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Feminism and Sansa Stark

Warning: This post contains Game of Thrones spoilers, especially for the first book/season. There are vague spoilers for books 2 and 3, but I haven’t read past that yet.

I recently read an interesting piece titled “In Defense of Sansa Stark” that viewed the character from a feminist perspective. The author argued that Sansa is so widely hated as a character because she’s a feminine pre-teen girl:

“As a massive fan of Sansa, even I must admit that she is difficult to like at first. She’s spoilt and a bit bratty. She fights with her fan-favorite sister and trusts characters who the reader knows are completely untrustworthy. She is hopelessly naive and lost in dreams of pretty princes and dashing knights. She acts, for all intents and purposes, like the eleven year old girl that she is. Most of us were pretty darn unbearable to older people at that age (and that’s fine, because they were also pretty unbearable to us). Robb and Jon, although older than Sansa, are similarly misguided and bratty, with Jon’s constant “poor me, I deserve so much more” attitude at the Wall, and Robb’s clumsy attempts at being the Lord of Winterfell. But these mistakes are only reprehensible to readers when they come from a girl, interested in girly things and making girly mistakes. Because viewers have been taught that “girly“ is automatically bad.”

You should read the whole post if you’re interested in the series. I think it could apply to some fans who hate Sansa – I haven’t exactly chatted with every A Song of Ice and Fire fan. But as someone who initially hated Sansa nearly as much as Joffrey, I have to say that’s not why I hated Sansa.

Sansa originally contains every quality I loathe. She’s incredibly spoiled and a giant brat. She’s gullible and demonstrates absolutely no ability to think for herself – she just parrots whatever she’s told and never applies any critical thinking. She’s naive to the point of delusion, where she refuses to admit that the world around her isn’t a perfect fairy tale, even when provided with ample evidence. And worst of all, she has no moral compass. Instead of standing by her sister Arya, she lies because marrying a prince is more important and leads to the death of an innocent child and her pet wolf. Instead of standing by her father Ned, she tattles on him and ultimately leads to his death. She has no loyalty or honor.

And frankly, I’m miffed that the author thinks this is all okay because that’s “the eleven year old girl that she is.” The assumption that all eleven year old girls are vain, gullible, boy-crazy brats with no shred of ethics is just as sexist as someone hating Sansa because she likes dresses and is good at needlework. I certainly wasn’t that way when I was an eleven year old girl!

I don’t hate Sansa anymore. She’s grown a lot as a character through books 2 and 3. She’s become kinder and stronger, and it’s impressive that she deals with the daily torture she receives. If I were in her shoes, I would have jumped off a high castle wall long ago, or tried to stab Joffrey with fork knowing I’d die trying. I still don’t like her, though. She’s still gullible and not the brightest tool in the shed. And she’s so passive – instead of actively trying to improve her situation, she basically sits around waiting to be rescued. Cersei, Daenerys, Margaery and Catelyn  are all feminine characters, but they’re proactive about their situations.

But while I no longer hate Sansa, I still dread reading her chapters. Is there a single Sansa chapter where something goes her way? It’s depressing to read about her getting screwed over for the umpteenth time. I feel like her only role in the story is to be a victim, which just depresses me.

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Comments

  1. maxpeterson says

    My problem is here:
    “Robb and Jon, although older than Sansa, are similarly misguided and bratty, with Jon’s constant “poor me, I deserve so much more” attitude at the Wall, and Robb’s clumsy attempts at being the Lord of Winterfell. But these mistakes are only reprehensible to readers when they come from a girl, interested in girly things and making girly mistakes. Because viewers have been taught that “girly“ is automatically bad.””

    Perhaps some readers hold this opinion for these reasons. I did not. It seems to me a great stretch to assume what the writer does. Sansa’s behaviour is combarable to Robb and Jon’s, but not the same.

  2. merryoldlandofoz says

    I’m going to argue in favor of Sansa. All of George RR Martin’s characters are flawed- incredibly so. Through other women, we have the total interfering bitch (Cersei), the tough, bitter, cynical murderer (Arya), the honorable fish out of water (Brienne), the crazy cat lady (both the Tully women) & plenty of minor nasty/power hungry women (Jeyne’s mother, most of the Freys). Sansa is gullible & a bit wet- she honestly believed that telling Cersei was the right thing to do. It’s kind of nice to have a character whose major flaws don’t make them a horrible person!

