Primetime Pedagogies: Racism, Primetime TV, and the Limits of Dissent
Phoebe Bronstein, University of California, San Diego

Blackish Cast Photo, courtesy of ABC

The cast of ABC’s Blackish

In 1959, Harry Belafonte starred in and produced a groundbreaking Revlon special, Tonight With Belafonte. For the program, Belafonte envisioned “a portrait of Negro life in America told through music,” for which he won an Emmy [ ((Belafonte, Harry. My Song: A Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, pp. 209-210.))] The initial special’s successes led to CBS and Revlon signing Belafonte for five more specials—over which he would have complete creative control. In 1960, Belafonte’s second special New York 19 premiered on CBS, reflecting “the musical heritage of the inhabitants of this multi-racial, midtown Manhattan area” [ ((Salmaggi, Bob. “Madison Avenue is Dead End,” Los Angeles Times. (November 18, 1960): A12.))]. In New York 19, while Belafonte occupied the center of the screen and framed the production, whites remained on the periphery, sharing the screen equally with African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and the other inhabitants of the New York 19 postal zone. The series garnered critical acclaim; however, Revlon canceled the next four installments, pointing to anxiety about how southern white viewers would react to this multi-racial cast. [ ((Belafonte, 220.))] Diversity was okay in primetime, the logic went, so long as shows reinforced the color-line.

In the first part of this column, I use Belafonte’s canceled Revlon specials to consider television’s pedagogical potential, highlighting this potential as an early structural anxiety that policed representations of race in primetime. Ultimately, I am curious to think about how these anxieties about television’s potential for teaching remain encoded into the medium’s content. Near the end of the column, I turn to the recent “Richard Youngsta” black-ish episode, following Herman Gray’s contention in Watching Race that the early years of television shaped and established patterns for subsequent representations of race on television, a point “Richard Youngsta” makes explicitly. I’m curious, here, about how contemporary shows build overtly instructional components into their content, thereby mobilizing primetime television’s imagined pedagogical potential for seemingly progressive ends.

Anxiety about what audiences could learn about race from television structured early television depictions of race broadly and blackness especially. Here, I am drawing on Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin’s contention in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, that “prime-time programs were not mere escapism, but were centrally involved in sustaining, interrogating, and even transforming social relations and cultural affinities throughout the decade [1960s].” [ ((Spigel, Lynn and Michael Curtin. The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, Sixties Television and Social
Conflict. Eds. Michael Curtin and Lynn Spigel. New York: Routledge, 1997, p.11))] As television rapidly became a national medium in the 1950s, debates over its pedagogical value were inextricably tied to racist network and advertiser concerns about black representation.

As Spigel articulates in Make Room for TV, early [television] “was the great family minstrel that promised to bring Mom, Dad, and the kids together; at the same time, it had to be carefully controlled so that it harmonized with the separate gender roles and social functions of individual family members” [ ((Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. p. 37))]. Television could, following this logic, bring the family together by teaching viewers how an ideal American family should look, behave, and function. By the late 1950s, this vision of family was inextricably tied to whiteness. Furthermore, as Spigel notes, television networks went beyond the “consumer educator” model, hoping to teach “women and their families how to consume television itself” [ ((Spigel, 84))]. This harmonizing effort worked to reinforce racist constructions wherein Black American experience, when it was represented at all, was always ushered on-screen through and for the white gaze. The latter is what made Harry Belafonte’s work for Revlon so threatening to the dominant order of early 1960s television–a white primetime landscape inflected by the rise of civil rights news coverage.

The diversity of New York 19, Belafonte’s star text–including his social justice work as part of the Civil Rights Movement–and his central role threatened to disrupt the white conformist message of early television by reimagining New York life from a Black authorial perspective. This racist anxiety of what television could teach viewers persisted throughout the decade: later in 1968 CBS would pull Belafonte’s 8 minute “Don’t Stop the Carnival” superimposed over images of the riots at the 1968 DNC, set to air during a Smothers Brothers episode. Belafonte’s star-text and experiences in television challenged the “familiar and foundational myth of the happy Negro living in a world shut off from white experience and privilege” [ ((Classen, Steven D. Watching Jim Crow: The Struggle over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969, p.94))]. Belafonte’s experience with Revlon, alongside other examples ranging from Nat King Cole’s short-lived NBC variety show to later colorblind primetime fare like I Spy and Julia, reveal an anxiety about the potential of television to upend the white supremacist message of much of primetime.

