Monday, November 26, 2012

How Modern is Today's Modern Family?

Occasionally, I have a class paper that might actually be interesting to anyone other than me and my professor. On those occasions, I like to share those with you all.  It seems that you all like that too because my all time most popular post is my analysis of Finding Nemo (my favorite movie, for the record.) This term, I did a fun comparison of the gender roles seen in The Dick Van Dyke Show and Modern Family.  A fun comparison indeed.  I hope you enjoy this piece as much as you did the Finding Nemo one.

Introduction

There have been many changes in the American situation comedy (sitcom) since its early days, but in some ways it has not changed as much as it may seem on the surface. While the introduction of certain elements such as gay characters may appear to show great strides in breaking gender roles, on further inspection, gender roles in television sitcoms aren’t much different today than they were 50 years ago. Television influences culture, but today it is more a reflection on common cultural perceptions of appropriate gender roles. There are theological and practical implications to these issues as well that must be discussed in the church.
In order to explore these ideas, this paper will focus on two popular American sitcoms: “The Dick Van Dyke Show” from the early 1960’s and the current “Modern Family.” The two shows are excellent examples of gender role portrayal in sitcoms at time of production and bear similarities that make a useful and appropriate comparison. Both share a focus on family life and social interactions.

What is a “sitcom?”

                According to Roy Stafford, a sitcom is defined as “a setting and a group of characters providing the opportunity for a comic narrative, usually resolved in 25-30 minutes (although the ‘situation’ remains open to future disruption), and broadcast in a series of five or more episodes” (Stafford 2004, 1).  Because of time and format constraints, as well as their scheduling for family audiences, the sitcom is generally conservative in nature. As will be explored later, there are sometimes exceptions to this. Even though most sitcoms tend to “play it safe,” the ones that are seen as social limit-pushers are often the ones that succeed the most.

What role does gender play in sitcoms?

Comedy by definition contains archetypal characters (Hyers 2007). In sitcoms, these are generally not as strongly “fools” or “clowns” as in other forms of comedy, but they still bear elements of classic comic characters. It is comedy’s reliance on stereotypes that causes much of the change in comedy over time.  As cultural stereotypes change, so do the comedic stereotypes (Stafford 2004). By their nature, sitcoms generally contain exaggerated and frequently stereotyped characters.
Because sitcoms by nature rely heavily on stereotypes for their comedy, gender roles are usually quite exaggerated. As comedic representations, they cannot be relied on as “accurate portrayals.” While sitcoms with strong leading women have certainly become more common since the 1970’s, shows featuring couples rather than single women have remained more popular. Sitcoms set within a family offer equal role opportunity for men and women, but they rarely show equal partnerships. Instead, they offer relationships in which one partner is the dominant personality (Stafford 2004).

The Dick VanDyke Show

Background

The Dick Van Dyke Show originally aired on CBS from October 3, 1961, until June 1, 1966. Despite the network’s initial plans to cancel the show after one season, the series went on to win fifteen Emmy Awards and several of its episodes consistently rank in lists of best television comedy episodes of all time. The show centers around Rob Petrie, a comedy/variety show writer and his stay-at-home wife, Laura. Secondary characters include Rob’s coworkers, clownish Buddy and single career woman, Sally.

Critiques

One of the most common modern critiques of The Dick VanDyke show decries its dated portrayal of gender roles. Sally is constantly the butt of jokes because she is, in the eyes of many people around her, not very feminine. "There’s the disgusting implication that Sally is somehow a less than ideal woman because she’s “as strong as a bull,” or because she drinks brandy and smokes cigars with the guys (Boyd 2012).” Laura stays at home taking care of the home and Ritchie, Rob and Laura’s son, while Rob is the breadwinner. While television critics today can be harsh on the show and its gender portrayals, it is so widely accepted by evangelical Christians as a portrayal of a healthy family and lifestyle because of its “traditional family values” that there is now a Bible study based on the show. (http://www.christianbook.com/bible-study-leader-pack-vol-1/9780971731660/pd/31664)
At the time that the show originally aired, the critiques were quite opposite the modern reactions. The early 1960’s are when gender roles were just beginning to change in the television sitcom. “The Dick Van Dyke Show” is listed as those shows that changed the way families were portrayed on television sitcoms. “Though it’s not true, as some critics have said, that “The Dick Van Dyke Show” brought sex to prime time, it would be fair to say that this was the first series to depict a sexy, romantic and bright TV marriage (Spangler n.d.).” The writer of the show, Carl Reiner, specifically bucked against the idea of the “Battle of the Sexes” and purposely brought as much love and respect into the marriage of the Petries as possible.
The show was originally titled “Head of the Family” before airing, but in spite of this seemingly paternalistic title, the show explored gender roles in a way that had not been done previously in a television sitcom (Elias n.d.). Even the idea of Mary Tyler Moore’s character, Laura, wearing pants on television was edgy and new.