    I also think that being 11 is a better excuse than you say. While the tv series (kind of has to) makes her seem older- 15/16, in the book she’s clearly a child. An 11yr old doesn’t think rationally or critically on a consistent basis. The princesses thing might not be the ideal we grew up with, and certainly not to the extent Sansa did, but it’s fine for a child to still believe in it. I think Sansa shows how Westeros abuses everyone. She tries, but she suffers. I’ll also say that I think it gets better for her- her ‘girlyness’ is her strength.

  3. Enkidum says

    Another very clear thing I think Martin is trying to do is point out that Sansa is the way she is because she lives in a time where ideal women acted that way. The Middle Ages was not the greatest time to be female (I mean, it wasn’t that great to be male either, but you get the point…)

  4. says

    I like Sansa, too, and I have some sympathy for her. No one is born knowing everything, and all of her life Sansa has been rewarded for being obedient and and passive. Suddenly she is thrown into a situation far over her head. It predictably goes badly.

  5. Raiki says

    Without giving away any of GRRM’s magnificent plot, let me answer your question as best I can. No.

    Having read all the books that are currently available (books 1-4 at least 3 times) I have come to realize that Sansa in the earlier books wasn’t a character so much as a window through which to view surrounding events. I believe (and this theory is vaguely backed up by some out-of-universe answers George has given to various questions), that the death of Lady was meant to be a foreshadowing of Sansa’s own death, and that because she was slated to die in book two (back when ASoIaF was only going to be a 3 book series), GRRM didn’t put quite as much into her character as he did in most others. For whatever reason, however, Sansa’s death didn’t happen where he planned it to, and the character began to grow. As of book 4 (which has been out for long enough that I don’t mind giving some minor tangential spoilers), she has slightly risen above her status as window-dressing for the more important events around her and stepped, tentatively, into the limelight herself.

    And in book five…Ah, but that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

    I cannot recommend highly enough that you continue reading the series. If you can find the time in your busy schedule, you’ll likely not find a better yarn.

    ~R~

  6. mangounicorn says

    To be honest, I feel like hating Sansa is dreadfully reading the books wrong. (And also, Sansa gets the most hate out of anybody, and all the dudebros hate her. Do you really want to align with the dudebros?)

    The entirety of the books is a deconstruction of the way medieval fantasy is portrayed as happy fun adventure times, rather than the brutal horror it actually was/would be. (GRRM has pretty much said as much in interviews; this is not just my analysis.) Sansa (and Brienne to some extent) are actually our window into people who believe the stories of true knights and true princesses/ladies and all of that, they start out believing that and get the horrible reality handed to them as the series progresses. Because of this, Sansa is basically the pivot of the story, the audience insert almost (if the audience has only read stories about true knights slaying dragons and rescuing princesses that is.)

    “And worst of all, she has no moral compass. Instead of standing by her sister Arya, she lies because marrying a prince is more important and leads to the death of an innocent child and her pet wolf.”

    Actually it would have been utterly stupid of her to side with Arya at that moment. Remember that this isn’t a private conference between a few people. This is in front of half the camp; anything anyone says is completely public knowledge. This means that Cersei and Joffrey cannot show themselves to be weak in any way, and it also means that Sansa, as a future queen, cannot be shown as spiting them or not siding with them. It would actually be dangerous for her to do so – she has to survive both marriage to Joffrey and living in King’s Landing, with few to no Starks around. She can’t afford to increase animosity between the Starks and the Lannisters – the very peace of the realm depends on it. This is her being smart, and diplomatic, and recognizing what role she’s going to play in the future. Who cares about the death of one pet wolf (which by the way, Cersei’s idea, not Sansa’s, and probably would have happened regardless of what Sansa said, and it’s utterly absurd to blame Sansa for Micah’s death; he easily could have been captured like Arya was, but since he’s lower class no one cares about him) compared to all the humans that die in all the wars westeros keeps fighting? Honestly it’s a small price to pay for peace at that point. Arya can afford to say what she wants there; she simply doesn’t have the stakes that Sansa has to deal with.

    Instead of standing by her father Ned, she tattles on him and ultimately leads to his death. She has no loyalty or honor.

