Thoughts on “rape humor” and “rape culture.”

I’m probably going to stir up a shit storm with this entry, but, what the hell, It’s been awhile since I’ve done that.

I’ve been following the uproar over a Penny Arcade comic strip that appeared back in August with some interest. For those of you who are not fans of both video games and webcomics, Penny Arcade is a webcomic (natch) by and about gamers that is often crass, crude, offensive, and hugely popular with its target audience. In the 13 or so years it has been around it has grown into a new media phenomena that has spawned a twice-a-year video game convention that regularly sells out and a children’s charity that raises millions to provide sick kids in children’s hospitals toys and games.  Love it or hate it, what writer Jerry Holkins and illustrator Mike Krahulik have accomplished is damned impressive when most webcomic creators are lucky just to make a living at it.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Penny Arcade in part because I often don’t understand the joke being made — probably because I’m getting old and crotchety — but with as influential as it is I make a point to follow it just the same. Which means that on August 11th last year I saw the following strip, which I’m reproducing here for convenience:

Penny Arcade comic The Sixth Slave.

Copyright 2010 Penny Arcade, Inc. - Click to embiggen.

Being a big MMORPG player myself I easily “got” the joke in this strip, which is that the quests in many MMORPG games have arbitrary goals when you consider the gravity of the subject at hand. In this case the player has been tasked with freeing five slaves and, having done so, is callously apathetic about the plight of the sixth slave who is pleading for his freedom from what is a truly horrible situation. This is something I’ve actually thought about while playing World of Warcraft as there are a number of “free X number of slaves” type quests spread throughout the game. The practical reason why there are always a ton of slaves left in servitude when you finish such a quest is so that other players can also complete the quest at the same time without having to stand around and wait for the slaves you just freed to respawn, but the knowledge of the practical reason for it doesn’t stop you from recognizing how odd it is that you just saved X slaves while leaving the rest to their fate. As an aside, one of the goblin quests in the new expansion is quite similar, but involves you trying to douse the flames of fellow goblins that have been set ablaze. When you reach your goal there are still lots of goblins running around on fire screaming their little goblin lungs out, which is even more disturbing to ponder. Given that context, I found the above strip to be not only funny, but pretty spot on.

If you’ve not taken the time to read the strip then you may be wondering what the uproar might be about. The catalyst is in the second panel wherein the slave is explaining to the player his horrible situation with the following text: “Every morning, we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by Dickwolves.” This caught the attention of self-described feminist Shaker Milli A who proceeded the next day to write a post titled Rape is Hilarious, Part 53 in an Ongoing Series. I suggest reading the whole entry, but here’s a snippet:

When I have a sense of humor, it is a little offbeat. I have liked, for example, Penny Arcade’s comics about the numerous times they’ve killed each other. I have a dark sense of humor, and I’ll admit it.

But unlike Gabe killing Tycho so he doesn’t have to share a video game, a slave being raped is a real thing that happens in the world every day. I don’t find this “joke” funny because, unlike characters cartoonishly killing each other repeatedly and coming back to life, just as in video games, rape isn’t a central feature of (most) games—at least in the actual gameplay, totally aside from the language used by players.

The problem is, I just don’t find rape funny. Because rape survivors exist among us, and after being victimized by rapists, they are revictimized by a society that treats even real rape like a joke, forced to live in a culture that actually has a lot of rape jokes, including those about rape victims being actively denied justice for no other reason than because people don’t take rape seriously. I don’t find rape funny because rape victims are often doubted, mocked, and insulted openly.

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a family where humor was a big coping mechanism and I can’t recall ever being told that any particular subject was taboo. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t any jokes that ended up being awkward or cringe worthy, just that there wasn’t anything explicitly beyond making an attempt at humor about. If someone’s feelings were hurt by a joke we’d apologize for it as hurting feelings was never the intent. Given that you can probably see why I didn’t have a problem with the PA comic when I read it. That said, I can also understand why someone who has been a victim of rape would find the joke offensive. It is my understanding that many victims suffer from PTSD which can be triggered by being reminded of their ordeal.

