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Caitlin Flanagan's essays have sparked national debate. Here she turns her attention to girls, and how the biological and cultural milestones shape their budding identities. Adolescence is a transformative period that has radically changed over the generations: from how a girl learns about ...
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Caitlin Flanagan's essays have sparked national debate. Here she turns her attention to girls, and how the biological and cultural milestones shape their budding identities. Adolescence is a transformative period that has radically changed over the generations: from how a girl learns about her period to how she expects to be treated by men, boys, and even other women. In a world where privacy and personal freedom are encroached upon daily, Flanagan examines and redefines the ultimate challenge that we face in protecting, nurturing, and defending our girls.
Every woman I’ve known describes her adolescence as the most psychologically intense period of her life. Her memories of it are vivid: the exquisite friendships and first loves, the ways in which the products of popular culture—the movies and television shows and music—of the day didn’t just inform her emotional life but became a part of it. She remembers, too, the particular and bittersweet tenor of the time, the way her teenage years, for which she spent so much of her early life preparing and practicing, constituted an end to her childhood. Emerging into sexual maturity comes with very different realities and vulnerabilities for girls than it does for boys, and the process of entering it is thus more psychologically and emotionally intense. This is Girl Land: the attenuated leave-taking, the gathering awareness of what is being lost forever. Becoming a woman is an act partly of nature and partly of self-invention; Girl Land is the place and time in which all of this is worked out.
The work of Girl Land is eternal and unchanging. We see its signposts across time and cultures: a girl’s sudden need to withdraw from the world for a while and to inhabit a secret emotional life, is as true of the nineteenth-century British schoolgirl as it is of the American teenager of today. She slips into that private place during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of modern European history, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. She is a creature designed for a richly lived interior life (and for all the things that come with such a life: reading, writing in a diary, listening to music while she stares out the window and dreams) in a way most boys are not. Her most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to have deeply, sometimes unbearably empathic responses to the sorrows and excitements of others—are met precisely through this act of drawing within herself, of disappearing for a while. What is she doing? She’s coming to terms with her emergence as a sexual creature, with everything good and everything frightening that accompanies this transformation. She is also mourning the loss of her little girlhood, in a way that boys typically don’t mourn the loss of their childhoods.
One of the signal differences between adolescent girls and boys is that a boy does not fetishize the tokens of his childhood. An eighth-grade boy doesn’t catch sight of his old Legos and feel a sudden surge of heartbreak; he either walks right past them or sits down and tinkers with them until something else comes along to distract him. They are not the marker of something lost to him forever. But how many fully liberated young college women will bring something from the lost continent of little girlhood to their new lives—the worn teddy bear that sits, half ironically, on the dorm room dresser; the glass animal bought on the long-ago holiday. These are objects she regards with mixed emotions, emotions that few young men can begin to understand.
The emotional life of a little girl is drenched with romance. Modern mothers, planning to raise independent, strong-minded daughters, are very often confronted with a preschool girl’s stubborn attraction to princess costumes and stories and toys. A girl entering adolescence is making the discovery that female sexuality—a force more complex than she has ever imagined—is intimately enmeshed with romance. A girl at this stage of her life realizes that dreams of being in love, of having a boyfriend, a husband, a family of her own, depend upon sex. The awareness begins with menstruation, something she may have been waiting for eagerly but that brings with it certain raw truths: that emerging female sexuality is intrinsically bound in the blood and profundity that are the truth of human reproduction. The toll and consequence of sexuality fall much more harshly on women than on men, and as a girl enters adolescence this becomes starkly true to her. Furthermore, she learns that with the advent of sexual maturity, she is becoming attractive not just to the boys her age, but also to grown men, some of whom do not mean her well. Sexual danger enters her life, and even the ways in which she is taught to protect herself from it serve to highlight its reality. She longs to be in two places at once: the safety of little girlhood, with the stuffed animals and the jump ropes and the simplicity of childhood, but also in the new place, in the arms of a lover whom she wants to ravish her, to deliver her to new shores. Figuring all of this out is why girls want to spend so much time alone in their bedrooms with the doors closed. One of the biggest problems for parents of these teenagers is that they never know who is going to come barreling out of that sacred space: the adorable little girl who wants to cuddle, or the hard-eyed young woman who has left it all behind.