    I think it’s debatable that she has no loyalty or honor, but: Ned is epitome of loyalty and honor, and look how far it got him: he’s dead. Loyalty and honor are not how you survive in Westeros. Sansa is quite right to not have those be her top priorities. (And no, Ned’s stupid decision to confront Cersei about her kids being illegitimate and telling everybody about it (despite knowing that Jon Arryn died for knowing this very secret) is what led to his death.)

    And frankly, I’m miffed that the author thinks this is all okay because that’s “the eleven year old girl that she is.” The assumption that all eleven year old girls are vain, gullible, boy-crazy brats with no shred of ethics is just as sexist as someone hating Sansa because she likes dresses and is good at needlework. I certainly wasn’t that way when I was an eleven year old girl!

    And… she’s the only major female character that acts this way, which is pretty much the opposite of the book making an assumption that girls are like that. She is but one representation of females in westeros, and it’s completely reasonable, in an extreme patriarchy like westeros, for ONE female POV character to do everything the patriarchy is telling her she should do, and think everything the patriarchy is telling her to think (and then… to grow out of it! Yay character development!). I wasn’t like that either as an 11 year-old – I was a stubborn tomboyish nerd probably similar to you. But not every girl is like that, or has to be. Does every female character have to be amazingly tough and capable and ‘strong’ at every turn in order to be acceptable? We certainly don’t require that of male characters.

    If I were in her shoes, I would have jumped off a high castle wall long ago, or tried to stab Joffrey with fork knowing I’d die trying.

    I think this is a really important point – to why Sansa is a good character, and why I and others like her. Her strength is in survival as a courtly prisoner, rather than in running away
    and killing people as Arya’s is. This is just as valid a strength, even if it’s a “feminine” strength, and the fact that she is able to endure more than maybe you or I would is remarkable too. All of her diplomatic lies and courtly courtesy are what’s keeping her alive as a prisoner in King’s Landing, in a place filled with Lannisters where she has next to no allies, and even if she did escape, doesn’t have the Action Girl kind of skills that Arya does – she wouldn’t survive very well outside of King’s Landing, so she pretty much has to figure out how to survive within it.

    I certainly agree that it is frustrating to read her chapters and see all the horrible stuff happening to her endlessly – I hope she gets to do more stuff in the future (a lot of people theorize that she’ll be the Queen someday, but we’ll see.)

    I’d encourage anyone interested in feminist analysis of ASOIAF to check out http://asoiafuniversity.tumblr.com – not all of it is feminist analysis per se, but a lot of it is, and there are a lot of interesting, diverse opinions. (In particular, here’s the Sansa Stark tag)

  7. julian says

    Been saying this about Sansa since day one. She’s the quiverfull girl waking up to the problems of her movement. This isn’t her fault and we shouldn’t penalize her for it. She’s a child who’s father filled her with stories of princes and castles and who’s mother is the archetype of what a woman of that era should be. How else would she see the world?

  8. says

    I’ve read the first four books. If you haven’t read that far, there may be spoliers below, but I’ll try not to give plot developments away, only character developments.

    Initially, I hated Sansa and loved Arya. Sansa in book 1 is quite the hatable girly-girl/princess that a tomboy/nerd like me. By book two though, I think it’s impossible to hate her, with Joffrey being the total prick that he is.

    I agree that it’s painful to read what new suffering Sansa gets with each chapter devoted to her, but I think your accusation that she is not pro-active is too harsh. You compare her to Cersei, Daenerys, Margaery and Catelyn. Cercei is a much older woman, seasoned in political intrigue, and as Queen Regent is in a position to command a lot of power. She’s also quite hateful. Catelyn is also much older, and with her son/son’s bannermen, and has people around her she can trust,for all the good it does her. Margaery is of a similar age to Sansa, true, but comes from a wealthy and powerful family, has her brother in court with her and has support from her other family members. Daenerys started off as weak as Sansa, and developed her strength essentially by making Drogo like her in bed, and then she managed to hatched dragons. All of them have to fight hard to have any strength, but they all have some advantage.