The above two events are the beginning of a months-long back-and-forth between Penny Arcade and a number of feminists and rape survivors that is documented with links at Debacle Timeline – The Pratfall of Penny Arcade if you want to read up on all the gory details. In short, the guys at Penny Arcade found themselves being taken to task on Twitter, in emails, and on various blogs and forums over the rape reference in their comic. Their initial reaction was to be defensive and they put out a comic in their usual sarcastic style that apologized if anyone had been turned into a rapist by the previous comic. Needless to say, that didn’t help. Melissa McEwan at Shakesville, where the original complaint was posted, fired back with an entry titled Survivors Are So Sensitive:

Most critics of rape jokes object on one of two bases, neither of which are “your rape joke will directly cause someone to go out and commit a rape.” (That idea is absurd—which is why it’s so appealing to defenders of rape jokes to deliberately misrepresent critics’ arguments in such a fashion.) One criticism is that rape jokes are triggers for survivors of sexual violence (and/or attempted sexual violence). The other is that rape jokes contribute to a rape culture in which rape is normalized.

It’s that second objection that tends to get repackaged as “your rape joke will directly cause someone to go out and commit a rape,” which is, of course, a willful and dishonest simplification of a complex argument. The rape culture is a collection of narratives and beliefs that service the existence of endemic sexual violence in myriad ways, from overt exhortations to commit sexual violence to subtle discouragements against prosecution and conviction for crimes of sexual violence. The rape joke, by virtue of its ubiquity, prominently serves as a tool of normalization and diminishment.

No, one rape joke does not “cause” someone to go out and commit a rape. But a single rape joke does not exist in a void. It exists in a culture rife with jokes that treat as a punchline a heinous, terrifying crime that leaves most of its survivors forever changed in some material way. It exists in a culture in which millions and millions of women, men, and children will be victimized by perpetrators of sexual violence, many of them multiple times. It exists in a culture in which rape not being treated as seriously as it ought means that vanishingly few survivors of sexual violence see real justice, leaving their assaulters free to create even more survivors. It exists in a culture in which rape is not primarily committed by swarthy strangers lurking in dark alleyways and jumping out of bushes, but primarily by people one knows, who nonetheless fail, as a result of some combination of innate corruption and socialization in a culture that disdains consent and autonomy, to view their victims as human beings deserving of basic dignity.

That is the environment into which a rape joke is unleashed—and one cannot argue “it isn’t my rape joke that facilitates rape” any more than a single raindrop in an ocean could claim never to have drowned anyone.

I apologize for the length of that quote, but I thought it was important to provide as much context as I could. At this point I think it’s clear to see why this blew up into such a firestorm. The folks at Penny Arcade don’t consider the comic to be a rape joke because rape was never the point of the strip, it was just something horrible they tossed in to highlight the absurdity of the arbitrary goal of freeing only 5 slaves. Meanwhile, the other side — and this is entirely my impression here — seem to feel that any joke that has the word rape in it is a “rape joke” regardless of what the point of the joke happens to be.

As someone who has been guilty of being insensitive and offensive himself, my initial reaction is to come down on the side of the guys from Penny Arcade. While I can see how their reaction to the complaints was probably not in their best interests, I can also understand their defensiveness over it as I’ve been there myself. But I will also admit that this is the first time I’ve come across the concept of “rape culture” so I took the time to read what Melissa McEwan had to say about what rape culture is. It’s a long entry that appears to implicate pretty much every aspect of popular culture as being part of Rape Culture, but the part that’s most applicable to the discussion at hand is this:

Rape culture is rape jokes. Rape culture is rape jokes on t-shirts, rape jokes in college newspapers, rape jokes in soldiers’ home videos, rape jokes on the radio, rape jokes on news broadcasts, rape jokes in magazines, rape jokes in viral videos, rape jokes in promotions for children’s movies, rape jokes on Page Six (and again!), rape jokes on the funny pages, rape jokes on TV shows, rape jokes on the campaign trail, rape jokes on Halloween, rape jokes in online content by famous people, rape jokes in online content by non-famous people, rape jokes in headlines, rape jokes onstage at clubs, rape jokes in politics, rape jokes in one-woman shows, rape jokes in print campaigns, rape jokes in movies, rape jokes in cartoons, rape jokes in nightclubs, rape jokes on MTV, rape jokes on late-night chat shows, rape jokes in tattoos, rape jokes in stand-up comedy, rape jokes on websites, rape jokes at awards shows, rape jokes in online contests, rape jokes in movie trailers, rape jokes on the sides of buses, rape jokes on cultural institutions

Rape culture is people objecting to the detritus of the rape culture being called oversensitive, rather than people who perpetuate the rape culture being regarded as not sensitive enough.

