mind and have the time, of course!) and/or let me know if you plan on blogging about the discussion.

    If they allow for questions from the audience, I really want to ask Ed and the other writers and producers something about feminism. Do they mean for it to be a feminist show? Do they see it as a feminist show? How /why did the show shift from a mostly male group to a more evenly gendered group?

    But I’m not quite sure of what the best question would be or how to phrase it. Any suggestions?

    Perhaps framing your question by remarking on the fact that the show seems to have a very well-rounded cast in terms of the male-female ratio and does a good job of presenting the characters as equal regardless of gender (plus handling of victimology, etc.) and then follow up with a simple question like “Considering these factors, do you think of CM as a feminist show?”

  20. SunlessNick says

    And since they are discussing violence on a level that takes “no one deserves this” as it’s baseline, rather than the final point, “just enough” manages to be both extremely emotional and not anywhere near as graphic as it seems at first glance. - Mickle

    Another example there might be Millennium. That’s not a show I’d describe as a feminist masterpiece, but it takes the same baseline. As well as including no shortage of male victims, and female victims who are killed for unsexualised reasons.

    Both shows also take on and debunk the safe behaviour/location myths.

    If they allow for questions from the audience, I really want to ask Ed and the other writers and producers something about feminism.

    If they are taking questions, I’d be interested to hear what they say to yours. Adding to Fourthwave’s suggestions, it might be work noting that Prentiss, JJ, and Garcia (and Elle for that matter) are quite distinct from each other, personality-wise, as much as the male characters are.

  21. says

    “I’m so jealous…wish I lived in LA.”

    ha! actually, I live about 2 hours – on a good day, and Monday after work is not a good day – from Hollywood, which is where this will be at. Which is why it took me so long to decide to go. But yeah, there are some advantages to living in the wasteland of So Cal.

    Thanks for the suggestions! (both of you) I think something like that would work really well. I’m not sure how other show creators would take it, but so much of it seems deliberate with CM that I don’t think they are going to be all “us? feminist?!?! take that back!” so long as I set the question up right.

    Now I just have to think of how to word it so it doesn’t go on for forever….because if I talk about how well rounded the (female) characters are, I’m going to have a hard time not also noting that the women speak to each other! all the time! about the case! and when it’s personal stuff – it’s character development for them, not someone else!

    Also, fyi, I do plan on blogging about it, although the post might be delayed because I have a final coming up this week.

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