Author Archive

Selfie

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Dammit, ABC, why did you have to cancel Selfie?

I had a blog post all written out about, singing the show’s praises, when I learned it had been cancelled. In fact, I was mid-”you have to watch this show” spiel to a friend when she tentatively informed me that she had read of its unfortunate fate that morning. My attempts to persuade her to watch it instantly became far less convincing.

But after a rocky start, Selfie turned into a truly fantastic show, and thanks to the gods of Hulu, its full 13-episode run is still being aired. If you’re looking for a really fun (and, at times, surprisingly emotional) show for a quick binge over the winter break, it’s definitely worth a try. Especially since, judging from comments from the creator and the slightly rushed feel of the latest episode, the writers knew doom was coming and potentially managed to tie up the show in the 13 episodes it received.

Selfie is completely adorable, feel-good comedy. John Cho and Karen Gillan are fantastic as the workaholic, socially awkward Henry and the gregarious social-media addict Eliza, and they’re backed up in the show by a fun and diverse set of secondary characters. Although the show had high potential for uncomfortableness — an older guy in the office teaching the hot young saleswoman how she should speak and how she should dress in order to be acceptable — it quickly found its footing as half opposites-attract romcom, half workplace comedy, where Eliza has as much to teach Henry as Henry has to teach Eliza, and where being a more relaxed and honest version of yourself is perhaps the most important lesson to be had.

The dynamic between Eliza and Henry is really wonderful — hilarious, heart-warming, sometimes painful, and definitely squee-worthy, depending on the moment. John Cho might traditionally be seen as a “risky” choice for a romantic lead (which is, of course, ridiculous, as he’s both charismatic and adorable), and I really hope that no executives decide the show failed based on their non-white male lead, and not based on the off-putting title.

I think potential viewers were wary of the social media aspect, and may have thought the show would be shallow as a result. Neither is a problem. Once the show stopped trying so hard with its social media elements in the pilot, all of its references felt authentic, and great fodder for laughs (“Which Game of Thrones character are you?” Henry must ask, as he gets pulled into the perils of Facebook. Sansa Stark, apparently). It’s actually fun to see a show embrace social media addiction, considering how much media tends to ignore its importance entirely, and surprisingly there’s no “social media is bad” message, but, like the Henry and Eliza’s characters, a suggestion of the importance of a middle ground. Just as Eliza could connect better with people if she wasn’t so focussed on social media success, likes and shares, Henry could connect better if he wasn’t so anti-technology and so afraid to express himself.

Add in lots of laugh-out-loud lines, a great will-they won’t-they romance, and the slight issue of this “comedy” show making me cry last week, and I fall more in love with this show with every new episode.

The downsides? The first episode doesn’t sell the show well, it’s weird at first to hear Karen Gillan speaking in an American accent, and there’s the slight issue that it got cancelled with only 13 episodes made. But if you want to try a new bite-sized sitcom with a (sadly) very definite end, then treat yourself to this one. It’s feel-good, lots of fun, and far more enjoyable and progressive than you might at first expect.

A Lack of Female Characters is Always a Choice

Last week, fantasy author Mark Lawrence had a moment of reflection on his blog to celebrate getting 30,000 ratings for his book, Prince of Thorns, on Goodreads. And although Lawrence takes time to tell us about all the praise his debut received, the bulk of his post focuses on criticizing those darn feminist reviewers for pointing out that his series is kind of lacking in female characters.

Now, I’m not one of those reviewers. I’ve never read his series, and this apparent lack of female characters suggests that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea anyway. But there’s something incredibly distasteful in “celebrating” a milestone in a book’s success by flippantly quoting reviewers who point out the lack of an engaging female presence in the book, as though to say “haha, look how wrong you were.” Not about the lack of an engaging female presence, I’m assuming, but about the idea that a book needs female characters to be successful.

First of all, this isn’t exactly a surprising coup on the author’s part. People point out the lack of female characters in popular fantasy series precisely because so many fantasy series succeed without including female characters. The Fellowship of the Ring is, after all, a group that is meant to represent all of Middle Earth, and is made up of nine male characters. And Mark Lawrence’s arguments for why these critics are wrong really strongly demonstrate the problems that are still inherent in the fantasy genre when it comes to women.