In short, if you try to be funny about rape you’re a rape apologist. As far as Melissa is concerned, it is a taboo topic for joviality.

Now the reason this got me to thinking is because, as I said previously, I didn’t have a problem with the PA comic when I read it. It never occurred to me that the slave saying he’s “raped to sleep by Dickwolves” was meant to poke fun at being raped, and I still don’t think it was meant in that manner. I am painfully aware, on this issue as well as many other sensitive topics, that I am very much the “privileged norm” in terms of being a Middle Aged White Heterosexual Male which instantly makes my opinion on any of those topics subject to dismissal by default by some factions. I am also not a rape victim and even though I have people very close to me who are, that doesn’t mean I understand what it’s like to live through.

I find myself pausing to consider: Am I a rape apologist because I didn’t have a problem with the PA comic? I consider rape to be vile and repulsive. An act I have trouble fathoming how someone could commit on another human being. I believe rapists should be treated as the predators they are and punished accordingly. I have similar beliefs and feelings in regards to torture, murder, and any of a number of other heinous acts. Does the fact that I sometimes find amusement in jokes about torture or murder make me an apologist for those terrible crimes? If I am to accept the reasoning of Mellisa then it must be so.

So what, then, should I think of this bit by The Daily Show on the Republican attempt to redefine rape to eliminate taxpayer funded abortions:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Rape Victim Abortion Funding
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> The Daily Show on Facebook

Unlike the Penny Arcade comic, the folks at The Daily Show are clearly joking about rape in an effort to highlight the absurdity of the Republican legislation. You can clearly hear that more than one of the jokes makes the audience uneasy and they’re not sure if they should laugh or not.  Quite a few of the statements made by Kristen Schaal are easily way more offensive than the Penny Arcade comic, but does anyone really think she’s seriously advocating the position she’s parodying?

I also found this bit to be both funny and strong denunciation of the attempt to change the law regarding abortions for rape victims, but if I am to accept the logic being made against the folks at Penny Arcade then Jon Stewart is easily deserving of the same condemnation. More so, in fact, as rape was the punchline to many of the jokes whereas it was not in the PA strip. Yet there isn’t any word about the bit over at Shakesville. I suppose it’s possible it just hasn’t come to their attention yet.

In the end I will say that I think the guys at Penny Arcade did dig themselves a hole with their responses to their critics. While I understand their initial defensiveness,  they did move into the realm of complete assholeness by putting Go Team Dickwolves t-shirts and sports pennants in their store. It’s probably not the move I would have made, but then I’m not them. They have a lot they’ve built up over the years that could be affected negatively by such tactics, but that’s a price they appear willing to pay. That said, I did find the t-shirts funny.

As for the folks that are upset over the comic, while I can sympathize that it’s probably very painful to be reminded of what they’ve been through, I still come down on the side that no topic is taboo for attempts at humor. Perhaps that does make me a Rape Apologist, but given how expansive their definition of Rape Culture is, I don’t see how it’s possible not to be. That said, they have every right to be heard and their opinions considered. They have some valid points and I think we would all do well to stop and consider the topic. It would probably have helped their cause, however, if their initial reaction hadn’t been so hostile. I understand it’s a highly emotional topic, but that approach is just going to result in the targets being defensive as they were in this case. Clearly the PA guys were not advocating for rape and to insist otherwise does nothing to win them over to your side of the argument.

67 comments

  1. And the Feminists have said something that is much more shocking to me. They claim that all of popular culture is complicit in supporting “rape culture.” The PA guys were assholes, but they didn’t claim all of society was unknowingly complicit in some horrible plan to marginalize a group of victims.

    But.. We are all complicit in marginalizing SOMEONE. The ones that suffers the least from this kind of a society are old white men. That is privilege to a T.

    How is that shocking? Is it shocking to you to hear that we live in a racist society? Is it shocking to you that we live in a rape culture? Why is it shocking that popular culture reflects these problems?

