When I set out to write this essay, I planned to write about the parallels between Brienne of Tarth and Joan of Arc. To write about how they’re both warrior maids, have some connection to religion, have similar titles (Brienne of Tarth and Joan of Arc, The Maid of Tarth, The Maid of Orleans), and are both harassed and abused for their gender non-conformity. Then, as often happens, the text took me somewhere else. Instead, I here want to focus on how you can read both historical people and fictional character (such as Joan of Arc and Brienne of Tarth) as trans even while it’s not explicitly there in the text or the sources. I want to do this for several reasons. One is simply because I want to show such a trans read can be valid. Another reason is that I think that it provides an opportunity to discuss an aspect of gender that interests me greatly as a trans person, trans activist, and as someone interested in (trans)gender theory. That aspect is how the individual’s own experience of gender and how they would describe their gender sometimes contrasts how their surroundings and society as a whole perceive their gender. For trans people, these different aspects of gender often do not match. For non-binary/genderqueer people in particular, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to make them match (Connell 2010; Garrison 2018). Society just won’t get that you are non-binary by looking at you, at most society might think you’re weird or don’t fit gender norms. So, with Brienne, for instance, people around her generally don’t care how she would describe her gender they just think she’s a freak for not confirming to gender norms (eg. Brienne V, A Feast for Crows). As I’ve written before, the way she gets punished by society for breaking these norms have very strong “trans vibes”. So, while it’s of course incredibly important to consider how someone would describe their experienced gender themselves in real life, I will here mostly focus on the effects of having one’s expressed gender clash with societal expectations.
Firstly, I want to be clear about what I mean by trans. For me, when I’m doing research or analysing texts, I see trans as a very broad term, similar to how trans scholar Susan Stryker describes the term transgender here:
I use [transgender] in this book to refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place- rather than any particular destination or mode of transition- that best characterizes the concept of ‘transgender’ that I want to develop here. (Stryker 2008, 1)
Now, while I think this definition is very useful for my purposes here, I feel like I must also point out that not everyone who is included in this definition of transness would identify as trans (Finn Enke 2012). For instance, not all non-binary people self-identify as trans, even if they could be seen as trans using the above definition. When talking about real life people we should therefore always be cautious when ascribing such labels to them, especially since the term “trans” comes from a very specific historical Western context (for more on that I highly recommend Susan Stryker’s book Transgender History from 2008 that I cited above). This is especially important when considering how we label people’s experiences of gender when they come from outside of the Western context. As Boellstorff, Cabral, Cádenas, Cotten, Stanley, Young, and Aizura write:
The transnational circulation of the idea of transgender is a colonial operation, spreading Western ontologies and logics such as Western medicine; the idea of the individual, unchanging self; and the binary gender system. (…) [related to that is] the need to analyze the transnational circulation of transgender as a corpus, as a certain number of texts and theories, names and definitions, statistics, analysis, and interpretations. That circulation is heavily determined by geopolitics in a crude imperial capitalist landscape—and we, down here or far away there, circulate across the transnational routes of the industrial-academic complex, reified as the objects of colonial knowledge. Many denominations circulate currently as examples of a geographically neutral category—transgender, or trans*—and terms such as travesti, hijra, fa‘afafine, and meti or katoey become doubly local, localized in their own culture and in relation to the international scope of transgender as a culturally nonspecific umbrella term. (2014, 434-436)
Basically, imposing a Western way of thinking about gender upon groups of people can be considered colonial, even when we’re trying to challenge the Western colonial way of thinking about gender by discussing transness. However, while trans/transgender is a flawed term, I’m still using it in this essay because I still find it useful as a theoretical tool when analysing those who, as Stryker puts it, move across a socially imposed boundary from an unchosen starting place.