We sense that, despite all of our efforts to change and demystify and improve the experience of female puberty, it has somehow become even more difficult than it ever was. There is a paradox at the heart of contemporary Girl Land, and this paradox makes the emotional experience of female adolescence more intense and difficult than ever. On the one hand, never in history have girls had so many opportunities, or shared so fully in the kind of power that was only recently reserved for boys. Girls now outperform boys on the SAT; women outnumber men in college, and we are nearing a point at which women will outnumber men in the country’s law and medical schools. In the space of a few short decades, the entire landscape of what is possible for a girl has changed dramatically. But on the other hand, at the exact same moment, we have seen the birth of a common culture that is openly contemptuous of girls and young women. At every turn, girls—even the most carefully raised and deeply loved—are surrounded by a popular culture that exhorts them to think of themselves as sexually disposable creatures. The frank message of a thousand songs and websites and comic rants is that women exist merely to please men. Some of the best and brightest girls have come to believe this poisonous message; we need look no further than their millions of Facebook pages to see that this is true.
The current culture, with its driving imperatives of exhibitionism, of presenting oneself to the world in the most forward and blasting way possible, has made the experience of Girl Land especially charged and difficult. The sexually explicit music, the endless hard-core and even fetish pornography available twenty-four hours a day on the Internet, the crudeness of so much of the national conversation and the ways that technology has made it so that there is almost no such thing as a private experience anymore—all of this is hard on everyone, but I would contend that it is most punishing to girls. This is a terrible moment in which to be a thoughtful person or an introspective one, and so it is a terrible one in which to be a citizen of Girl Land. Never in American history have we seen a period in which the romantic impulse and the lyrical sensibility have been driven so completely to ground. And these are two forms of expression that have always been vital to the girl heart. Once, men were a significant part of creating that lyricism, because it was the key to the lock; to get the girl was to woo the girl—and in that process, however unintentionally, the man came to know the girl herself. Grandmother may have been shocked by “Lay, Lady, Lay”—“Whatever colors you have in your mind/I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine”—but there is no denying that the song’s appeal was not just erotic, but also deeply romantic. Compare it to the most popular love song of the summer of 2010 as I write, a Rihanna-Eminem duet called “Love the Way You Lie,” in which an abusive boyfriend, desperate to do anything to earn back his girlfriend’s trust, makes the soul-wrenching commitment of a lifetime: “Next time I’m pissed/I’ll aim my fist at the dry wall.” A promise to build a life on. Still, though, one with a caveat: if she ever tries to leave him again, “I’ma tie her to the bed and set the house on fire.”
In this book, I’ve set out to examine the traditional milestones of American Girl Land, the events or experiences that mark the passage out of childhood and into womanhood. I wanted to see in what ways they have changed, and in what ways their essential meanings have remained the same. Some of these milestone events are physical ones, such as menstruation and sexual initiation. Others are culturally constructed, such as proms and diary-keeping. What is it like for a girl to get her first period, now that the event is no longer a harbinger of a process—reproduction—that might be gravely dangerous to her? Why do proms still mean so much to American girls, now that conventional dating—of the type that the formal dance was meant to be the apogee—has now all but died out? All of these passages are still understood to be significant in the lives of girls, but for what reasons? This book examines the great and unchanging questions of Girl Land, as they are asked and answered in the ever-shifting landscape of today’s youth culture.
Of all the changes that have taken place in Girl Land since the advent of modernity, none has been more radical than dating. The death of the old courtship system, in which middle-class parents were deeply involved in their daughters’ romantic lives, which unfolded largely in their own homes, under near-constant supervision, was a revolutionary development. This change, from the old system of a boy “calling” on a girl, in the company of her parents, to one in which he took her out on a date without supervision, was unprecedented, and altered the landscape of Girl Land forever. It gave middle-class girls a kind of power they had never before had, but it also exposed them to dangers they had never before encountered.