    Back in Shakespeare’s time men had to play women on stage because we didn’t belong there. Later white men donned black-face because black people didn’t belong there. Those things were once part of pop-culture just as rape culture is part of ours. The key part, I feel, is the word UNKNOWINGLY.

    What happens, then, when you tell someone they’re participating in marginalization? Not me, man, not me! I’m not a rapist or a rape apologist! I’m not racist! It’s not my fault that I’m privileged!

    Why is it wrong to acknowledge that you have unknowingly participated in something bad, if indeed you didn’t know it was bad? And why is it bad for someone to point it out to you, so that you may stop?

    Unless, of course, you feel that it’s worse to be called a racist than it is to endure racism. Or that it’s worse to be called a rapist than it is to endure rape. Or that you’re entitled to find something funny, even if it hurts other people.

    I do happen to find lots funny that I know is hurtful to others. I just keep it for the right company and if I DO hurt someone with a flippant comment I’m not going to tell them I have the right to tell a funny, so stop being so sensitive. In a case like that I readily admit I can be an asshole and sometimes I get it wrong.

    What matters is that we try. We’re going to fail, again and again, yet we should not be discouraged. Women and POC are no longer banned from the stage! We can even vote! Progress! And yet there is so much left to do, we just can’t do it if we don’t acknowledge that there are things left to work on, you know?

  2. Not sure I see how your link supports your claim. She pretty much says she distrusts most men. Seems she’s expressing a certain amount of feeling alone in doing so.

    If you read the comments, you’ll see her openly state her mistrust of men, and see many self-identified men seeing the post as brilliant and enlightening. Most of these men will be people Melissa considers allies, or potential allies.

    Essentially, your intuitions on what works are wrong when it comes to feminism. As the given link demonstrates through the feedback mechanisms on the blog.

    I would think that PTSD from any experience is difficult to live with. Which is part of why I’m very much in support of greater mental health availability to people — particularly soldiers in this context, but really anyone — who suffers from it. It’s what I’d seek out if I didn’t have PTSD. You can’t change what caused the PTSD, but that doesn’t mean you just have to live with it either.

    While I fully agree with you regarding better mental health care, you don’t see soldiers being made light of for having PTSD. Rape victims? Yeah, they’re fair game, apparently. Which is disgusting, really, and is the point I was trying to make.

    As for imagining your scenario, I don’t find it difficult to do. I can sympathize, but I don’t think it means everyone should be walking on egg shells. Call the assholes out for being assholes, but, again, if you’re going to engage assholes…

    This isn’t about engaging arseholes. This is about being mocked because you were attacked. By everyone. With this statement, you’ve told me that you haven’t imagined the scenario fully. It also tells me that you probably can’t.

    Disturbing? No. Angering? Yes. I’m not disturbed when I think back to getting my ass kicked by a gang of kids. I’m angered by it. I’m not disturbed by hearing about pedophile priests. I’m angered by it. Perhaps you’re using the words interchangeably, but I consider them separate concepts.

    Simply because I don’t find it disturbing doesn’t mean I think it’s right.

    You’re right, they are separate concepts. They’re not mutually exclusive, though. I am both angered and disturbed by pedophile priests. I am disturbed, but not angered, that you don’t find pedophile priests disturbing. Similarly, I am both angered and disturbed by the possibility of a victim being laughed at for being victimised. I am similarly disturbed without anger that you don’t also find disturbance in this fact.

    For the reverse, I occasionally get angry at a video game that I can’t seem to beat. This does not disturb me.

    Also, I promise to read the links you provided. I need to get to work at the moment, though, so it won’t be immediate.

    We’re both relatively busy people, it seems.

  3. Les, I think I’d like to challenge you to spend some more time over at Tiger Beatdown and/or Shakesville for at least a week or so, and read through the posts relating to privilege and rape culture/the sexism rampant in our society. Sadly there’s usually something at least once a day on the topic of (for instance) a judge letting a man off for attempted murder of his wife because “hey, everyone gets angry sometimes,” or the violence inherent in a new bill meant to strip rape victims of rights, etc. So I (believe) you’ll have ample opportunity to see what Melissa and Sady (from Tigerbeatdown) are talking about when they talk about everyone/everything being part of a culture of violence against women.