Notable Episode: Season 1, Episode 13: “Sally Is a Girl”

From the first season, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” tackled gender roles.  While by today’s standards, it appears paternalistic and old-fashioned, it was nearly canceled after the first season for being so socially forward. In episode 13 of the first season – titled “Sally is a Girl” – the show took the common gender roles of the time and turned them on their heads in a subtle but poignant way.
Rob Petrie’s coworker, Sally is the focus of this episode, in which Laura is trying to set her up on a date with a friend.  The episode opens with Rob and Buddy discussing who they are willing to play poker with and they decide Laura may not play because they don’t play poker with females.  When Sally asks if she may play, she is answered with a unanimous yes. She then asks if Laura is playing because she doesn’t play with females either.  The running gag through the episode is that the men don’t seem to see Sally as a girl because she doesn’t fit the ideas they have of how a woman should act.
While at first glance this episode seems very sexist in its portrayals of women and their “place,” Boyd argues that on further reflection, one realizes that "it subverts the sexism of its premise rather than simply avoiding it.” Of Sally, Boyd says that "This is a woman who’s both in complete control of her life and comfortable with who she is, in spite of the societal pressures of the day—and people like Laura and Ted—telling her that’s not the right way to be" (Boyd 2012). Sally winds up coming out on top of the situation asserting herself and her right to be whomever she likes; calling into question the very understanding of what it means to be “a girl.” What began like a show setting out to criticize the working girl ends up championing her and the value of simply being who she is instead of who everyone else says she should be.

Modern Family

Background

"Modern Family” first aired on September 23, 2009 and is, as of the writing of this paper, in its fourth season and shows no signs of cancelation in the near future.  The syndication rights were recently sold and it will premiere in syndication in the fall of 2013.
The show centers around one extended family that consists of three family groups: the patriarch of the family, Jay and his much younger Columbian wife, Gloria who is raising a son from her first marriage and is in the fourth season expecting another baby, Jay’s grown daughter Claire and her husband Phil who have three children and Jay’s homosexual son Mitchell who lives with his partner Cameron and their adopted daughter Lily.

Critiques

“Modern Family” has received many awards and has overall been received positively. The large cast of characters is considered to be one of the positive aspects of the show. “One thing that helps Modern Family offer these different takes on masculinity . . .is that it has a big cast. Which is instructive: it’s simply easier for shows, individually or collectively, to draw a fuller picture of life as we live it when they show more different kinds of people.” (Poniewozik 2011) While gender stereotypes are not absent from “Modern Family,” there is a broader range of both male and female characters.
Despite its titular proclamation of being edgy and modern, reviews of “Modern Family” have criticized the show for not being “modern” enough.  This is very different than initial reactions to “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” "According to the Department of Labor, 68.9% of married moms are working or looking for work. . .’If Modern Family is so ‘modern’ then why don’t any of the women have jobs?’" (Wikipedia: Modern Family n.d.)  According to Kayla Upadhyaya and others, the gender dynamics leave much to be desired when it comes to being “modern (Upadhyaya 2012).”
Many critics complain that “Modern Family” is actually too squeaky clean to be an accurate portrayal of the modern American Family. All of the families portrayed are upper class with no financial troubles despite being one income homes.  There are no single mothers or struggling families seen in the picture perfect suburbs. Christian blogger Joel Moroney says, “I’m concerned that this “perfect world” that Modern Family exists in will cause anguish to those who don’t have the perfect family life.” (Moroney 2012). While Moroney’s statement is dramatic, his review is overall kinder to the show than many, especially other Christian reviewers.

