LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Thoughts on Final Paper: The Desexualization and Sanitized Innocence of Disney Princesses

 Disney Princess

Early in the semester, I found a strong connection to the fairy tales we read that have been remade as a Disney classic. Originally, my argument followed in suit with many scholars that have argued that Walt Disney perpetuated a chauvinistic and patriarchal ideal that featured women who ultimately were at the mercy of the men in their life. This has been evident in these films through the lack of a maternal figure, the only adult women are typically evil and violent, the father figure always transfers control to the husband at the end of the film, and it is always Prince Charming that rescues the princess from a near death experience. As a woman, I obviously find this problematic because it instills into the minds of young girls everywhere that our happiness is dependent on a man. While I do not consider myself an outright feminist, I would imagine many other women would find this notion not only discriminatory but also a continuation of many current ideologies that women are nothing without the help from a man. After proposing my initial thoughts of this, I quickly realized that many people have also found these truths to be evident and there was no clear original argument that I was making, so I have since changed the focus of my paper.

Rather than necessarily chastising Disney, I decided to figure out and understand why he chose this way to market a majority of his corporation. When I looked back on the original fairy tales of Snow White, Rapunzel, the Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast I noticed incredible amounts of sex and violence that were heavily interspersed throughout the entirety of the story, some of which certainly did not seem suitable for children. Then as I began re-watching the Disney movies regarding these stories, I noticed that while Disney may have harped on the patriarchal dominance of a man, he also desexualized and took out a lot of the violence that shrouded the original tales, which made them more accessible for children. In the original Rapunzel, she is not only described as hoisting up the prince to the tower with her long hair for presumably sexual encounters, the story also features pregnancy out of wedlock, which is hardly the story I would want my child to read. Ironically, these parts of the story did not seem to make the Disney movie Tangled. Furthermore, Disney took out a lot of the violence that is featured in the original stories of Snow White, Ariel, and Belle and instead, he created a more romantic story line in order to cast a cloak of innocence on the movies to make them more affable for children. Through further research it can be adequately argued and demonstrated that while Disney may not be revered in the Women’s Studies department in Ustler Hall, his ability to make subversive tales into a more child friendly story have certainly prevailed and allowed him to remain as the leading force in children’s entertainment today.

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Final Paper: Children’s Books for Adults?

For my final paper, I plan on examining how children’s literature is often written for two audiences: children and adults. In stories such as Alice in Wonderland, “Little Red Riding Hood,” and Pinocchio.

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ImageLewis Carroll’s Alice novels can definitely be enjoyed by both little kids and adults alike. The whimsical nature of the text and the fancy of Wonderland appeal to children – it is a brand new world filled with magic, imagination, and adventures. Little kids can relate to Alice as she explores the wonders and awes of the new world. At the same time, the novels, especially Alice through the Looking Glass, are written in a manner that is filled with logic, politics, and even drug references. In this sense, adults can appreciate the subtle humor and adult themes. This website explores the theme of logic in the story.

In addition to Alice in Wonderland, fairy tales also have two audiences. Most notably, the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” contains adult imagery and themes that are most definitely not appropriate for little children. Many versions of the story involve the notions of a girl losing her virginity and the idea of male predators. However, little children will most likely not pick up on these mature themes and only take away the simple moral of the story – don’t talk to strangers.

Pinocchio also contains both adult and children’s themes. Little boys and girls are enthralled by the many adventures of the poor puppet who never seems to have success. They both pity and root for Pinocchio at the same time. Collodi also incorporates a political agenda throughout the novel. As we discussed in class, Collodi strived to unite Italy as a nation. Through Pinocchio, he advertises the importance of public education, family, and a career. Adults reading the story to their children will pick up on these references and hopefully adopt new attitudes. Image

Overall, children’s literature authors often incorporate adult ideas in order to appeal to both children and adults alike. In doing so, adults find entertainment and pleasure when reading this stories to their kids or if they are feeling a sense of nostalgia to their own childhood. I hope to further explore these adult references for each piece of literature and possibly get personal feedback from adults as to why children’s books still appeal to them.  