    I think you’re a pretty thoughtful guy, so I hope that you can view this really as a challenge not to prove them wrong but just to *see* what they are talking about and getting emails about on a daily basis. I’d also look at this day old post to just see some example of the sheer number of people who actually really do think that rape is a-ok, and like to make jokes about it.

  4. You opened up quite a can of worms with this post. As a survivor, I didn’t feel that the strip dealt with rape much at all, but more the concept that if someone has his quota it’s ok to leave the sixth victim to their fate. As a gamer I don’t like the message that sends at all, but I don’t think that the writer even considered the minefield he was stepping into when he used rape as the something horrible the ones left behind were subjected to.

    I DID take offense at their response once they realized what a hornet’s nest they’d poked. That pulled in into the “rape is not so bad” area much more than the strip did.

    Les, I’ve read and re-read your original post and thought it was insightful and as balanced as it could be. You do understand where the original strip was coming from, you don’t agree with their handling of it and you don’t think rape is funny. You definitely are not an asshole…so what’s the brouhaha here about?

  5. To all, as I am trying to work this out in my own head I’ll probably spend a bit of time on Shakesville reading up on it.

    JaneGael, my impression of the issue here is that among feminists and their allies there’s a whole different way of viewing society that I, as a Privileged White Male, am not conscious of due to my privileged status. Which not only makes me an unknowing contributor to rape culture and the oppression of women in general, but also means that no matter how pro-woman I’d like to think I am I fall far short of the true ideal as far as many are concerned. It’s also apparently somewhat bad that I’m not shocked or disturbed by certain things that are considered shock worthy. It seems I stumbled into a if-you’re-not-part-of-the-solution-then-you’re-part-of-the-problem situation.

    I have to admit that the response to my attempt at self-reflection at times makes me question whether it was worth the attempt, but I try to see and compensate for my ignorance where I can. I’m still not entirely sure I accept the argument put forth by the Feminists, but whether that’s a result of my privileged status or just a personal failing is hard to say. I will continue to read up and try to get my head around the concepts being discussed and perhaps gain a little more understanding, but so much of it seems counter-intuitive to me, which it seems is normal for someone who benefits from their privileged status. Or so I’m told.

  6. The more radical feminists are a bit the Tea Party of gender issues. I considered myself a feminist until I realized that far too many of them are the “throw the baby out with the bathwater” ilk. If you try to please them you will end up in a rubber room. Don’t make yourself nuts trying to understand something that even other women can’t figure out.

    ‘Rape culture” has been around since the male first figured out he was stronger that a female. It exists in every country in the world and in some it’s the norm. Hell, in the US we even accept it as the norm for males to be raped. How many prison jokes have you heard? Rape isn’t going away until humans start treating each other with respect and since we haven’t ever seemed to manage to do that I don’t foresee then end of rape or the culture that tacitly enables it.

    Les, you’re not a “Privileged White Male.” You aren’t rich enough or powerful enough and you are burdened by a conscience and a heart. Don’t get caught up in labels that are meaningless. Having testosterone doesn’t mean that you can’t empathize very effectively with women. Seems to me here that you are doing a hell of a job. I hope you got your wife a nice Valentine today ’cause she’s a lucky woman. :)

  7. @Les:

    But also means that no matter how pro-woman I’d like to think I am I fall far short of the true ideal as far as many are concerned.

    Everyone does, so far. Including feminist women. This is not seen as a failing in you, just proof that you’re human.

    That said, there’s always room for more self education. Showing willing to do the legwork, like you are doing, is what will get you regarded by feminists as feminist.

    It seems I stumbled into a if-you’re-not-part-of-the-solution-then-you’re-part-of-the-problem situation.

    Unfortunately fairly close to true. The problem is that culture is something we all participate in, but very few of us really know enough to know what effects we’re having on people outside of our own experience. Kind of like having a computer network that’s messed around with by everyone, but there’s only a small handful of network engineers who actually know what effects come from plugging that hub into this router. And consequently wondering why switches aren’t the norm…

    @JeanGael:

    Les, you’re not a “Privileged White Male.” You aren’t rich enough or powerful enough and you are burdened by a conscience and a heart.