Whether centering blackness and racial specificity like Belafonte’s work or featuring Black leads in colorblind worlds, like Julia or the much-more recent Grey’s Anatomy, primetime representations of race reveal the ways in which “power must accommodate dissent, if only to remain powerful” [ ((Spigel and Curtin, 8))]. Belafonte’s resistance and Revlon’s reaction to New York 19 reveal the limits of what Revlon and CBS would willingly incorporate in 1960, particularly programmed amidst Civil Rights news broadcasts featuring regular calls for de-segregation. Revlon’s fear appeared in what television could teach viewers, through advertising, and primetime representation: that neither whiteness nor the white nuclear family were harmoniously natural.

Within this frame, I want to turn to black-ish’s “Richard Youngsta” episode. The episode focuses on a preview of Dre’s new ad campaign for Uvo Champagne, wherein a rapper (played by Chris Brown) pours champagne on a Black woman and turns her into a white woman. Expecting praise from his family, Dre is shocked when his wife and mom (Bow and Ruby respectively) instead offer critique: “My son is a Stepin Fetchit,” Ruby asserts, “He sold out his whole race just to be in the damn movie.” This moment initiates a montage of old filmic images and a monologue defining the “Stepin Fetchit” trope. Bow says “Stepin Fetchit,” “whose popular character dubbed the laziest man in the world set up the coon archetype […] He was denounced by the NAACP.” To further her point, Bow even invites over the family’s racist white neighbor, who gleefully laughs and dances to the commercial. As the montage ends, the next shot reveals Bow clearly reading off her phone. Snatching Bow’s phone out of her hands, an exasperated Dre responds, “what you are not reading off the Internet is that he was the first Black actor to earn a million dollars, the first Black actor to get an on-screen credit […] He broke down barriers at a time when roles for us weren’t that plentiful.”

Stepin Fetchit on screen.

Stepin Fetchit on screen.

Only later in the episode does Dre regret the ad campaign and reflect on his own anxiety about what media can teach us when he walks in on Jack pretending to pour champagne, or “Uvo,” all over a stoic Diane. This moment recalls the earlier image in the ad of a Black woman being turned into a white woman, and the repetition of this moment–via the twins–envisions the ways in which white supremacy, and “selling out his whole race” relies on exploitation and here the literal erasure of Black women. (Ultimately, Dre remakes the ad to push against the very stereotypes his early ad had embraced.)

The episode as a whole articulates a more complicated vision of Black representation in Hollywood than Ruby and Bow’s initial reading suggests, asking questions about the economics of television and the power of media broadly to teach and impart dominant and racist values. We see here, through the twins, what mainstream television has long taught and naturalized: white supremacy. At the same time, the episode works to teach viewers, some of whom who are perhaps unaware, about that same history through the discussion of “Stepin Fetchit” and by featuring family conversations about Black representation. By centering questions of Black representation in pop culture, black-ish makes explicit the ways in which primetime television teaches viewers about race, arguing in this instance for the medium’s potential to teach a more progressive racial politics.

Bow and Ruby discuss Black representation

Bow and Ruby discuss Black representation.

Henry Giroux articulates in “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics,” that “For theorists such as Hall, Grossberg, and others culture is a strategic pedagogical and political terrain whose force was a ‘crucial site and weapon of power in the modern world’ (Grossberg, 1996b: 142)” [ ((Giroux, Henry. “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics: Stuart Hall and the #Crisis# of Culture.” Cultural Studies (14:2, 341-360). 9 November 2010. p.342))]. From Harry Belafonte to black-ish, moments like those I’ve discussed here strategically articulate a politics that argue against the conservative and racist messaging that has long dominated network television. As black-ish teaches viewers about the Stepin Fetchit trope, so too does it self-referentially reveal the ways in which black representation on network TV is always working within and co-opting racist tropes. While black-ish seems revolutionary, we have to understand this show as still working in conversation with the same anxieties that led to the cancellation of Belafonte’s New York 19. This major shift doesn’t necessarily reflect a growing radicalism within primetime TV, but instead shows how primetime TV responds to cultural and historical shifts, incorporating dissent and mobilizing the medium’s pedagogical potential, perhaps as a means to stay relevant, marketable, and connected to viewers.

Image Credits

    1. black-ish cast
    2. Stepin Fetchit (author’s screen grab)
    3. Bow and Ruby (author’s screen grab)

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On Feminism, Racism, and Bewitched‘s Not-So-Magical Politics of Fun
Phoebe Bronstein / University of California San Diego


A still from the Bewitched episode Be It Ever So Mortgaged.

A still from the Bewitched episode “Be It Ever So Mortgaged.”