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Motivations in Writing Children’s Literature

The agendas that author’s have when writing their works of fiction are very interesting.  They cover an array of motives and serve a purpose that is ultimately for the author.  The authors may have a strong moral code that they believe all others should also have and so they write stories where one can learn and see how following these morals will lead them to having the best life they can have.  Another motive could be political agendas.  Many texts are written in a time of political turmoil and some authors incorporate this into their works.  Authors also tend to put much of themselves into their stories.  The reasons can vary; perhaps it is a way to immortalize themselves or, a way for them to work through insecurities or problems in their lives.  Most likely, it is a way for the authors to write something that they know personally and feel a connection to.

images    Charles Kingsley inserts his belief in religion and duty within his tale of The Water Babies.  Kingsley was a very religious man and had a set idea about how “good” people lived.  Therefore, he chose to push these beliefs onto others by instructing children how one was meant to behave through his tale of Tom and Ellie.  Even within classic fairy tales there are lessons and morals to be gained from reading these stories.   Do not disobey your husband, marry whomever you are intended to and maybe you will fall in love with him anyway, be a good child and listen to your elders and remain sweet and pure.  These are all lessons, which can be obtained through the readings of fairy tales from all over the world.

Political agendas can be inferred within at least a few of the texts that we have read during this course.  Both Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books and Frank L.  Baum’s The Wizard of Oz have different social and political issues within them. Within Kipling’s books about Mowgli and his animal comrades we see a social hierarchy that is very reflective of British governed India.  Many historians view the Baum’s The Wizard of Oz as a political text.  They have assumed that Baum used very strategically certain characteristics and colors within the novel to represent political America.  For instance, some historian’s have stated that the Cowardly Lion could be the politician William Jennings Bryan who had the reputation of being indecisive.  Others have inferred that the Yellow Brick Road is symbolic of gold and the silver shoes are representative of currency.  images-1

Finally, I would like to visit the concept, which leaves me with the most questions, the motive of putting oneself within one’s own fictional story.  Lewis Carroll inserted himself in both of his Alice tales.  In Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland we see a tale that Lewis wrote entirely for the children he was very fond of from his own life.  Alice Liddell is the Alice whom Carroll both wrote the story and created the character around.  In his follow up, Through the Looking Glass, Carroll inserts himself into the text as The White Knight.  He gives his mannerisms and other qualities to this character.  Carroll is not the only author to do this though and we see a similar story within J.M. Barrie’s stories about Peter Pan.  Much like Carroll, Barrie was also very close to a family with young children that were not his own. Instead of the children being all girls this family was made up of five young boys whom Barrie created his tales for.  He even names his characters within his works after these boys.  Barrie also gives a part of himself to the character of Peter, and put his own dog Porthos within his earlier drafts.

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Though motives may vary it is easy to assume that these author’s felt a need to write about the beliefs, world occurrences, and things going on in their lives.  Especially interesting is that these are texts that are geared for children.  The need to impress morality, hint a political issues, and offer a personal vulnerability that children may not grasp quite fully at first but later in life when they are older and pick back up these classics that is very likely to change.

*Geer, John G.; Rochon, Thomas R. (2004). “William Jennings Bryan on the Yellow Brick Road”. The Journal of American Culture 16 (4): 59–63. doi:10.1111/j.1542-734X.1993.00059.x.

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Teasing out the “Beautiful” and the “Ugly” in Fairy Tales and Victorian Literature

 

What is beauty? What does it mean to be beautiful? In today’s world, when we read about a beautiful daughter who was virtuous in a fairy tale we immediately assume, “Wow, what sexist, awful fairy tale and Victorian writers, just because she’s virtuous means she’s automatically the most ‘beautiful’ person on earth. And then of course since her sisters are mean and bad, they are called ‘ugly’. How ridiculous!” With this mindset then, we turn on virtue, we start criticizing it, we start speaking about it in negative ways, we start mocking it.  But is there something more here? What did these authors and tales mean when they bestowed this pronouncement of beauty or  ugliness?