The essential and inescapable paradox of dating is that while girls have just as much of an interest in it as boys—in fact, as we shall see, to a certain extent, girls invented the custom—they have far more at risk in going out alone with a member of the opposite sex. Much of the cultural conversation involving girls and dating has been a process of informing them about these dangers. The terms of the conversation were at first highly coded and filled with euphemism (about what to do if a boy got “fresh,” about the importance of bringing “mad money” on a date), then increasingly frank and frightening (with descriptions of “date rape” and “teen dating violence”). Because Girl Land is drenched in romance—as well as in developing eros—the idea of being out with a boy is exciting, dreamy. But teens of the opposite sex enter those situations on unequal footing: if someone is to be forced into sexual situations, or beaten up, or left with the consequences of pregnancy, if someone is to get the worst of a variety of terrible things that can happen in the privacy and seclusion of a date, it’s going to be the girl.
Moreover, girls are notorious for being unimpressed by the kind of boys who seem safe and mild-mannered. When I was a girl, one of the most popular board games was Milton Bradley’s Mystery Date, in which players tried to collect the right outfits and accessories to go out on whichever date turned out to be waiting for her behind the white plastic door in the middle of the board. There was the Beach Date and the Formal Dance Date and the Bowling Date and the Picnic Date—each of them handsome boys, each capable of whisking you off to a day of unfettered excitement, but if you didn’t have the bathing suit and towel or the proper dress and high heels, you were getting left at home. There was an even worse fate that could befall you on Mystery Date: you could open the door and find none of the dreamy daters, but instead the “dud,” who was a grease monkey with a five o’clock shadow dressed in a mechanic’s uniform. Everything about the paradoxes and vulnerabilities of midcentury dating was conveyed in this character: he wasn’t a nerd or a geek, he was clearly someone who had dropped out of school altogether and who had so little respect for the girl that he hadn’t even washed up. He wasn’t just a dud, he was also vaguely threatening. As if that weren’t bad enough, the dud could ruin you: just opening the door to him meant you lost all of your accumulated outfits and accessories, the Milton Bradley equivalent of getting into trouble and being kicked out of your good home. But here’s what the game makers and the parents of girls didn’t predict: Girls liked the dud. They really liked him. They thought he was sexy and cool and kind of…dangerous. All over the Internet you can find women my age admitting that they secretly hoped they would get the dud, who was also sometimes called the “bum.”
The exact nature of what does and doesn’t constitute a date has changed over the years. In the fifties it might have been a relatively formal event in which a boy drove to a girl’s home and picked her up for an evening out, and today it might consist of them hooking up at an unchaperoned party. But the term has stayed with us, and the subject is of great and enduring interest to girls. Magazines for girls still carry starry-eyed articles about dating. When social workers in the early 2000s discovered an increase in the incidence of boys who beat up their girlfriends, they called the new phenomenon “teen dating violence,” because “dating,” as a term of art, still means something specific to young people. Whether it was the mad money handed out by fathers, or the instructions revealed in old guidebooks about what to do if a boy got fresh with you on a date, or the well-meaning counsel on the existence and prevention of date rape, the net result is the same for girls. They learn that underneath the glittering surface of dating lies the possibility of danger. And part of the allure of dating is that very danger—as the fondess for the Milton Bradley dud and songs like “Love the Way You Lie” can make clear.
A month before my senior year of high school, my parents and I moved from Berkeley, where I had grown up, to Long Island, where I was enrolled in a public high school in a bedroom community, and I attempted to survive long enough to get into college and escape. Emotionally troubled and desperately homesick, I decided that the thing to do was to find a good boyfriend, whose female friends would become my friends, and whose social world would become my own. That’s what girls did in those days, in high school: we had boyfriends. We didn’t call it “going steady”; that was a fifties term. We called it “going with” somebody, but it meant the same thing. I set my sights on a particular boy who was a varsity athlete on a top team. He was strong and powerful-looking and he didn’t say much, so I was free to project any personality I chose onto his blank canvas. Sold.