    Sansa, as far as I can tell, has no advantages at all. How is Sansa supposed to be pro-active? There is no way that Sansa could make Joffrey love her the way Daenerys made Drogo love her. She was not taught political intrigue, the North was too far away from everything, and her straightforward father despised it. Despite that, she is managing to learn it quite well. She has no family to assist her, and no money. She cannot strike out on her own, she’d be caught within days, probably to be raped and killed, or if she was recognised, sent back to King’s Landing (or somewhere else where she might be of use to someone) and probably raped along the way. She has no money to pay guards with, and even if she did, could she trust them? Almost certainly not. She cannot trust anyone around her. Arya survived out in the world by pretending to be a boy, and knowing how to fight well enough to pull it off. Sansa is much older, with a womanly figure, and has none of the skills she’d need to successfully pass as a low-born woman. Sansa is doing the only thing available to her – surviving, and managing to do so with all the grace and dignity available to someone in her position. Hopefully, she survives long enough that she gets an opportunity to do more than just survive.

    As an aside, I really don’t like where Arya is headed as at the end of book four, much as I still want to like her.

  9. Beth says

    Agreed completely. Sansa Stark survives in a really awful situation, and she does so by knowing all the rules of the court and playing them to the letter. She keeps up the appearance of a perfect princess, and even if her enemies are sure she’s lying, Sansa never does anything to prove otherwise, so they can’t move against her. I don’t blame her at all for not acting out. Yes, Arya would do so, but Arya would be killed for it. Sansa plays the Game of Thrones and survives. And it’s worth noting that by the end of Book 3, the world thinks that Sansa is the *only* surviving Stark.

    Arya and Sansa are two sides of the same coin. They are both surviving through artifice. It’s just that Arya’s artifice is more obvious; she constantly shifts identities and becomes more and more a killer and fighter. Sansa’s tactics are much more subtle, but then they have to be, because she is surrounded by extremely powerful enemies and any misstep on her part will get her killed.

  10. Donna says

    *THIS*

    I was going to go on a huge rant defending Sansa, but this post says everything I want to say and more. Sansa plays “the game” far better than *anyone* else, and for that, i admire her, just as much as i admire Arya.

  11. Mark says

    “And worst of all, she has no moral compass. Instead of standing by her sister Arya, she lies because marrying a prince is more important and leads to the death of an innocent child and her pet wolf. Instead of standing by her father Ned, she tattles on him and ultimately leads to his death. She has no loyalty or honor.”

    Ned Stark got Ned Stark killed, not Sansa. Ned is the one that tells Cersei he knows about the incest. Ned is the one that ignores Renly and doesnt take the children away from Cersei. Ned Stark is the one that openly declares that Tywin will be labeled a traitor if he doesnt show up in King’s Lanidng. Ned Stark is the one that refuses to acknowledge Joffrey as King when Cersei gives him the option. Ned Stark trusted Littlefinger who was working with Cersei. Also, I doubt Cersei/Joffrey were going to let the butcher’s boy live despite what Sansa said.

    “And frankly, I’m miffed that the author thinks this is all okay because that’s “the eleven year old girl that she is.” The assumption that all eleven year old girls are vain, gullible, boy-crazy brats with no shred of ethics is just as sexist as someone hating Sansa because she likes dresses and is good at needlework. I certainly wasn’t that way when I was an eleven year old girl!”

    But the way Sasna was raised, she got praised for all those qualities. All her life she was told that this is how a highborn lady should act, and this is what she should do, and when she did it she was rewarded with praise. Following is a quote from one of the early Arya chapters.

    “It wasn’t fair. Sansa had everything. Sansa was two years older; maybe by the time Arya had been born, there had been nothing left. Often it felt that way. Sansa could sew and dance and sing. She wrote poetry. She knew how to dress. She played the high harp and the bells. Worse, she was beautiful. Sansa had gotten their mother’s fine high cheekbones and the thick auburn hair of the Tullys. Arya took after their lord father. Her hair was a lusterless brown, and her face was long and solemn. Jeyne used to call her Arya Horseface, and neigh whenever she came near. It hurt that the one thing Arya could do better than her sister was ride a horse. Well, that and manage a household. Sansa had never had much of a head for figures. If she did marry Prince Joff, Arya hoped for his sake that he had a good steward.”

    Arya was never good at needlework because she is left handed, and the Septa kept making her used the right hand. Arya was made to feel like a failure for that. Perhaps, if they had taught her with the left hand, things would’ve turned out different and she would’ve eneded up similar to Sansa.