Is this a modern day version of MacDonald’s “princess” theory?

 

First, for modern readers, what it comes down to is the fact that in our world we have reduced beauty to someone who is physically attractive, someone that looks like a model or actress.  However beauty, like the word love, is a loaded word.  Perhaps what the authors of fairy tales or Victorian writers like George MacDonald are asking us to think about is not the fact that virtues make a person “beautiful” in the way we think of beauty.  Instead acting good, being virtuous, actually having morals, makes a person beautiful.  And it is not a surface beauty, it is a radiance that comes out, it is a joy, it is something intangible and almost imperceptible but we know it’s there.  So although the media and even illustrators choose to portray the “beautiful princess” as the perfectly shaped and attractive girl, I do not think that these authors were working at such a shallow and surface level.  George MacDonald, as a Christian, would have most likely been well versed in Christian thoughts on beauty.  He surely would have been very aware of this passage from scripture, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that says:

Thus, with this in mind, MacDonald and others in his line of thought (ie Lewis and Tolkien), are not concerned with superficial beauty; they believed in ideals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful and that bringing these things into your life and focusing on them could actually make a difference in your life.  That what could happen is if one thinks on what is True, they’ll become a person who is true; if they think on Beauty, they’ll become beautiful; and if they think on the Good, then they will become the man or women that they are meant to become.

Curious to read this and see how it fits in with my propositions in this post…

And what of the mean, evil, ugly characters??  In the same way that we’ve reduced the term beautiful to attractive, we’ve reduced ugly to physically unattractive.  However, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many descriptions of the physical ugliness of let’s say mean sisters in fairy tales.  It is an ugliness that exudes from inside, that taints their being, that mars the way we think of them.  Granted sometimes like in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, the goblins are actually physically ugly to represent their bad behavior, but I mean they are goblins, right?! This calls to mind a scene from C.S. Lewis’s first Narnia book, The Magician’s Nephew, in which Jadis, the witch, comes to life inside of the great hall.  The children notice that as they move down the table there is slowly an almost imperceptible change that has come over all of these rulers, and the corruption that they practiced has trickled into their physical appearance (which we should note, could actually happen, trials and hardships, or joys and blessings, have a way of making themselves physically evident in our countenance).  However, the queen, Jadis, is physically beautiful, but her greed, her evilness is evident to the children, and to them she becomes ugly, but no so much on the surface but a burning from the inside.  In this way there is an illumination of the danger in correlating ugliness with physical unattractiveness.

Recently this idea of the utterly beautiful but evil woman has probably been depicted best by Charlize Theron in “Snow White and the Huntsman”

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Let me start off by saying I am a diehard Disney fan.  There are people who will say that he was an anti-Semite or that he hated children, and to that I say, there are a lot of people who do good things for the world who didn’t necessary have great personal lives.

So that being said, the article “Breaking the Disney Spell” by Jack Zipes made me absolutely angry.  Down to the very rhetoric he uses, referring to Disney’s “stranglehold” over the fairy tale, and his “capitalization of American innocence”.  This is obviously a man with a vendetta.  I don’t know what Walt Disney did to make Jack Zipes so angry, but it definitely comes out in this article.

At one point, he writes, “Throughout the entire production of this film, Disney had to be consulted and give his approval for each stage of development”.  But then he goes onto write, “As we know, Disney never liked to give credit to the animators who worked with him, and they had to fight for acknowledgment. Disney always made it clear that he was the boss and owned total rights to his products.”