Notable Episode: Moon Landing

In an episode similar in subject matter to “Sally is a Girl,” “Modern Family” explores gender roles when Claire reconnects with an old friend who has remained a single career woman. Her friend, Valerie is moving up the corporate ladder, going where she pleases when she pleases and, in quite a “genderbender,” she even has lovers in cities all over the world whose names she can’t keep straight. While Claire seems jealous of her friend at first, she tries unsuccessfully to convince her that being a stay at home mom is more rewarding than working.  All the while, her children and husband are completely out of control, throwing clothes out windows, spilling beer all over the house and getting trapped in a port-a-potty.
In contrast to “Sally is a Girl” in which Sally comes out favorably and Laura looks a bit foolish in the end for giving her a hard time, in “Moon Landing,” Claire is the one who appears in the end to have it right, while Valerie winds up looking rather unfavorable because of her overtly unfeminine behavior. The critique that comes from this episode is not that of questioning “traditional family roles” as does “Sally is a Girl,” but rather of those who eschew them. This is but one of several episodes that explore the working parent vs. stay at home parent dynamic, including one in which Mitch quits his job and Cameron goes back to work. Predictably in the Cam/Mitch dynamic, they are both miserable and wind up going back to their previous roles in which Mitch works and Cam stays home with their daughter. Arguably, the only “new” thing that episode has done for family dynamics is to cast a man for the female role.

Comparison

 “The Dick Van Dyke Show” challenged to the audience at the time to reconsider common opinion, especially in regards to gender roles. Gregory Allen writes, “Challenging in similar fashion seems absent from many modern television shows; shows that instead pander to shock in trivial fashion.” Allen argues that in series today, once controversial ideas about sexuality and gender have been glamorized and viewers are desensitized to them.  Rather than setting shows up to create conversation and questions about common opinion as did “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” series today tend to “push the limits” in these areas in a way that intends to shock and steal attention (Allen 2012). In today’s television universe of hundreds of channels, most people only watch television shows that appeal to values they already hold, or at least those that they have accepted their culture holds. The changes in the way we as a culture watch television have changed the way in which television is able to influence culture. “Modern Family” seems modern in title only because in order to push the limits like The Dick Van Dyke Show did in its time, it would risk swift viewer decline and cancelation. Today’s writers must exercise more caution than was necessary 50 years ago because the audiences have far more choice in what they watch. Broad audiences are only gained by playing it safe, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality.