Lawrence argues that it’s unreasonable to demands “major roles for female characters in every book, no matter what it’s about, no matter what the scope, or the length of the book.” He points out that his novel is only 1/5th as long as A Dance with Dragons - about 85,000 words, aka the length of a typical novel, if not quite a fantasy tome. It’s told from a single point of view over a period of three weeks, the majority spent in the wild with a “band of murdering thugs.” He simply couldn’t shoe-horn female characters in there.

So. A novel has to be 422,000 words long before it has space for a female character to do anything important or interesting. Male protagonists must go through more than three weeks of their story before they encounter female characters who have significant roles in their story. And women are definitely never part of bands of murdering thugs. Sure, there’s no sign of any kind of population issues in these fantasy novels. There’s assumedly an equal number of men and women. But the men never seem to encounter them, at least not doing anything interesting.

Make no mistake, a lack of engaging female characters is a choice, albeit sometimes an unconscious one. It’s a choice to have a whole band of murdering thugs be male. It’s a choice to have the chief antagonist be male. It’s a choice to give all positions of authority to men, and to make men the ones who significantly challenge or help the protagonist along the way. Nowhere is this more true than fantasy, where things like “historical accuracy” and “societal expectations” don’t apply. No matter how much a book’s world borrows from medieval history, it is a world built entirely from scratch that can have any rules or societal structure the author pleases. If women are left out of that structure, if they have nothing interesting to do… that is very much the author’s choice, whether the author sees it or not.

And Mark Lawrence clearly made that choice and defends it. He suggests wanting female characters in a story is an issue of taste, like wanting your books to contain “plucky young wizards” or “Machiavellian politics.” But having women do interesting things in your novel is not the same as including a certain plot trope or tone or approaching the story from a particular angle. The fact that Lawrence thinks of the inclusion of female characters as a similar choice, a similar niche preference, is really indicative of the problem of sexism in fantasy as a whole. Women are not one of the elements in a writer’s bucket of plot points and tropes. They’re people, just like men, and they should appear as easily in a story as men do.

This isn’t to say that authors can’t explore a misogynistic or patriarchal society in fantasy. But that choice should be made for a reason, and if you don’t have any female characters around to react to that society and accept or struggle against it, that choice has done nothing for the novel except make it appear lazy, a fantasy trapped in our own world.

And yes, sometimes stories necessitate a lack of female characters. A good example would be Castaway, where the male protagonist’s only friend for most of the movie is a volleyball. But make no mistake. If a novel is about a character interacting with a group or with society in some way, rather than a story of isolation, then there is no need to “shoe horn” women in. They should already be there, and their absence is either suggests a failure of imagination, or a failure to care. Both are pretty significant failings for any novelist to have.

Panel Show Quotas

One of my very first posts on Feminist Fiction, way back in 2011, was about British panel shows. More specifically, about how few women there are on British panel shows.

Thankfully, earlier this year, the BBC ruled that all panel shows much have at least one female guest in every episode. Considering that these shows usually have at least six comedians and a host, that’s not exactly a revolutionary ruling, but it’s a step.

But now that we’ve seen some of this post-quota TV, I’m left wonderinf whether they help to get the ball rolling towards actual equality on these shows? I’m thinking no.

I’ve commented before that the popular quiz show QI had something of a woman problem in the past, and the new quota has changed that somewhat. If we can trust Wikipedia as a source, every episode of the new season does have a female guest in it. But almost never more than one. In fifteen of the sixteen episodes, there is one female guest, two male guests, and two male regulars.

The only exception? An episode titled “Ladies and Gents.” Strange.

And this is actually worse than before the quota. Then, not every episode had a female guest, but one quarter of the 2012 season had two female guests out of three total, and one episode had an all-female line-up. In 2013, ten episodes had one female guest, two had two female guests, and one had three female guests, with two episodes with an all-male line-up. More individual women were featured, and they had the chance to be half or more or the people on screen.

It seems like this show, at least, is treating the quota as exactly that. They’ll meet the requirement and then pat themselves on the back for doing a good job, never considering going beyond it unless they have a particularly good thematic reason. And I have to wonder whether this makes it harder to get female comedians on the shows. Is there a sense that they’re “only a quota”? Does this create a hostile environment and make female comedians less likely to make an appearance in the future?