Already, I have an immediate problem with this statement because if it’s really true that Disney had a hand in every aspect of the production of the film, doesn’t that entitle him the label of “boss” and doesn’t he truly own total rights to the product?  He even makes a strong point about how his re-telling of Snow White is truly his Americanized version that just totally strips the Grimm brothers of the traditional meeting.  If he totally remade the story in an entirely new way, doesn’t that make him the owner of the product more than if he had just adapted the story directly to film?

And as for the other assertion, that his animators had to fight for acknowledgment, I give you this, displayed in the opening seconds of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:
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Enough said.

Jack Zipes honestly has some huge problem with Disney and his style of bringing traditional fairy tales to life.  I don’t see the problem in adapting the stories, because isn’t that how we are left with the versions we have today?  From a variety of different people in different places passing the stories on to their children where they get altered a little or sometimes even a lot?  Disney is just another one of those story tellers who chose to adapt the story to his own taste.  Whether that taste is “Americanized” or not really isn’t the point.  He gives our children a story to watch on screen and relate to.  Would you rather read your child a story about a mermaid who cuts out her tongue, is in constant pain, and then almost stabs the object of her affection, or would you rather give them a happy ending?

I see absolutely nothing wrong with Disney’s adaptions and I’d really like to know what Jack Zipe’s beef is.  He didn’t die a billionaire for nothing.

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Grrr(l) Power: Becoming the Animal in “The Tiger’s Bride”

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At the mention of “The Tiger’s Bride” by Angela Carter last Tuesday, our class let out a groan. On our first reading, it seems that we all missed whatever Carter was trying to communicate in this modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast. However, upon a closer inspection of the tale, especially the last passage of the Beauty character’s transformation between pages 64 and 66, the tale resembles the common tale type more closely than we realized.
The narrator’s wish for independence from her sleazy father is an easily understood motivation for remaining in the castle. In a fairly symbolically simple phrase, the narrator comments that she will “wind up” her robotic maidservant and “send her back to perform the part of my father’s daughter” (64). The narrator then proceeds to strip naked, preparing to acquiesce to the Beast’s request.
The Beast’s desire to see her naked rather than a proposal of marriage seems too sexually forward for this usually repressed tale. It is especially disturbing considering the Beast lacks any human features, even relying on a servant to speak for him. However, the narrator speaks of undressing like the shedding of her humanity, rather than preparation for any sexual encounter. It is “not natural for humankind to go naked,” as she comments (64). She feels pain as she undresses, as if she was “stripping off [her] own underpelt” (64). Already speaking in animal’s terms, she has begun her transformation.
She clothes herself in the robe made of rats as she makes her way to the Beast to fend off the “lacerating winds” in the corridors, rather than for modesty’s sake. The robe itself is made of animals, allowing the narrator to protect herself without interrupting her desire to be truly naked. She also wears the earrings made of the Beast’s tears, finally accepting his gifts.
As the Beast begins to lick her “skin off,” his purring shakes the “foundations of the house” (66). Civilization seems to be crumbling around her as she completes her transformation into animal. Finally, the diamond earrings turn back into teardrops. The magical transformation of his tears to diamonds, then given as jewelry, seems to be the Beast’s attempt to bridge the divide between their species, transforming his gifts into gifts appropriate for a human. The transformation of the earrings back into tears shows that the narrator has completed her passage into the realm of the animal.
The Beast’s desire to see her naked can now read much closer to a marriage proposal. By asking her to remove her clothes, he was symbolically asking her to relinquish her humanity so that she could transform into a Beast, and thus become his animal bride. Rather than become human together, the narrator chooses to leave her unhappy life as a human with her father and “shed all the skins of a life in the world” (66).

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“Snow White” and the Not-So-Antiquated Notions of Femininity and Sex

Many fairy tales portray two women at odds with each other: a virtuous, innocent young woman being victimized by a cunning, ambitious older woman. We are meant to root against the older woman who can think for herself and the naive (usually blonde) young woman wins every time. This is especially evident in The Grimm’s “Snow White,” where a dark, evil witch attempts to kill the pure, young girl so that the witch will once again be the fairest woman in all the lands.