Secondly then, how can we look for trans narratives in history when we know that the people alive in that historical period didn’t use those words to describe their experiences? As I described in this essay, one way of doing that is the way trans activist and writer Leslie Feinberg describes in zie book Transgender Warriors:
Transgender Warriors is not an exhaustive trans history, or even the history of the rise and development of the modern trans movement. Instead, it is a fresh look at sex and gender in history and the interrelationships of class, nationality, race, and sexuality. Have all societies recognized only two sexes? Have people who traversed the boundaries of sex and gender always been so demonized? Why is sex-reassignment or cross-dressing a matter of law? But how could I find the answers to these questions when it means wending my way through diverse societies in which the concepts of sex and gender shift like sand dunes over the ages? (1996, XI)
Feinberg’s solution to this problem is to go through historical records and finding those people who have traversed the boundaries of sex and gender, without necessarily claiming them to be transgender, but showing how people who transverse these boundaries have always existed. Another relevant perspective is one put forward by Bychowski:
When history presents us with a lack of marginalized voices, we should ask: what has compelled this silence? This applies to transgender people in the Middle Ages. At times, we may wish that certain historical figures or historians could say more that would confirm what we want to hear about transgender life in the Middle Ages. Yet, when our desires are met with silence or deflection in the sources, we can nonetheless turn our attentions to the social conditions that would compel this silence. We can ask: what does transphobia look like in our histories? Furthermore, how might transphobic historians have added—or currently be adding—to the erasure of trans voices? Ironically, you can sometimes discern the unarticulated presence of transgender life by the articulated presence of transphobia. (2018)
This is very similar to the approach I mentioned in the introduction, the idea of looking at the clashes between expressed gender and societal expectations.
The trans life of Joan of Arc
I now want to take a brief look at the life of Joan of Arc and argue that one can read her life as a trans life. The reason for doing this is twofold: firstly, it’s because I think there are interesting parallels between Joan’s life and Brienne’s life, and secondly it provides an opportunity to show how researchers have written about a historical figure as a trans figure. To set the scene:
Joan of Arc was born in Domremy, in the province of Lorraine, around 1412. Only half a century before her birth, the bubonic plague had torn the fabric of the feudal order. One-third of the population of Europe was wiped out, whole provinces were depopulated. Peasant rebellions were shaking the very foundations of European feudalism. At the time, France was gripped by the Hundred Years War. French peasants suffered plunder and violence at the hands of the marauding English occupation armies. The immediate problem for the peasantry was how to oust the English army, a task the French nobility had been unable to accomplish. Joan of Arc emerged as a leader during this period of powerful social earthquakes. In 1429, dressed in men’s clothing, this confident seventeen year old presented herself and a group of her followers at the court of Prince Charles, heir to the French throne. In the context of feudal life, in which religion permeated everything, Joan asserted that her mission, motivation, and mode of dress were directed by God. She declared her goal: to forge an army of peasants to drive out the English. Prince Charles placed her at the head of a ten-thousand-strong peasant army. (Feinberg 1996, 32)
Joan did accomplish impressive military victories for the French cause, including winning an important victory in Orleans. However, she was later captured by the Burgundians, French allies of the English feudal lords. These Burgundians apparently referred to her as “hommasse”, a slur meaning ”manwoman,” or masculine woman, making their distaste for her dress apparent. As Feinberg notes, had Joan been a knight or a lord, she would probably had been ransomed, but being a peasant woman, this did not happen. Instead the English urged the Catholic church to condemn Joan for crossdressing, with the English king Henry the VI writing to Inquisitor Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais: ”It is sufficiently notorious and well known that for some time past a woman calling herself Jeanne the Pucelle (the Maid) , leaving off the dress and clothing of the feminine sex, a thing contrary to divine law and abominable before God, and forbidden by all laws, wore clothing and armour such as is worn by men.” (quoted in Feinberg 1996, 34). From the sources existing, it seems that besides there existing a hatred of crossdressing, a class bias also existed. The fact that she was not only a woman, but a peasant who dressed in knightly garb, infuriated many. Joan was eventually turned over to the Inquisition who condemned her both for crossdressing and accused her for being a pagan (the area where she was born was seen as a hotbed for paganism as well as witchcraft, and she was furthermore accused of associating with Fairies). As it turned out, however, the Church could not find enough proof for her witchcraft, and instead focused on her crossdressing. As Feinberg writes:
Instead, they denounced her for asserting that her cross-dressing was a religious duty compelled by voices she heard in visions, and for maintaining that these voices were a higher authority than the Church. Many historians and academicians view Joan of Arc’s wearing men’s clothing as inconsequential. Yet the core of the charges against Joan focused on her cross-dressing, the crime for which she ultimately was executed. However, the following quote from the verbatim court proceedings of her interrogation reveals it wasn’t just Joan of Arc crossdressing that enraged her judges, but her cross-gendered expression as a whole:
You have said that, by God’s command, you have continually worn man’s dress, wearing the short robe, doublet, and hose attached by points; that you have also worn your hair short, cut en rond above your ears, with nothing left that could show you to be a woman; and that on many occasions you received the Body of our Lord dressed in this fashion, although you have been frequently admonished to leave it off, which you have refused to do, saying that you would rather die than leave it off, save by God’s command. And you said further that if you were still so dressed and with the king and those of his party, it would be one of the greatest blessings for the kingdom of France; and you have said that not for anything would you take an oath not to wear this dress or carry arms; and concerning all these matters you have said that you did well, and obediently to God’s command. As for these points, the clerks say that you blaspheme God in His sacraments; that you transgress divine law, the Holy Scriptures and the canon law; you hold the Faith doubtfully and wrongly; you boast vainly; you are suspect of idolatry; and you condemn yourself in being unwilling to wear the customary clothing of your sex, and following the custom of the Gentiles and the Heathen.
Even though she knew her defiance meant she was considered damned, Joan’s testimony in her own defense revealed how deeply her cross-dressing was rooted in her identity. ”For nothing in the world,” she declared, ”will I swear not to arm myself and put on a man’s dress.” (Feinberg 1996, 35)
What becomes clear here, is that no matter how Joan herself would describe her sex or gender (which is hard to tell, even if it clear that crossdressing was central to her identity), the fact that she did not conform to gendered expectations was the central reason for her being executed. As Bychowski puts it:
Whether or not you accept that Joan of Arc might have been trans, it is clear that transphobia was central to Joan’s trial. The argument being made by the English court was, essentially, that a person cannot and should not be transgender. Joan refused to confirm all the English’s transphobic biases. Joan was ultimately killed on these grounds. This suggests that whether or not modern historians call Joan of Arc transgender, it seems as though the medieval court considered Joan transgender enough to die for it. (Bychowski 2018)
This, here, is my point. Even if we cannot know for sure how certain historical people would describe their experience of gender, we can see that they suffered the consequences of living in a society that did not accept deviating from the gendered expectations. No matter if Joan of Arc would use the word trans to describe herself (if that word would’ve been available for her, which it was obviously not), she suffered from the existence of transphobia, even if it was not called that at the time.
The trans life of Brienne of Tarth
As mentioned previously, there are several similarities between Brienne of Tarth and Joan of Arc. Some of those are the similarities in names, being a warrior maid, and having some connections to religion. Brienne has less obvious connections to religion than Joan does, but as for instance Radio Westeros have pointed out, she is often connected to holy oaths and to different aspects of the Seven (Radio Westeros 2015; Radio Westeros 2020). Another point of comparison is how both Brienne and Joan were active in a time where the peasant population had suffered greatly, partly because of the nobility, and both of them are seemingly sympathetic to the oppressed peasants. While Brienne is nobly born unlike Joan, Brienne’s ancestor Dunk could probably relate to the class bias that Joan had to suffer when dressing in knights’ armour to fight for and with the peasants. But the main reason why I wanted to compare Brienne and Joan is the similarities in the prejudice and violence they have to face as breaker of gender norms. As I’ve written previously, in a patriarchal gender binary society, those who traverse the boundaries of sex and gender are punished. In the context of ASOIAF this can for instance be seen with Arya and Brienne, who are continually threatened with sexual violence specifically for deviating from gender norms. I have also written previously about how, for someone like Brienne, not following the expected path through life (when it comes to gender etc) leads to being seen as a freak. That, I feel, is especially clear in these two passages from A Feast for Crows:
“it is said that your father is a good man. If so, I pity him. Some men are blessed with sons, some with daughters. No man deserves to be cursed with such as you.”