Theological Reflection

There are two common female stereotypes in Christian circles. There is the idea of the “help-meet” that indicates rigid gender roles in family life without insisting on female inferiority, and the “weaker vessel” idea that women are in fact inferior (Jelen 1989). A third “secular” stereotype that is often seen in sitcoms is that of the woman who has turned her back on feminine roles and acts “like a man.” Christian men are stereotyped as having to be protectors and providers solely. They are expected to fish and hunt and watch sports rather than to help with housework or rearing of children. Much of this carries over to common sitcom stereotypes of the burping, grunting, bumbling husband who is, like Phil Dunphey of “Modern Family,” just another one of the kids for a wife to take care of. All of these stereotypes are disrespectful of both men and women.
Healthy gender role identity is a matter of balance, not a set of rules to follow.  Women must not be restricted to the role of the 1950’s housewife and men must not be restricted to ESPN. This is simply not biblically supported.  Neither is it appropriate when a woman’s only choice aside from staying at home with children is to force herself into a masculine role in order to succeed in “a man’s world.” Proverbs 31:10-31, a passage that is infamously used to support a “stay at home wife” as the scriptural ideal shows quite the opposite. The woman in this passage “makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers sashes to the merchant (The Holy Bible 2001, Proverbs 31:24).” In a culture that respected women far less that today’s culture and had not yet seen the feminist movement, this ideal wife is industrious, selling her wares and running a large household. She is a picture of strength and dignity: “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong (The Holy Bible 2001, Proverbs 31:17).” The woman in Proverbs 31 has embraced fully who she is, gender and all, regardless of what society tells her. This passage lifts up the idea of breaking out of cultural norms.
The people within a family must be encouraged to live out what they are best at, no matter the traditional role assigned them based on gender (Clyman 2010). Gender is just one piece of what makes each person who they are, but television sitcom characters are simply not real people. They are comic constructs. Perhaps the focus of many writers is too concentrated on stereotypical gender roles because stereotyping of other characteristics (race, religion, etc) is generally frowned upon.  Certainly some shows address other stereotypes as well, but gender roles are a less controversial way to get a laugh. We all have a gender and gender is a major building block in the structure of a personality (Aidala 1985), so these stereotypes can make the characters more broadly and comically relatable to wide audiences, even if the stereotypes are not reflective of healthy gender roles.
 Weinberger argues that television reflects and influences American culture. However, the success of shows like “Modern Family,” which don’t push gender boundaries as much as they often claim, indicates that American prefers the reflection over the influence. With the legalization of same sex marriage in many states and the overwhelming majority of families that include two working families, it appears that American Culture wants to reflect on traditional family. “The success of shows like “Modern Family” reflects this renewed interest in traditional marriage and family. Even Cameron and Mitchell’s family – in many ways quite modern, consisting of a committed gay couple and with an adopted Asian child – mirrors “Leave it to Beaver” parental gender roles" (Weinberger 2010). In an attempt to compensate for a loss that culture feels in a busy, working world, sitcoms seem to have over-compensated.
In a country that is said to be growing less and less “religious,” it is interesting to note Jen’nan Ghazal Read’s study on the sources of gender role attitudes among Christian and Muslim Arab-American Women. Read discovered that more traditional gender roles were held by women who were more fundamentally oriented in their religion, regardless of the religion they professed (Read 2003).  R. D. Smith conducted a similar study including both genders that supported this as well as showed that this is truer of women than men. This idea of fundamental religiousness associating with traditional gender roles was corroborated by my own informal survey. Those who associated more with a fundamental following of any religion (especially evangelical Christianity) were less open to watching sitcoms with non-traditional gender roles. Many were highly offended by “Modern Family” (even if they had never watched it or had only watched one or two episodes) and considered the entire series an affront (Howe 2012).” This approach to viewing – which Gordon Lynch names “applicationist (Lynch 2005)” - is simply not a helpful way for the church to engage art. It fails to see any value at all in a piece of art that might not align entirely with one’s theology on the surface and refuses to reflect further to find value or relevant information about the state of today’s culture.
We need to be careful how we watch television with our children, especially if we want them to see it through the eyes of equality for all people (Chemaly 2012). People, especially children, are affected by the television they view.  Children who grow up watching television tend to have more traditional gender roles ingrained at an early age.  This impact can be mediated by family interaction (Television and Family: the social uses and influence of television on families n.d.) and by teaching children how to see art for what it is: a reflection of the culture they are growing up in. Each generation connects in a new way to the social issues and culture they live in. It is vitally important to help them through the confusing process of sorting those connections out (Aidala 1985).
The Church has it backwards when it pushes to change or censor secular television – or any other art form – in order to change culture. Aggressive censorship and boycotting campaigns have fallen flat time and time again since the beginning of cinema and television (Ferre 1990). Attempts to recreate popular culture from a “Christian” or “wholesome” perspective have not been widely successful, with the exception of Contemporary Christian Music. Art comes out of culture, not culture from art. Rather than complain about the gender roles that are portrayed on any show, it is better to open a discussion on what the existence of those stereotypes says about our culture’s flaws and how we as the Church might bring about Christ’s healing. When we consider what Lynch would call a “correlational” or “revised correlational” approach to what we watch (Lynch 2005), we can gain great insight into the questions that our culture is wrestling with and the answers toward which they are leaning.

Conclusion

While sitcoms still explore issues regarding gender, the way in which they do so has changed.  There is more caution regarding how far they are willing to stretch than there was 50 years ago. The gender roles seen in these sitcoms are more a reflection on culture and less the influential drive they used to be. When they do question, it’s subtler and more reserved. In order for a show to succeed, it mustn’t push too far beyond what is already seen as culturally acceptable. The Church must recognize not only that sitcoms are more reflection than lesson but also that sometimes very traditional ideas can be conveyed through media that may look at first to be very “modern.”


Appendix A: Informal Survey

Modern Family and Dick VanDyke


The Dick VanDyke Show

1) Have you ever watched "The Dick VanDyke Show?"*

( ) Yes
( ) No

The Dick VanDyke Show

2) How many episodes of The Dick VanDyke Show would you estimate you have seen?*

( ) 1-5
( ) 5-10
( ) 10-20
( ) Most or all of them

3) What is your favorite aspect of this show?