Of course, I think requiring a female presence is much better than not having any presence at all, but how do things progress beyond that quota? How do you prevent a quota from stopping progress? Is it a case of waiting for things to settle, until meeting the quota becomes natural, until the idea of not meeting it or even going beyond it is absurd? Is a wide-sweeping rule enough to tackle this, or is more of an attitude change required? Should the change even start at the visible guest level, or should it focus on having more female producers of panel shows, more women involved in selecting the guests and editing the shows, perhaps even (shock horror) more women as regulars and show hosts?

I really don’t know. But as great it is to see more women on panel shows, it’s terrible to see that quota be barely met, to see shows do the bare minimum, and know that they could do better if they wished. It’s terrible to see a line-up of male comedians and think “you’re there because you’re funny,” and see the one female comedian at the end, struggling against the stigma that she’s only there because the producers didn’t have a choice.

Zoella, Girl Online and the “wrong” kind of success

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This week, the British media have been in a feeding frenzy over Zoella, the popular Youtuber whose debut novel Girl Online sold a record-breaking 78,000 copies in its first week. In news that shouldn’t really surprise anyone, the book was revealed to have been ghostwritten by YA author Siobhan Curham, and Zoella took a temporary break from the internet in face of the ensuing furor.

I’m writing this as seemingly quite a rare specimen — someone over the age of 20 who knows who Zoella is and has seen her videos. Even though I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I am one of her much-mentioned 6 million subscribers, and I do watch her uploads on occasion. So take that as you will here.

In my opinion, the way that Zoella handled this situation was wrong. But it is nowhere near as wrong as the way that the media have handled their response. Zoella presents herself as a “big sister” figure for her pre-teen and early teen fans, and many of them look up to her as a role model. Her brand is built around authenticity, and the fact that she not only used a ghostwriter, but also lied to her viewers about her writing in her vlogs, is something that would understandably confuse and dismay young viewers who thought she could do no wrong. They certainly have a right to complain. But the media at large are not making this point. Most of the people writing about her had no idea who she was before this week, and as they criticize her and spread exaggerated stories about her crimes, they’re using her as a way to unfairly tear down yet another successful young woman and attack teen culture, as well as the publishing industry at large.

Whether you like her brand or not, Zoella is a self-made celebrity and successful businesswoman at 24. She’s rich enough to own a mansion when simple property ownership is a massive daydream for many 24 year olds, she was invited to sing in the newest BandAid, she’s been named vlogger of the year twice, she has her own beauty range in high street stores, she sold 79,000+ books in the UK in a single week… and the only help she had in the beginning was the existence of Youtube. She’s built a brand around being herself, and although people might not understand her popularity, her business savvy is undeniable.

But her success did not come through “approved” channels, and it’s a rather “feminine” success, talking about yourself and your feelings to a camera in your bedroom and offering beauty advice to that most maligned of audiences, teenage girls. And although young fans may be disappointed by the existence of her ghost writer, celebrity ghost writers are extremely common, both for autobiographies and for forays into fiction. The celebrity name is a brand, and although they may have the general plot ideas, the words are someone else’s. By focussing on Zoella’s use of a ghostwriter as though it is a shocking, unacceptable thing, the media are handily avoiding the fact that a self-made young vlogger has the power to break records with her brand, and instead turning her into a teen girl stereotype of vapidness and inauthenticity. The book sold because of her name and her name alone, but she doesn’t deserve her success, because unlike other celebrities with ghostwriters, she isn’t the right sort of successful.

And many media outlets are spreading misinformation as a way to hype up the backlash even further. They say that her ghostwritten book outsold JK Rowling (it didn’t), and that she has “quit the internet” in response to the backlash (she hasn’t) in order to simultaneously magnify her success and show how little she deserves it. Her need to take a step back in the face of a massive backlash is presented as a melodramatic flounce. Her ability to sell more copies than JK Rowling as a debut novelist in her first week of sales is presented as a statement of literary popularity, rather than the simple fact that Zoella’s name sells debut novels, and JK Rowling’s didn’t, because no one knew who JK Rowling was in Harry Potter’s first week on the shelves. And so understandable things, and laudable success, are used to malign her more and more.