– Lord Randyll Tarly, Brienne V A Feast for Crows (Martin 2011, 520)
“’A daughter’ Brienne’s eyes filled with tears. ‘He deserves that. A daughter who could sing to him and grace his hall and bear him grandsons. He deserves a son too, a strong and gallant son to bring honor to his name. (…) I am the only child the gods let him keep. The freakish one, not fit to be a son or a daughter.’”
Brienne VI A Feast for Crows, (Martin, 672)
In both these quotes, Brienne is positioned as a curse and a freak for not living up to the role of son nor daughter. There is, in my opinion, something trans about this positioning. This positioning of the gender non-conforming as freakish is something I want to focus the majority of the rest of this analysis on.
To discuss how the gender non-conforming person is positioned as freakish, I must first return to theory once again. Gender theorist Judith Butler writes that sex can be considered to be a regulatory norm which is materialised in the body (1993). That’s essentially a complicated way of saying that while the human body can look very different depending on which combination of hormones and chromosomes it has (among other things), societal norms dictate that there are only two sexes and that all bodies must therefore belong to either of those. Those sexes must then correspond to the correct gender and the correct desire (i.e. a body with a vagina and uterus must belong to someone who identifies as a woman and is attracted to men). As Butler writes: “the heterosexual imperative enables certain sexed identifications and forecloses and/or disavowes other identifications.” (ibid, 3) They furthermore writes that the coherent subject (i.e. the subject that is recognised as a subject by society) is created in contrast to the abject (i.e. that person who is not recognised as a subject). The abject resides in the uninhabitable zone of the abject, where those who simply do not make sense according to society are relegated to. Trans scholar Susan Stryker has drawn on this description of the abject when describing the feeling of being transgender in a patriarchal gender binary world:
Transgender rage is the subjective experience of being compelled to transgress what Judith Butler has referred to as the highly gendered regulatory schemata that determine the viability of bodies, of being compelled to enter a “domain of abjected bodies, a field of deformation” that in its unlivability encompasses and constitutes the realm of legitimate subjectivity (16). Transgender rage is a queer fury, an emotional response to conditions in which it becomes imperative to take up, for the sake of one’s own continued survival as a subject, a set of practices that precipitates one’s exclusion from a naturalized order of existence that seeks to maintain itself as the only possible basis for being a subject. (1994, 249)
Stryker here notes that as a trans person one has to either reside in this realm of unlivability (which is obviously challenging), or move outside of it and try to fit in as a coherent subject, while then simultaneously accepting the very norms that has previously categorised one as the abject in the first place. This can quite obviously lead to a lot of emotions, including rage. Something that both Butler and Stryker notes is how language is often central in positioning a person as a coherent subject, or as the abject. From the moment when we are born and proclaimed to be a boy or a girl, we are expected to continue living up to this labelling, or risk being constituted as freaks instead. As black trans scholar Marquis Bey puts it:
Hegemonic gender’s process— the ways we are formed and inaugurated from without, the ways that y’all tell us what we are permitted to be and how our bodies should move— operates binaristically, slotting unruly subjects into viable social existence by way of legibility. The gendered name bestowed upon us, which is, all in all, more like a branding, claims to speak to something held deeply within, something unique to us and unfettered by our outside. Put paradoxically, this apparent fact said to emanate from us is an already- made badge stabbed into us by someone else. They tell us they call us “boy,” call us “girl,” because that is what we are, have been, will always be, because there is no outside to this. The violence proliferates; the designation lacks the proper size because what we yearn for are improper sizes that fit us ill- fittingly, it lacks the correct numerical measurements because all we want is to incorrectly measure up. What they’ve given us, godlike and tyrannical, is a stuffy room with no space to run around in. And they call it viable life. (Bey 2019, 136)
So, conform to the expectations laid down upon you by the branding at birth, or be seen as unruly, freakish, etc. This, then, is where I return to Brienne.