    Privilege has multiple dimensions. Being male leads to societal privilege all on it’s own. Being white leads to societal privilege. Able-bodied. Neurotypical. Mentally well. Young. Heterosexual. Cisgendered, or gendered in the same way that your genitals say you should be. And, as you point out, being rich is obvious privilege.

    Being in that I come from a point of view of not having all of those privileges, and having friends that have far fewer than I do, maybe it’s easier for me to see them? It still took me the better part of a quarter-century to see them.

  8. [ I had posted a complimentary, and I hoped, thoughtful reply here, but your animal captcha was ambiguous, and alas, clicking on "Animal Captcha" doesn't provide new animals, it jumps me to their page, *in this window*, trashing my unposted comment. Owel. ]

  9. I guess I’m just fucked in the head. I thought it was a funny comic because it is just that a COMIC strip. Fictitious characters playing out fictitious scenarios. I am a survivor of molestation and yet if someone makes a joke about it I laugh. The only offense i would take would be if I was the target of the joke. So people get WAY to serious about “what is deemed appropriately funny or not”. Taking life to seriously cause cancer! (That was a joke!) People need to get over themselves and stop trying to sensor others when they think something is “inappropriate” Freedom of speech allows us to say and write what we want. If you don’t like it, Then don’t read it.

  10. Gosh, I keep getting emails every time there’s a reply here, haha.

    I think it’s worth noting that criticism and censorship are not the same thing. Criticism is meant to teach; censorship is meant to hide. I don’t think I saw anyone calling for the comic to be taken down. I saw some people say something to the effect of “It’d be pretty cool if they took the comic down after realizing why it was triggering for some survivors,” but that’s slightly different from saying “nothing like that should appear on the comic ever”. I guess what it is is, just because there’s free speech, doesn’t mean people aren’t therefore free to comment on it in a negative fashion. “Sit down and shut up when something bothers you, no one cares” is a pretty shitty message to send.

  11. Jamie wrote:

    Gosh, I keep getting emails every time there’s a reply here, haha.

    You probably subscribed. There should be a link in the notification email, or at the bottom of this thread, that will allow you to unsubscribe if you no longer wish to be notified when someone comments here.

  12. The Daily Show piece works, and seems to avoid criticism, because it essentially advocates for a cause defending the rights of rape victims.

    I guess there are those who don’t believe the PA comic advocates in any way. I would disagree, as it essentially points out a specific example of how slavery (and rape of slaves) is trivialized in video games.

    I don’t understand how the Daily Show piece, as boldly irreverent as it is, with the word “rape” used many, many times, avoids criticism by those who characterize the PA comic as out of bounds. Perhaps the “advocate litmus test” is used. I would be interested to know if this sounds valid to anybody. I guess comparing/contrasting the two in light of the criticism garnered by the one does not solve the equation in my mind. I’m probably trying to think too logically about an issue that demands emotion and psychological trauma be major factors in any conclusion drawn.

    Yes, I understand the PA guys’ response was like pouring gasoline on a fire. This inspires a cliched motivational quote to evolve into, “Life is 10% how people criticize you, and 90% how you react to that criticism.”

  13. Les just because you haven’t changed your mind and become a level 3 feminist doesn’t mean self refection is ever wasted. Being self aware helps keeps our natural narcissism in check. This article and resulting comments thread has been very enlightening and has resulted in much thought for myself. It was still interesting to think about my privilege and the ways people will judge others based on their good or ill fortune.

    Although (at least in my country shouldn’t really speak for you Americans) I find the idea of such a rape culture laughable. It reminds me of men who are victims of false rape accusations saying it’s also society’s fault. Turns out it’s normally the rapist (or the person who accused falsely) to blame. Also makes me think of fathers complaining of bias in family courts or taller people being paid more on average for the same job then shorter people (a much stronger correlation then the male/female pay gaps often quoted). Why do the people affected by soemthing always think they somehow remain objective? Yes they understand the suffering much better then I ever will but it stills colours the lens the view the world by.

  14. Let me get this straight. The author of the original article admits within the first paragraph of her post that she’s OK with the Penny Arcade using murder as a vehicle for a joke but rape is off limits? More fuel for the fire.

  15. I had no idea it had turned into a huge controversy!

    Just like you, I read the comic, got the joke (also play WoW) and thought it was funny.

    It’s only today that I found out people were upset about it.

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