Yes, there is an issue with the ghostwriter element, in terms of payment and in terms of credit, but that is not necessarily Zoella’s fault. And although the ghostwriter may have been ripped off, this doesn’t harm the publishing industry, as some people seem to think. If her books rakes in money, that money can be invested into other, riskier authors. The literary and the uncertain have to be supported somehow.

In the end, Zoella’s success show that teenage girls are an audience who demand content, demand role models, are a huge driver of popular culture, and have the power to make someone into a massive success. It shows that these girls are not just screaming over attractive boyband singers, but that they’re looking for young women to look up to and emulate, and that their influence can’t be ignored. The way that Zoella handles her branding should not set her up to be the media pariah of the week. But her popularity with teenage girls, her own gender and her personality and her audience, the idea that a young woman who is unknown to most adults could have such a powerful name and be such a powerful market force… that, it seems, is definitely worth tearing apart.

A Year of Frozen

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It’s officially been a year since Frozen was released into the world, and judging by the Christmas shopping frenzy, the movie is more popular than ever.

Some people are probably tired of Frozen fever by now. But the fact that Frozen and Elsa in particular are so popular with young girls is really heartening. People might comment that the movie doesn’t always have the tightest plot, or isn’t the most beautifully animated thing we’ve ever seen, but it does provide a lot of really powerful things that have been missing, or at least under-appreciated. In a bleak environment of boy-focused cartoons and a dearth of compelling female characters in any media, the popularity of Frozen is an absolute godsend.

Let It Go is an inspiring song

Let It Go is one of the first Disney princess songs to go nuclear that isn’t about the central romance. It’s a song of self-affirmation and self-confidence, a song about deciding to leave criticism behind and be entirely yourself. When little girls sing Let It Go incessantly and emulate Elsa — her footstomp, her declaration of her own independence, her delight in using her magic to create a place of her own — they’re emulating a female character who is taking control of her life and declaring who she is and who she wants to be. It’s a powerful message, and one that young fans must internalize as the sing the song again and again.

Elsa is a very flawed character

Although Anna is sweet and energetic and adorable, Elsa is the character that has won people’s hearts. And this really matters, because Elsa is an imperfect and quite fearful character — she makes many mistakes, she gets scared, she has lots of fears and self-doubt and arguably suffers from severe anxiety after a lifetime of self-repression. Her journey isn’t one of a happy but different girl finding adventure and happiness and true love. It’s an unhappy young woman learning to accept who she is, to control her power, and to become a queen who is free to be herself without isolating herself from everyone and everything she knows. Less glamorous, perhaps, and definitely less traditionally fairy tale, but a far more useful narrative for girls looking for fictional role models and heroines. She feels real, and she conquers real, relatable issues, wrapped up in magic.

Sisters form the heart of the story

Sure, there’s romance, and sure, there’s a couple of cute animal companions and wacky hijinks ensuing, but the central focus of the story is two sisters who became estranged and fight to rebuild their relationship. It’s sisterly love that saves Anna, and the same sisterly love that saves Elsa. It’s unconditional “true love,” and it explores how that doesn’t have to mean finding a handsome prince and living happily ever after.

Love won’t change someone — but it brings out their better side

Although the trolls have some strange moments, their big music number emphasizes the central message of the movie — that although you can’t take a horrible person and change them into a better one by loving them, people will be their better selves if you treat them with love and kindness. Bad choices don’t necessarily make a bad person, just a scared or stressed one, and if you react to them with kindness and patience, you might just be surprised by who they can be.

It’s not been branded as “Disney princess”

Which might be a strange thing for me to say, since I kind of love Disney Princess stuff. But Frozen has been branded as a separate entity, and I think that’s really significant. Girls deserve more choice in their toys and in things marketed towards them — not just princesses, not just pink, not just this pre-selected range of Disney heroines redesigned to be extra-pretty. The fact that Anna and Elsa have yet to be mixed in with the other “Disney Princesses” means that they haven’t undergone pinkification. Their dolls and branded items actually look like the characters do in the movies, rather than being prettied up. They’re themed around blue, not pink. The fact that they’re royalty isn’t emphasized. Anna and Elsa often appear in branding as a pair, or with the other main characters in the movie, and the branding is driven by their characters and by Elsa’s magic. It’s presented as another option for girls (and for boys), and not just an extension of the existing brand aimed at them.