Throughout her story, Brienne’s gender is constantly in question, from Pod’s adorable “Ser? M’lady?” to when the Bloody Mummer’s question whether her or Jaime is the knight or the lady (A Storm of Swords, Jaime IV). There are tons of more examples of this, of this constant questioning of Brienne’s gender, because she doesn’t conform to the gendered expectations. As I’ve noted previously, this non-conformity often leads to threats of violence or actual violence. It also leads to that heart-breaking quote from Brienne, about how her father deserved a son or a daughter, not her, the freak. Throughout the narrative, Brienne is constantly positioned as this freakish, abnormal person, as the abject. That is why I think it’s valid to read her story as a trans story, similar to the life of Joan of Arc, even if we are unsure about exactly how Brienne might describe her own gender. Obviously, Brienne won’t describe herself as trans in her own point of view, that would be anachronistic. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, we can see her being uncomfortable with the gendered expectations put upon her by society, and we can especially see her being the target of transphobic violence. So, similarly to Joan of Arc, regardless of if they would identify as trans had they lived in a time with that term available to them, they were seen as something akin to trans by their surroundings. And punished for it.
A final point that I want to discuss here is the how life outside of the gender binary is construed as unlivable. This is something mentioned both by Butler, Stryker, and Bey to a certain extent, and also something I have touched on in a previous essay about Brienne. This is something that often comes up in narratives from non-binary people, that they are seen as incoherent in the eyes of society (eg. Connell 2010; Stachowiak 2017). We can see this with Brienne too, to a certain extent. Everyone around her wants to label her as a man or a woman, a son or a daughter, a knight or a lady. But she’s trying to carve out a new path for herself. In that way, I would argue that she embodies the type of trans movement described by Susan Stryker as one taken up by those who:
want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place (…) (Stryker 2008, 1)
It is this movement away from conventional expectation, toward some new location that makes her story a trans story to me. And perhaps more specifically, a non-binary or genderqueer story. Because she operates outside of the binary, she queers gender, and her surroundings notice and react to that.
As I have noted in this essay, one way of finding trans narratives in both fictional and historical stories is by looking for the ripple effects of those stories. Looking for the transphobic aftereffects, the rumblings that come after someone tries to find a new path through this gendered world. I have argued that this is the case with both Joan of Arc and Brienne of Tarth, that both their stories (real or fictional) show that we can find evidence of transness by looking for the records of transphobia left behind. Both their stories also show the hardship facing someone who tries to move beyond the life prescribed by the patriarchal gender binary. Their stories show that when trying to do that one risks being labelled as a freak and subjected to violence. Unfortunately, this is still the case today.
Bey, Marquis. 2019. Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.
Boellstorff, Tom, Mauro Babral, Micha Cárdenas, Trystan Cotton, Eric A. Stanley & Aren Z. Aizura. 2014. “Decolonizing Transgender: A Roundtable Discussion.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. 1(3): 419-439.
Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York & London: Routledge.
Bychowski, Gabrielle. 2018. “Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?” The Public Medievalist, November 1, 2018. https://www.publicmedievalist.com/transgender-middle-ages/
Connell, Catherine. 2010. “Doing, Undoing, or Redoing Gender? Learning from Workplace Experiences of Transpeople”. Gender and Society. 24:1, 31-55.
Feinberg, Leslie. 1996. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press.
Finn Enke, A. 2012. “Note on Terms and Concepts.” In Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, eds. Finn Enke, A., 16-20. Temple University Press: Philadelphia.
Garrison, Spencer. 2018. “ON THE LIMITS OF ‘TRANS ENOUGH’: Authenticating Trans Identity Narratives”, GENDER & SOCIETY, 32:5, 613-637
Martin, George RR. 2011a. A Storm of Swords. London: Harper Voyager.
Martin, George RR. 2011b. A Feast for Crows. New York: Bentam Books.