One day in late November he offered to drive me home from school, which seemed like an excellent, even propitious turn of events. My parents were away that day, meeting with my father’s publisher in the city. I could invite him inside without having to worry about them hovering; we could hang out. In the preceding eight weeks, absent any actual conversation, I had assigned him certain habits of mind and qualities of character; we were the Titania and Bottom of our high school. At last, with this ride, our destiny—as a love match in the making and as a union that would solve several of my most pressing problems—was at hand. But right away, things got off on the wrong foot. In the car, he seemed quieter than I had imagined him to be; I peppered him with flattering questions, but he said almost nothing. We got to my house, and I took him on a little tour. For reasons having to do with the difference in real estate values in the San Francisco Bay Area and Long Island, it was quite a place, and he seemed impressed by it—almost cowed by it—in a way that embarrassed me a bit. But there was something more to his reaction to the house, although I don’t know if I realized this at that moment or if it emerged during the endless, self-recriminating hours I later devoted to reliving and reexamining the events of that afternoon: I think the house surprised him. My arrival at the last possible moment at school had suggested perhaps that I was a marginal person, part of some vague train of family miseries and lost chances. That I didn’t come from much and could be treated accordingly. The house had a pond at the bottom of a garden, and he stood for a moment looking out the dining room window toward it, and then—suddenly, impulsively—he suggested that we go to the beach. I remember trying to convince him that we should stay in the house—I could make us a snack, we could watch some television—but he was adamant; it was the most animated he’d been the whole time, and so I agreed. And that was my mistake.
We had hardly left my driveway when I realized I didn’t like this boy. He had gone from being quiet to being almost mute. Why didn’t I tell him to just take me back home? Politeness, mostly, and also the gathering momentum of the afternoon, of having agreed to go. It seemed I’d just have to see the thing through.
At the beach, there was no parking attendant and no lifeguard; the snack kiosks were boarded up. There was no one in sight. I hadn’t expected it to be deserted. I was from California; I knew kids who surfed year-round. Almost as soon as he parked, the boy leaned over and kissed me. If I live a hundred years, I’ll never forget the shock of that kiss; it was aggressive and artless, and completely unconnected—obviously—to any feelings for me at all. He just sort of lunged over and landed it on me, and I reacted to it by reaching up my hand and pushing him away. I remember all of these moments very clearly: the way I pushed him away from me, confident that he would stop what he was doing when he realized I didn’t like it. I was sixteen; I’d been in situations like this before; I knew what to do. But then he did something that no one had ever done to me before: he ignored my protests. He kept going, pushing himself all the way against me and then reaching for the zipper of my coat. I struggled away, started to say something, but he was on me again, and I had a vague thought: he’s not getting the message. It seemed important to find some other way to let him know I wasn’t up for anything he had in mind; he was apparently an obtuse kid. I moved away, he didn’t stop, and that’s when I realized the truth of the situation: I was the one who wasn’t getting the message.
It was a few years before the term date rape would enter the national consciousness. It’s hard to explain how deeply that concept would change the way all of us felt about the time we spent alone with boys and young men, the rights we had, and the ones the men did not. When I first saw the term, part of an information sheet posted in the lounge of a women’s bathroom in my college, I stared at it for half an hour. You could be on a date, something you had agreed on freely, a set of risks you had freely agreed to accept, but if a boy forced himself on you, you could still be the victim of a rape? We just didn’t know that then. We sort of thought that if things got out of hand, then it was our fault. As it turned out, there was a long cultural tradition dedicated to making us believe it, but at the time I was at the beach with that boy, all I knew was that something terrible was happening and that it was somehow my fault. I wasn’t nice enough or pretty enough or entertaining enough to be worth decent treatment.
When that boy tried to force me to have sex with him, I reacted with something more than fear, more than anger, more than panic. I was suffused with a single, blinding emotion: outrage. I yelled at him, I kicked him, and I went for the door handle. He stopped. This was a kid who was applying—and would get accepted—to the best schools, and to this day I wonder if that’s what saved me. I created a context in which, if he had pressed ahead, there would be no way to interpret his actions other than as an assault. In short order, we were driving back to my house in silence. He let me out of the car and drove away.