When we read fairy tales, we write off these disturbing notions of ideal femininity (innocence and virtue over ambition or wit) because of the social norms of the time that they were written, but Disney is still creating movies with these two dichotomous feminine roles and women who are eternally childlike, obedient and one-dimensional are beating out women who are ambitious and daring even today. The entire time I was reading “Snow White,” I imagined Taylor Swift (who won over both Lady Gaga and Beyonce at the Grammy’s in 2010) in my head.

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There is still that deep dichotomy in modern culture and it is used to oppress women through a sexual double standard, establishing extremely rigid rules for female sexual behavior while allowing male sexual behavior to range from abstinence to promiscuity without similar social judgment.

The wide appeal of Taylor Swift seems a desperate attempt to infuse our increasingly socially liberal country with a palatable conservative ideology by means of a complacent, repressed feminine ideal. The insistence on conservative role models over the often-criticized oversexed women of pop music means girl-bashing boy-crazy rain-soaked anthems sung by a woman valued for her “purity” over her intelligence or even her talent.

While we like to believe that these “antiquated” notions about the ideal woman are, if not gone, at least being challenged today, we still find ourselves dressing up as Disney princesses and humming Taylor Swift songs under our breath. We still root for the girl in the bleachers over the cheerleader.

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Critical Text Analysis of Little Red Riding Hood

Maria Tartar’s edited version of The Classic Fairy Tales sparked a new interest in me of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and the symbolism portrayed in that tale. According to Tartar, the act of Red Riding Hood getting into the bed with wolf was a metaphor for the act of losing one’s virginity. The problem with this interpretation, as pointed out by the Introduction, is that some variations have Little Red getting in the bed and some have her figure out the wolf’s tricks before she does.

Little Red Riding Hood Illustration

Little Red Riding Hood Illustration

This detail is crucial because it would signify, if the metaphor was constant across variations, that some Little Reds lost their virginity while others still protected it. If this is the case, why did some girls outwit the wolf quickly enough and keep their innocence?

According to Tartar, this was entirely a matter of choice on the part of the girl. She believes that no girl could possibly be dumb enough to believe a hairy wolf was her grandmother; therefore, it was her repressed or unspoken desire to get into bed with the wolf. This would mean that the authors who had their characters get into the bed were suggesting that each willing lost her innocence to the wolf.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf

This is a strong statement on female sexuality, and a statement on how women are actively involved in the quest for sex and not merely victims sought out by men. From what I’ve read about society during the time period that most of these stories were written, this is a very risky message to send to little girls who were raised to act as objects and to be owned by their husbands. It was a progressive mind set that gave the idea that women sought out sex in similar ways as men.

This is a relatively hard topic to discuss in a children’s book, so my more simple belief is that Little Red outwitting the wolf is more of a coming of age mark that does not necessarily have to do with the act of sex, but the act of recognizing the pursuit of man. It is the age when girls start to recognize that boys are pursuing them, which comes at different ages for all girls just like it comes at a different time for Little Red in each variation. It is a time when girls lose their innocence because they begin to recognize their femininity. It is the act of women realizing the lengths men will go to get women into bed, but learning how to trick or outmaneuver them in this quest. The act of sex can still be inferred from this interpretation, but sex is not the only act that could mark the loss of innocence in the story.

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The Water Babies: Tom’s Coming of Age

An interesting diagram that can be interpreted as the wavering nature of coming-of-age.

In our lives, we grow, develop, and mature both mentally and physically every day in a variety of ways. Because of this, readers of literature naturally gravitate towards works focusing upon character development and evolution. A particular sub-genre, the coming-of-age story, usually chronicles a young boy or girl as they face external and internal conflicts and how those develop and mature their personalities and world-views. In Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, our protagonist Tom morphs into a water-baby and learns more about his faults and how to correct them over the course of the story, and by the conclusion both literally and figuratively transforms into an adult.