4) What do you dislike about this show?

5) What sort of values does this show communicate to the audience?

6) What values regarding gender roles are communicated?

7) Are the above mentioned values congruent with the values of the culture at the time the show was made?

( ) Yes
( ) No
( ) Somewhat
( ) Mostly

8) Are these values congruent with your own values (religious or otherwise)?

( ) Yes
( ) No
( ) Somewhat
( ) Mostly

Modern Family

9) Have you ever watched "Modern Family?"*

( ) Yes
( ) No

Modern Family

10) How many episodes of "Modern Family" would you estimate you have seen?*

( ) 1-5
( ) 5-10
( ) 10-20
( ) Most or all of them

11) What is your favorite aspect of this show?

12) What do you dislike about this show?

13) What sort of values does this show communicate to the audience?

14) What values regarding gender roles are communicated?

15) Are the above mentioned values congruent with the values of the culture at the time the show was made?

( ) Yes
( ) No
( ) Somewhat
( ) Mostly

16) Are these values congruent with your own values (religious or otherwise)?

( ) Yes
( ) No
( ) Somewhat
( ) Mostly

General TV Habits and Summary

17) What are the main factors that affect what television sitcoms you watch and which you don't?

18) Do you have any other comments about The Dick VanDyke Show or Modern Family?


Demographic Information

Please help me out with some basic demographic information. This is confidential.

19) Age*

( ) under 18
( ) 18-24
( ) 25-34
( ) 35-54
( ) 55+

20) Gender*

( ) Male
( ) Female

21) Religious Affiliation

22) Marital Status

( ) Single
( ) Partnered
( ) Married
( ) Divorced/Separated
( ) Widowed

23) Parental Status

( ) No children
( ) Children in home
( ) Children live elsewhere
( ) Adult Children
( ) Other

24) Sexual Orientation

( ) Heterosexual
( ) Homosexual
( ) Bisexual
( ) Transsexual
( ) Other

25) If you would be willing to do a follow up interview, please share your email address.

____________________________________________

Thank You!

Thank you for taking our survey. Your response is very important! Please take a moment and share the following link via facebook, twitter, etc. http://edu.surveygizmo.com/s3/1082165/Modern-Family-and-Dick-VanDyke Thank you!



Appendix B: Selected Comparison Report –Modern Family Gender Values and Religion

Survey: Modern Family and Dick VanDyke

Religious Affiliation

Are these values (in Modern Family) congruent with your own values (religious or otherwise)?
Count
Comment
Yes
4
Christian
1
Unaffiliated
1
Catholic
1
Jewish
1
Lutheran Christian
1
Protestant (Presbyterian)
No
2
Evangelical Christian
1
Progressive Christian
1
Protestant
1
I am a christian
1
Born again Bible believing Christian.
Somewhat
4
Christian
1
Methodist
1
presbyterian
1
None really. Raised Russian Orthodox
1
Presbyterian
1
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America
1
Christian. Evangelical.
1
follower of Christ. relatively anabaptist that grew up in a U. Methodist church, currently a member of PCUSA, not because of adherence to doctrine, but to be included in church roles.
Mostly
1
christian
1
Christian
1
RC
TOTAL
29



Appendix C: Comments About Perceived Gender Roles in The Dick Van Dyke Show and Modern Family

What values regarding gender roles are communicated (By The Dick Van Dyke Show)?