It proves that all these things are profitable

People had written off princess movies as a thing of the past. Companies declared that female protagonists aren’t as profitable as male protagonists, and that girls don’t buy merchandise as much as boys. Better to market a movie with an equal male lead (like Tangled) or just make it all about boys, because then both boys and girls will watch it. But movies about female characters and female relationships are profitable. They can become cultural zeitgeists. And with Frozen being so unbelievable successful, why would the movie companies not wish to capitalize on this “new trend” for female-led movies and children’s brands, and create more?

Add in how fun the songs are and the unbearable cuteness of Sven, and I hope Frozen‘s reign continues for a long time yet.

Sleepy Hollow Mid Season Finale

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After a strong start and a very bumpy middle, Sleepy Hollow pulled out all the stops for its mid-season finale. With epic battles, moral dilemmas, plot twists, and the slight issue of the apocalypse, The Akeda hurtled at a break-neck pace, right through to its final second.

But as the stakes were raised and the drama got bigger, the show’s recent problems also became more obvious, marring an otherwise dramatic and fun episode with frequent moments of, “Wait, what?”

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Fake Girl Geeks

I have a theory about “fake geek girls.”

The very idea that girls would pretend to be interested in nerdy things is patently ridiculous, yet people pull it out all of the time. The first time someone brought up the idea in a comment on this blog, I was floored. Did I not exist? Was not an adequate nerd? Did the person think I was a guy, or that I was only watching Game of Thrones and Doctor Who for attention? I was incredibly confused. But people continue to genuinely believe this, even finding excuses to dispute plain facts and statistics, like the fact that the majority of PC gamers are now women. Girls don’t like real games. They only play Candy Crush. They’re not real gamers.

But I think this goes far beyond the idea that girls only like lame things. I think it’s that things that girls like become lame in people’s eyes, simply because they’re liked by girls.

Consider the not-so-humble Starbucks. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the Western world who hasn’t had a Starbucks at least once. It’s literally just expensive coffee in various flavors. Except now “liking Starbucks” is something that girls are genuinely mocked for. Oh, those shallow girls, those “basic bitches,” thinking that pumpkin spice latte tastes good. Ladies are so dumb.

And if women’s amazing power to make something terrible and ridiculous, simply by liking it, extends to a world-dominating coffee chain, what havoc could that power wreak on comic books, sci-fi and genre TV? Once those things are infected with girls-like-this cooties, they’ll no longer be good. Because girls only like stupid things.

This is a more harmless version of a problem with really serious implications. Not only can “female” hobbies become mockable, but any career path that is considered female-dominated is viewed as easier and less valuable, even if it was seen as difficult before. Take, for example, biology, which is now seen as the “soft science,” and which is the only area of science where the majority of scientists are women.The very association of women with a job or a hobby or a flavored caffeine drink makes that think seem less worthwhile, less serious, and less acceptable for any non-silly individual.

And so girls aren’t allowed to be real nerds. Nerd things are interesting, therefore girls can’t really like them. And if they did really like them, their very presence would put the whole sub-culture at risk of becoming even more laughable. Better to be seen as the all-boys’ club of people who never see sunlight, than to be seen as a shallow, superficial girls’ club. The entire reputation of nerd culture relies on the belief that girl geeks can only ever be fake.

Female writer for Doctor Who Season 9

Doctor Who has its first female writer in 6 years.

Writer Catherine Tregenna, whose credits include three episodes of Torchwood, will be writing one of the episodes of Doctor Who Season 9. Assumedly, she won’t have much say in the general arc of the season or in character development, since it’s just one episode, but after six years of no female writers whatsoever, it’s an improvement.

But it feels perverse to celebrate the fact that, after about 60 episodes written by men, there will finally be one episode written by a woman. It’s a single episode, and a single writer, among 13. And she’ll only be the fifth female writer to ever work on the show, compared to the 87 male writers over the series history. She’s boosting the percentage up to 5.4% female! And forgive my skepticism, but I feel like her appearance as a female writer will be considered enough for the Doctor Who team to give themselves a pat on the back for “including women” and not hire anyone else — just like Steven Moffat’s Who hired one female director for the show in season 5 and hasn’t had a female director since.