  12. Ma Nonny says

    A few points, since reading these books drove me crazy:

    “I think it’s debatable that she has no loyalty or honor, but: Ned is epitome of loyalty and honor, and look how far it got him: he’s dead. Loyalty and honor are not how you survive in Westeros.”

    I feel that his death was not honorable – it if were, he would have told about Joffrey being illegitimate as his last words in order to show honor to the king he worked for. I hated his death scene not so much because he died, but that he died acting NOT AT ALL LIKE HIMSELF and the character he had been up until that point. He turns weak and mild for the first time ever at the most important point to not be.

    “And… [Sansa’s] the only major female character that acts this way, which is pretty much the opposite of the book making an assumption that girls are like that.”

    I disagree very much. Look at the epitome of feminine strength in the books – Dani. She can ride freaking dragons and is taking over cities here and there and ruling them … and her internal dialog consists of “oh, woe is me. I am a lonely girl. who should I marry?” None of the men in the story have such internal dialogs.

    I hate the misogyny in the books – but not the misogynistic world thrust upon the characters that they can’t help. Rather I am annoyed at the female characters’ internal dialogs and how most of them are flat/static/flawed for being feminine (or, they are portrayed as “like boys” like Arya’s character) while none of the male characters have the same tone.

    It felt not like “this is how the world made them” but instead like “this is what GRR Martin thinks girls think like.” I found most of it rather condescending. None of the “feminine” characters are allowed to be fully strong (the only ones that aren’t crazy or worried about relationships with males that distract them from the task at hand are portrayed as men-substitutes or are killed and made into zombies). Why can’t someone be feminine AND strong?

    The only female character that approaches how a real person thinks and behaves (without feeling like it was a caricature or was overtly described as male-like), at least in the first book, was Caitlin – and look at what happened to her in the end.

  13. Laurence says

    Good post, but I think you are giving Sansa way too much credit in your second paragraph. I don’t think she was that far in advance at this point in the novel. She was primarily thinking about that Joff wouldn’t want to marry her if she spoke out against him.

  14. Laurence says

    I think you are really oversimplifying the things that are going on in Dany’s head in the book. She’s caught between what she wants (a man that she finds attractive) and what she has to do to keep the peace. It’s a totally legitimate thought process for her.

  15. says

    Characters like Arya are great to read about because who doesn’t like a kickass girl who fights back? But Sansa is more realistic. She’s trapped by her culture and the expectations its placed on her.

    Yes, she lies to protect Joffrey (which ends in the killing of a child and her wolf), but she does it because she already thinks of Joffrey as her husband and she’s been brought up to believe that a woman must ALWAYS side with her husband.

    And yes, she turns Ned in, but that’s because she’s naive and she doesn’t understand the danger. All she knows is that Ned is behaving in a weird way, and that this woman, her future mother-in-law and her friend, may be able to help knock some sense into him. Why aren’t we blaming Ned for explaining the situation to her? He’s deliberately keeping information from Sansa, and yet we’re blaming Sansa for acting on incomplete information? How is that fair?

    Sansa is naive at the beginning. People are naive, especially when they are young. Why are we miffed at Martin for having a diverse cast of characters, and for providing them with realistic reactions to their circumstances? We have Sansa, sure, but we also have Arya. Obviously, Martin isn’t saying that all (or even most) young girls are silly. He’s saying that some are, and this one is.

    And, I’m sorry, but Sansa is an incredibly strong character. Even in the beginning, she’s figured out that to be able to live a good, comfortable, and safe life, her only realistic option is to find a good husband. For every Brienne and Arya, there are millions of woman who simply do not have that life open to them. She pretends to be passive because she knows that it’s a way to attract quality suitors, but she isn’t really. When Ned starts acting erratically and tries to get her to go back to Winterfell (which would mean not only abandoning her future with Joffrey, but also a much larger pool of potential suitors should things not work out with Joffrey), she acts in the only way available to her to change Ned’s mind. She can’t force him to stay herself, but Cersei can, so she appeals to Cersei.

    Later on, when Joffrey turns abusive, she’s out of options and she starts wearing masks to protect herself. I can’t even begin to imagine the strength that would take. Arya and Brienne refuse to play the game, but Sansa stays in and tries to win. And, frankly, I don’t think that takes any less courage.