Count
Response
1
Don't recall
1
Man is head of the house, woman second but valuable. Helps man succeed.
1
Man-bread winner Woman-house wife
1
Men = breadwinner, head of household, Women = everything else, wife mother, housekeeper
1
Men were in command
1
Oh. See above.
1
Stereotypical heterosexual relationships were the only ones seen on the show.
1
That the man is the head of household.
1
The traditional the wife stays home and dad goes to work
1
The woman took care of the home and the man made the money.
1
Traditional marital roles. She stayed home and took care of everything and looked good doing it.
1
Traditional roles. Man works. Women stays home.
1
Wives respecting their spouse.
1
Women at home waiting in the man
1
Women were more homemakers and Men were the bread winners.
1
rather sexist regarding Laura, but better for Sally.
1
still pretty '60's. "man of the house" etc etc
1
the women are funny and full of wisdom the men act stupid but are smart and funny
1
very little; everyone's pecularieties are equal and up for jokes
1
There was a female writer for the show which I thought interesting, but Rob was the man of the house and had to be the breadwinner, etc.
1
traditional stay at home Mom, working Dad; however, one of Rob's colleagues, Rose Marie, is a comedy writer for a tv show -- in the 60's, this was uncommon and nontraditional. In the context of the show, Rose Marie was always the third wheel, the "old maid," the older woman who could never find a date or the right man to marry. However, she did the same job as Rob and Buddy and was portrayed as their equal in every way when it came to comedy writing (and zinging one-liners).
1
respect and equality between spouses, although you can still occasionally see male paternalistic patterns. Usually, this is presented in a humorous way and is countered by Laura.
1
The show depicts mostly traditional gender roles, but it includes one woman who works outside of the home, Rose Marie. Laura Petrie is a stay-at-home mom who relies on her husband for a great deal. Rob is portrayed as the rightful head of the household, though he is often only marginally more competent than Laura.
1
working father, stay at home mother. although one of the writers (sally rogers) was a woman working in what was typically a man's job.
1
Dick Van Dyke is rather progressive for it's time. Laura Petrie is still a house wife, but she's not a dolled up super model with a plate of cookies, she's a realistic woman who struggles with keeping a home. On the show's staff, I always felt it was amazing that they showed a woman on the show's writing staff. While they did take shots at her for being old and unmarried, the fact that she was even there and was treated as just as valuable to the team as any man is mind blowing for that time. The show itself of course made sure to remind viewers that she was "man hungry", to keep with the times, but there just flat out aren't that many women in entertainment NOW. 50 years later.
1
Sally showed a female in a "non-traditional" role though she was unmarried. Laura while feisty was still a stay at home mom but that was also a sign of the times.
1
I wasn't offended as a woman however there were different roles between men and women then. I might be offended watching them now.
1
the gender roles while somewhat progressive for the time are still very much segregated in terms of female and male roles

What values regarding gender roles are communicated (by Modern Family)?


Count
Response
1
I noticed that the women have more control of the household. Men seem to have less.
1
A man playing the role of wife in a gay couple.
1
All are equal
1
Anyone can be anything.
1
Broad
1
Family comes in different shapes/sizes.
1
Gender roles are also shifting, get used to that too.
1
Gender roles are less relevant than personality and giftedness of each person.
1
I haven't really watched enough to determine
1
Know matter what your sex is your can play many different roles in a family.
1
Non-traditional
1
None
1
One spouse should stay at home to take care of the house and kids, and the other should work.
1
Strong women
1
That gay marriage is normal and healthy.
1
There are no fixed gender roles...everything is possible for people of both genders.
1
Wives are in charge.
1
diversity of gender roles, even in the "traditional" family
1
fluidity of the roles
1
people don't have to fit into certain traditional gender roles
1
the women are loving and kind and wise the men act stupid but learn life lessons
1
There are still stay at home moms in the shows. I also think the "younger Latin woman" is a bit stereotyped.
1
Stereotypes....not so much values. Claire is the mom who does everything and takes care of everyone. Phil is the dumb dude who screws it all up.
1
Again, there is less emphasis on the "breadwinner" but all of the women (plus Cameron as a more effeminate partner) stay home as the mom/head of home affairs.
1
This one throws gender roles aside to an extent. You have the trophy wife and a manchild husband, but including the gay couple changes it up a bit.
1
Modern Family asserts that success in life does not come from fulfilling stereotypical gender roles. Women work outside of the home. Women can express desire for their partners. Two gay men can be just as effective (or ineffective) as parents as any straight couple it.
1
there seems to be alot of emasculating of the men and bitchiness from the women. while it's not something I believe to be a Biblical portayal of family and gender roles, I definitely think it's an accurate portrayal of interactions between husbands and wives (can't speak to the interactions within gay partnerships)
1
Women can be the strong head of households. Dads can be emotional. Gender roles are not cut and dry.
1
Homosexuality is perfectly fine, you have the stay at home Mom with a "feminine" husband. And then you have the older man with the much younger woman.

 



 


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