The thing that irks me the most is that the Doctor Who team say it isn’t their fault. Neil Gaiman says that the team has reached out to a lot of women writers, but they’ve always had scheduling conflicts, or people saying no. I find it pretty hard to believe. They manage to find six or seven male writers to write each season, but all the massive number of women they approach are busy or uninterested? There’ve really been no talented female writers available over the last six years? No sci-fi/fantasy fans who would love to write for Who and make it their priority? No up-and-coming script writers, no writing veterans? Not the several women who wrote for Being Human, or Merlin, or Robin Hood or other BBC sci-fi/fantasy? Not the other female writers who’ve written for Doctor Who before, or the women who’ve written companion novels? No-one?

And if the show really was approaching as many female writers as male writers, and every female writer was saying no, why were they saying no? Female writer after female writer wouldn’t reject the opportunity to write for one of Britain’s most iconic scripted shows unless they had a good reason to avoid it.

Honestly, this news just has me feeling rather depressed about the whole thing. Not because they’ve hired a female writer — that’s great — but because the appearance of one female writer in a six year period is so surprising that it’s worthy of note and even celebration.

The Designated Ugly Fat Friend

“If you don’t know who it is, it’s probably you.”

Yay for teen movies preying on girls’ insecurities?

The Duff is a recent popular YA novel about a girl labelled the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” by a hot guy. She hooks up with him while she’s dealing with other problems at home, and then realizes that every girl thinks they’re the Designated Ugly Fat Friend, and that everyone in highschool is struggling against labels to figure out who they are. Yay, self-affirming happy ending. Not my favorite book, I had some issues with it, but enjoyable enough.

The new movie version, due out in mid-2015, feels like a different story. It’s a mash-up of 90s teen movies and Mean Girls, combining the tongue-in-cheek detached narrative style with the idea that the “ugly” friend can become beautiful if only she can find a hot guy to remove her glasses.

Assumedly, the movie will still end with the idea that everyone thinks they’re the “Ugly Fat Friend” (although the protagonist’s friends have been cast as so model-attractive that that feels a little hard to believe), and everyone will laugh and feel good about themselves and run off into the sunset together.

But that message from the book is completely negated by the tagline: “if you don’t know who it is, it’s probably you.” Aka, if you’ve never considered that you or one of your friends must be the “ugly fat one” used by everyone else to look better to guys, then the “ugly fat one” must be you. At best, it encourages girls to compare themselves to their friends, and either reassure themselves that their friends are fatter and uglier than them, or feel comparatively bad about themselves — yay for introducing more competition and self-loathing into teenage friend groups. It not only provides another label for girls to apply to themselves, it actively encourages girls to think about how the label fits into their friend group, and tells them that, as they’ve never thought about it before, it’s “probably them.” Basically, anyone who doesn’t view their friends as comparative competition is the ugly fat one. OK then.

This isn’t even touching on the idea that a guy can call a girl “the ugly fat friend,” and she’ll not only believe him, but offer him homework help so that he’ll fix her ugly fat-ness. And that this fixing inevitably involves some kind of makeover, and her then falling for him despite the fact the he called her ugly and made her feel terribly insecure.

And even that self-affirming feel-good twist comes from the lips of that guy in the trailer. “You need to realize that you’re only as awesome as you think you are,” he says, suggesting that protagonist never needed to change in the first place. The protagonist isn’t realizing this herself and telling him to get lost, of course. She never doubted herself in the first place until he told her she was the “ugly fat friend.” He gets to make her feel terrible and insecure, and then he takes the insecurity away with a few more of his all-important, protagonist-judging words.

Also, apparently you can’t think you’re awesome while “dressing like Wreck It Ralph.” Funny, I don’t remember the makeover scene in his movie of self-discovery.

The thing is, this looks like it might be a fun movie. But does it have to rehash the old “not good enough unless a guy gives you approval” tropes? And does it really have to project its “every group of friends has a fatter, less-attractive one” onto its audience?

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