Now, after so many years, this story doesn’t seem like much: a sixteen-year-old girl who went out with a boy she didn’t know well and who turned out to be a boor but not a monster. He did stop, after all. But I can’t tell you how much the experience shamed and scared me, how much I felt it had been a reflection on me and on my shortcomings. Deeply woven into my sense of the experience were the lessons I had learned from an informal but relentless curriculum, one delivered by the girl culture I was growing up in—teen magazines, romantic novels and movies and television shows I loved, as well as comments from adults and older girls. Embedded in all of that, never directly stated but nonetheless very clear, were the twin notions that it was a girl’s responsibility not to allow a date to get “out of hand” if she didn’t want it to and also that only a boy who didn’t respect you would attempt to force you to do something against your will. “Respect” was the word that was always used in this context, although it seems to me now only to underscore the inequality of power that exists on a date: my safety was not grounded in my own ability to defend myself, only in my hope that he would choose to respect what I wanted.
But here’s the bigger question: why in the world would I, a slight sixteen-year-old girl, have ever thought it was a sensible and safe thing to go first to an empty house and then to a deserted beach with a boy I hardly knew, whom my parents had never met, about whom I knew almost nothing at all? I was not a particularly levelheaded kid, but in making that decision, I was in no way violating any norms of proper behavior for a relatively cosseted and well-loved middle-class daughter. In fact, if my mother had happened to call the house that afternoon, and I had told her I was on the way to Cedar Beach with a boy from my school, she would have said good for you. I’d felt safe because I lived during a historical moment when dating—the catchall term for any event whereby two romantically inclined young people go on an excursion without any chaperone—was over a half-century old. Dating, filled with the excitement of romance and young sexuality, but also laden with dark, indirect warnings about a world of dangers and snares, had for so long been the prerogative of Girl Land, one of the main points of leaving little girlhood behind, that I was behaving according to every television show and teen guidebook and magazine and movie I’d ever encountered. The boy I’d chosen was a good-looking upper classman from my high school who’d asked to do one of the most fabled of all dating activities: take me home from school. How could that ever be a bad thing?
Dating was born in the years immediately following the First World War, the time that modern youth culture as we know it was emerging. Thomas Hine, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, describes the twenties as “a society we can easily recognize as a precursor to our own. Although a majority of young people weren’t yet in school, there was a widespread belief that they ought to be, and would be soon. Well-developed, truly national news and entertainment media were enraptured by the styles of young people, who were among their most avid watchers.…Young people were, for the first time, setting styles in clothing, hairstyle, music, dancing, and behavior on their own, and both adults and children looked up to them as leaders. Young people were organizing their own social lives, and adults felt powerless when they rejected previous standards of propriety as irrelevant to modern life. Certainly, people in their teens had had fun before, but in the twenties, it became a right.”
The war reinvented the very notions of what it meant to be young, and what it meant to be old, or even middle-aged. It opened America’s first generation gap. “It was easy,” writes Frederick Lewis Allen in The Big Change, for young people “to think of themselves as a generation who had gone through the hell of war because of the mistakes of their elders, whose admonitions on any subject must therefore be suspect.” This new feeling of independence and liberation was not reserved only for young men. Wrote Paul Sann in The Lawless Decade: “The soldier home from the war did find something to cheer about—unless he happened to be an Honor Scout or otherwise excessive. Johnny found his American beauty drifting away from the prim morality of the pre-1914 world faster than the Model T would carry her.…She wanted to be the life of the party—indoors, or in the open roadster parked on the lonely road.…The curtain had come down on the girl he used to know. She was a flapper now, raring to go.” In 1922 Outlook magazine ran a piece called “A Flapper’s Appeal to Parents”: “I wear bobbed hair, the badge of flapperhood. (And, oh, what a comfort it is!) I powder my nose. I wear fringed skirts and bright-colored sweaters, and scarfs, and waists with Peter Pan collars, and low-heeled ‘finale hopper’ shoes. I adore to dance. I spend a large amount of time in automobiles. I attend hops, and proms, and ball-games, and crew races, and other affairs at men’s colleges.”