Radio Westeros. 2015. “Brienne- In this Light a Beauty.” Radio Westeros. March 31, 2015. https://radiowesteros.com/2015/03/31/episode-13-brienne-in-this-light-a-beauty/
Radio Westeros 2015. “The Streams of Winter: Livestream 10- Brienne.” Acast. August 3, 2020. https://play.acast.com/s/radiowesteros/thestreamsofwinter-livestream10-brienne
Stachowiak, Dana M. 2017. “Queering it up, strutting our threads, and baring our souls: genderqueer individuals negotiating social and felt sense of gender”, Journal of Gender Studies, 26:5, 532-543.
Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: Performing transgender rage” GLQ, 1(3): 237-254.
Stryker, Susan. 2008. Transgender History. Berkley: Seal Press.
10 reaktioner på ”Brienne of Tarth and Joan of Arc: on finding trans narratives in the middle ages”
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You point out that with Brienne most people just think she’s a freak. I’ve wondered more than once if people would be more concerned, or rather disturbed, if Brienne had a traditional conceived physical beauty.
I love that you point out the issue of classim as well as sexism. I did not know about her home being a ‘hotbed’.
That quote of Brienne breaks my heart.
I think it also says a lot about the culture that part of Pod’s confusion is that there isn’t a word in the lexicon for someone who is a “lady knight” as Tamora Pierce decided to go with when she had a gal break into knighthood.
I’ll hope you’ll excuse this cis chick but one thing that I am curious on, not that I expect you to be the key source of all information/everyone’s opinion, is when you don’t have a sense of inner monologue, like in a historical issue, how do you differentiate between a trans or non-binary existence and someone just questioning norms? The closest approximation is like when we talk about a girl who is a “tomboy” we mean she enjoys activities/has interests commonly seen as masculine/ not necessarily feminine. Maybe not offensive, but not breaching a social line. Or like in AsoiaF, if we didn’t get a sense of his self, Samwell Tarly have interests that aren’t seen as necessarily ‘masculine’ but male scholars do exist, so teasing leans more towards his failures in atheltics and body shaming. It makes me wonder that if the world did have a word that could make her love of the knighthood acceptable if she’d feel like such a failure to her father/not comfortable with her assigned gender. This, I admit, is where I get a little stuck on the nonbinary aspect in general. I never ever would expect anyone to describe to me why they feel like themselves. People know who they are. They don’t owe that to me. But I get frustrated, maybe, on how much of people’s personal turmoil is caused by stupid constructs.
Fantastic analysis of parallels between the figures. I think it would be fascinating to revisit if after her projected knighthood if she’s brought to similar interrogation to see how that compares to what Joan faced. Thank you so much for all these insights!
I really appreciate that how even though this is a ‘fan’ essay you truly keep this a scholarly work and cite sources.
Thanks for the kind words!
Regarding the difference between gender nonconformity of the tomboy variety and gender nonconformity like being trans or non-binary: I’ve read and written a fair bit about being non-binary recently since that’s my topic for my master’s thesis that I’m working on, and something I found in my own study and in a lot of previous research is that for most non-binary folk they experience gender as something that something they just feel. It’s difficult to describe the feeling, but it’s this gut feeling that when someone calls you “girl” or “boy”, that’s wrong. That’s not you. Sometimes that misgendering will just cause mild discomfort, sometimes it’s like you’ve walked into a brick wall. Sometimes it just feels wrong, a discomfort crawling under your skin. Sometimes you feel like you’ve stumbled and fell on the ground, or as if someone has stabbed you in the heart.
As for if people would be happier if there were fewer gender norms: yeah, probably, but I don’t see why that would make trans/non-binary folk not exist anymore. We have existed throughout history and the world. I write a bit more about that both in my Alleras/Sarella essay and my essay comparing Brienne to Joan of Arc, but trans/non-binary identities aren’t just reducible to our oppressions. We’re more than that.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with this quote from activist and writer Eli Clare that I came upon the other day and fell in love with: “I’m hungry for an image to describe my gendered self, something more than the shadowland of neither man nor woman, more than a suspension bridge tethered between negatives.”
(Oh I also talk a lot more about the historical aspect in the Alleras/Sarella essay as well as the Brienne v Joan essay, and how you can read transness into historical or fictional characters!)
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