    Aaanyways, I really like Sansa. She’s strong and she’s a survivor, just like Arya. She’s just doing it from the context of her own personality. She makes wrong choices, sure, but every character in the series makes mistakes – some resulting in far more death and destruction than Sansa’s. So why is she getting all the hate?

  16. says

    Caitlyn was married. She didn’t have to think about boys because she had one. Most of the male POV characters are also married (or have made vows of celibacy). But even then, Samwell spends all his time thinking about Gilly, Jon Snow has his girlfriend he obsesses about, Jaime is torn between Cersei and Brienne…

    No, your assessment is incorrect. Characters of both sexes who do not have a spouse already spend a good deal of time thinking about characters of the opposite sex.

  17. says

    Just to add, both Cersei and Caitlyn started off the same as Sansa. Both were sold to husbands (men they didn’t want) by their fathers. Both accepted their fathers’ choice meekly. As you say, they are much older, and that’s what makes the difference. From what I’ve seen of Sansa’s character development, she’ll be every bit as strong and powerful as these two women (if she survives – Valar Morghulis).

  18. Echidnae says

    Sorry, another Sansa defender here. I actually find her far more mature in the first book than Arya, in that in every scene where Arya is in public (even in court) she’s shouting, calling powerful people liars…she’s impulsive despite everyone telling her she has to grow up and think before she speaks. She’s more dangerous than Sansa, but everyone forgives her because she likes swords, not dresses. (And I like Arya. I forgive Arya her dangerous idealism and impulsiveness because she’s 9. Just like I forgive Sansa her naivete because she’s 11.)

    And as for this statement: “Instead of standing by her sister Arya, she lies because marrying a prince is more important and leads to the death of an innocent child and her pet wolf.” Sorry, how was that NOT the best course of action?

    Her options were: Side with Arya. Joffrey isn’t punished at all, because princes don’t get punished for giving mild injuries to commoners, especially not commoners who seemed to be “assaulting” noble ladies. Meanwhile, she has just accused her betrothed of lying in front of an entire court. Lannister pride ensures that she will be miserable, or maybe the betrothal will be called off altogether.

    Side with Joffrey. Arya gets punished somehow, in addition to Mycah and Lady. Her sister gets a reputation as some sort of rabid, prince-attacking creature, her family is shamed.

    Side with no one. Neither kid is punished, she can hope that maybe Mycah and the wolves will be spared.

  19. Darby says

    Also note that Sansa is still alive, which can’t be said about many of the “strong” characters in the story: Ned, Robb, Catelyn, Tywin…

  20. says

    “And… she’s the only major female character that acts this way, which is pretty much the opposite of the book making an assumption that girls are like that”
    The author in the part of the story you are referencing refer’s to the author of the article, methinks.

    “Sorry, another Sansa defender here. I actually find her far more mature in the first book than Arya, in that in every scene where Arya is in public (even in court) she’s shouting, calling powerful people liars…she’s impulsive despite everyone telling her she has to grow up and think before she speaks. She’s more dangerous than Sansa, but everyone forgives her because she likes swords, not dresses. (And I like Arya. I forgive Arya her dangerous idealism and impulsiveness because she’s 9. Just like I forgive Sansa her naivete because she’s 11.)”
    You are comparing two completely different characters. If Sansa was mature, she would not shout and scream in court because she knew she would get in trouble, or it was a bad idea. With Sansa, her main problem with it is that it is ruining the idea of a world where everything is pretty and just and like the stories.

    In that vain..why did she not speak up in court? Well..judging by the her POV’s before and after…it was not because she was trifling with powerful people..it’s because she want;s the world to turn turn out all pretty. She then blames Arya for Ladies death, if I remember correctly. I am not saying she is not realistic…but that doesn’t make her anymore realistic than Arya..or any less annoying.

    Also, can we all please refrain from being ageist. When was the last time you lot all sat down and had a chat with some 9 year old’s or 11 year old’s? Because 11 year old’s are far more mature than you are making them out to be. Sansa is not like that because of her age…she is like that because she is like that…

    I think Sansa is a strong character,and I do adore her at times…but her personality annoys the crap out of me. It’s not because she is young..it’s because she is Sansa

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