This new way of life took off with great speed, in part because the forces of modernity had a running start on the twenties. All of Freud’s major theories had been published before the war; Margaret Sanger’s campaign to provide access to contraception was also well under way by 1914. The American teenage girl, completely different from the girls of her mother’s generation—and all other previous generations—was a new creature, the product of a convulsive act of youthful self-creation, its tenets broadcast from city to town via all the newly born national culture and the dawn of mass media.
Chief among those media: the movies. Motion pictures, which were seen by millions of Americans every week, including a huge percentage of America’s young people, enjoyed the twenties free from the interference of either a Hays Code or a Legion of Decency, both of which would come to power during the artistically reactionary period of the 1930s. As a form of popular entertainment, the movies had emerged not from the concert halls and dramatic stages of America, but from the far seedier world of vaudeville and the boardwalk nickelodeon. Although they soon became a vehicle of middle-class entertainment, for a long while they dealt, in a fairly explicit way, with sexual themes and story lines that had a profound impact on the way young people, and in particular girls, saw themselves and the world around them. We may marvel at the group hysteria of teenyboppers screaming and fainting at the Beatles concert in Shea Stadium, but forty years earlier their counterparts had been brought to a similar frenzy by Rudolph Valentino. Still, there was a significant difference between the two cultural phenomena: the adorable four mop tops represented a kind of sublimated sexuality, to which the girls, in their innocence, felt free to respond. But there was nothing sublimated about Valentino and what he represented. The Sheik inspired the real deal, as the ads for his most famous movie vividly reveal:
the auction of beautiful girls to
the lords of the harem
matchless scenes of gorgeous color,
and wild free love in the year’s supreme
3000 in the cast
Girls of the 1920s had a mass-market sex symbol of their own to whom they could aspire—Clara Bow, the original “dirty girl,” the slum kid, who begged for money to get her photographs taken for a contest, so she could beam her pretty mug all over the world—an everyday affair for any contemporary American girl with access to a computer. In 1927, she gave girls all across the country a new notion of how to comport themselves. She was the “It” girl, from the movie of the same name, and the “it” in question was what we started to call “sex appeal” by the fifties. As Elinor Glyn, the author of the short story on which the movie was based, would later describe “it”: “With ‘it’ you win all men if you are a woman, all women if you are a man. It can be defined as a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.” Clara Bow was always getting naked (even if you didn’t actually see it on-screen) around men she wasn’t married to, and she was racy, wild. She may have shocked a lot of Americans, but in those days the motion picture business was so new, such a Wild West—like the Internet is today—that there was no system in place for policing it.
Clara Bow used her beauty and her sexuality as an aggressive tool for self-promotion; she was the forerunner to Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Lady Gaga. It was about a spunky young shopgirl who sets her cap on the swell who owns the department store, only to find herself fallen into ruin when—for complicated reasons of plot—he discovers her caring for a baby, and assumes it’s their love child. Her ability to triumph over all, to continue living a sexually free life, was a revelation to girls who saw the movie by the millions.
Girls’ pocket money was a significant force in the development of many of the cultural advances of the decades. An entire material culture developed, one fueled by this pocket money and so aimed especially at teenage girls, including an entirely new kind of consumer product: mass-marketed clothing designed to be worn not by little girls or by grown women. There were “subdeb” boutiques in the big department stores, and specialty shops, as we can see from these two ads printed in Baltimore newspapers in the middle of the decade:
THE TWIXTEEN SHOP
where the particular needs of miss
fourteen-to-twenty are carefully studied
and intelligently provided for.
joel guttman & company
whatever the high school girl needs—
Excerpted from Girl Land by Flanagan, Caitlin Copyright © 2012 by Flanagan, Caitlin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 5, 2012
This is a memoir disguised as a quasi-advice book. Flanagan seems to need therapy for traumatic experiences in her life, and for this i pity her. This book has NO useful insights or advice, and Flanagan seems to find the world around her terrifying. Her answer is not to strengthen and empower girls, but instead to cloister them. I was surprised - or not? - to learn that she has two sons and no daughters. As for her writing style....well, let's just say she got a lucky break.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 23, 2013
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Posted February 12, 2012
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Posted February 10, 2012
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