When Tom begins his journey, his demeanor reflects a quintessentially immature young boy, reflected by his habits of agitating innocent animals, prioritizing himself over others, and disobeying the rules of his adult figures. In most coming-of-age stories, the protagonist gradually learns how to sympathize, understand, and rationalize. Although Tom’s maturity slowly grows, he tends to retreat back to his poor behaviors, even after experiencing pivotal moments in his life. Early in the story, Tom initially fails to find any other water babies. After saving a lobster from a fisherman’s trap, the water babies greet him and introduce him to their home and adult figures, who congratulate him upon his refined sense of empathy. However, later in the story Tom steals sweets from Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, (a loving, generous adult figure) a clear sign that he has yet to truly mature. This regression indicates the difference between Kingsley’s coming-of-age story and the multitude of stories written by other authors; Kingsley suggests Tom cannot mature through one event and must continue to compromise morality in order to truly reach a point of complete ethical sensibility.

Who could steal from this loving woman?!

Another interesting difference in Kingsley’s coming-of-age story is how Tom ultimately matures as an adult. In most coming-of-age stories, a conflict’s conclusion that naturally occurs within the story serves as the impetus for the protagonist’s realizations and subsequent maturation. For Tom, he is ordered to save Mr. Grimes in order to grow from a boy into a man. Although he saves Mr. Grimes and learns more about himself and his capability to empathize, the fact that it was a dictated rite-of-passage from one of his adult figures diminishes the impact of his growth and implies that Tom would have never developed unless placed under the guidance of an adult figure. He also literally becomes a full-grown man at the conclusion of the story, a not-so-subtle indication from Kingsley that Tom has indeed matured. Most coming-of-age stories usually have the child only figuratively mature, but Kingsley probably included the detail to make the premise more apparent to younger readers.

In the end he gets the girl!

Overall, Kingsley’s unique approach to the coming-of-age story through Tom showcases a respectable understanding of the sub-genre and serves as a fitting guideline for children and parents alike.

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Fairy Tales: Depicting the Development of Female Gender Roles

          For centuries, fairy tales have permeated many cultures and societies. While these tales often served to entertain children and/or teach them morals, they also serve as reflections of the societies and time periods in which their numerous versions developed, spread, and were transcribed. In particular, the evolution of many tales follows the development of gender roles and expectations of the societies in which they originated. This can be seen in how many popular tales have adapted over time and are depicted in popular culture today.

            In many traditional fairy tales, female characters fell into a dichotomy, filling the role of the heroine or the villain. The heroine was a depiction of the ideal young woman: beautiful, compassionate, youthful, calm, and often naïve. The female villain is depicted as older, often a mother figure (or stepmother), who is cunning, jealous, and downright malicious. This could be seen in tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” both of which featured a young, beautiful, virtuous young woman at odds with a malicious, jealous stepmother. This dichotomy reflected the common conceptions of women during the time that they were told and transcribed, as women were valued for their beauty, youth, and virtue, while ambitious, scheming, outspoken women were seen as tainted, inappropriate and improper.

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Cinderella startled by her stepmother’s reflection as she comes up behind her.

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Snow White and her stepmother disguised as an old beggar.

            With the dawn of filmmaking in the 20th century, fairy tales began to appear in a new medium, and eventually became wildly popular. In recent years, we have seen a resurgence of this wild popularity in many different forms, such as film, television, and music, and in adaptations that reflect modern depictions of gender roles. For example, in the 2012 movie Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White, though similar to film adaptations of earlier films, is depicted as much stronger, outspoken, and motivated, as the audience sees her suit up in armor and fight for the kingdom that was rightfully hers. In another adaptation of “Snow White,” Mirror, Mirror, also released in 2012, the audience watches as an in-control, and clever Snow White feeds her stepmother a poisonous apple originally meant for herself. These films are just a few examples of contemporary adaptations of traditional fairy tales, with more outspoken, clever, and go-getting modern heroines that are much more reflective of the typical woman in our American society today.

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