The history of American feminism is also a history of white women centering their own experiences. From Seneca Falls to The Feminine Mystique and through hashtags like #NotAllWhiteWomen, white feminists have often ignored or actively excluded women whose backgrounds differ from their own. The months leading up to the Women’s March on Jan. 21, as Jia Tolentino outlines in The New Yorker, reflected this historical positioning: many white women were angered by the suggestion that contemporary feminism and The Women’s March itself should engage, express, and embrace differences. [ ((Jia Tolentino, “The Somehow Controversial Women’s March on Washington,” New Yorker, January 18, 2017.)) ]

This narrow and racist brand of white feminism has proven extremely marketable. However, packaging feminism in this way is by no means new. In this column, I look at how a potentially progressive 1960s sitcom like Bewitched imagines and reinforces an exclusionary white feminism. Premiering while the Civil Right Movement waged a televised war against white supremacy and in the same year as the publication of The Feminine Mystique, Bewitched’s centering of whiteness and white women especially was not unique. However, the sitcom’s magical gender politics coupled with its investment in whiteness provide a historical example of how mainstream television embraced a consumer-driven white feminism that operated at the expense of people of color.

In the pilot of Bewitched, Samantha’s (Elizabeth Montgomery) mom jokes that when Darrin (Dick York)—Sam’s newly minted husband—finds out that she is a witch, he will certainly discriminate against her. He is sure to be “prejudiced” against Samantha, her mom argues. And indeed, Darrin does struggle with accepting his new wife’s bewitching talents. The pilot and other episodes are peppered with similar jokes about prejudice and discrimination against Samantha—ironic and comic, the show seemingly suggests, because she is white (and blonde, no less), middle class, and quite pretty. Here, the humor relies on the premise that she is in fact not discriminated against and thereby mocks people who face real discrimination.

This racist and sexist structure, entirely absent of bodies of color, relies on an inferential racism, which depends on “premises and propositions” that have inscribed in them, as Stuart Hall argues, “a set of unquestioned assumptions” that “enable racist sentiments to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the racist predicates on which the statements are grounded.” [ (( Stuart Hall, “’Whites of Their Eyes’: Racist Ideologies and the Media,” in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader, 2nd Edition, eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003), 91.)) ] This brand of racism, Hall argues, is far more insidious than its overt counterparts. Following Hall, in Bewitched, white supremacy masquerades as both a troubling feminist appeal and harmless fun—after all, it’s just a joke. This is the danger and insidiousness, as Hall warns, of inferential racism, wherein the humor treats race and racialized violence with irreverence. Discrimination, after all, doesn’t actually happen to Samantha. The misunderstandings she has with Darrin become a source of humor, erasing real fears of violence. Undergirding the jokes about discrimination in Bewitched, remains an inability to engage the very real discrimination of people of color as serious.

At the same time, the sitcom pokes fun at the expectations placed on white housewives to perform perfection. The second episode, “Be It Ever So Mortgaged” begins with a cheeky focus on normalcy as the introductory voiceover describes Samantha’s morning: “Here you see the average normal suburban housewife, preparing breakfast for her husband.” Meanwhile, Samantha squeezes oranges into a juicer, while wearing a white apron over a pink floral print dress. As the shot pulls out, we realize that Samantha is squeezing the oranges onto the kitchen floor, not into a glass. The camera, then, follows her to the stove where her pan is on fire. The male voiceover continues with anthropological-like observations, “The capable suburban housewife moves efficiently through her tasks” (Season 1, Episode 2). Here, the juxtaposition of the voiceover with Sam’s breakfast-making difficulties–and her ultimate need to use magic–pokes fun at and critiques the rigid expectations of the perfect contemporary homemaker.

Samantha struggles to cook

Samantha struggles to fulfill “the rigid expectations of the perfect contemporary homemaker.”

As Lynn Spigel writes about Bewitched — and the similar fantastic sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie — “the elements called into question are not the supernatural elements of the story […]. Rather, we are “made to question the ‘naturalness’ of middle-class suburban ideals,” like the role of and expectations placed on the housewife and the gendered division of labor. [ ((Lynn Spigel, “White Flight,” in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, eds. Michael Curtin and Lynn Spigel (New York: Routledge, 1997), 58-59.)) ] In this sense, Bewitched is in fact progressive, pointing to the ways in which the perfect housewife is a troubling and controlling fiction that requires women to quite literally give up their personal magical powers, subsuming their lives and dreams into the desires of their husbands. Not only does Bewitched play with this notion, it also suggests the impossibility of being the perfect housewife and the need for magic to keep everything in order. Like Spigel points out, the sitcom seems to celebrate the constraints of white suburban life even as it points to its limitations. [ ((Spigel writes, “We are, in other worlds, made to question the ‘naturalness’ of middle-class suburban ideals, especially as those ideas had previously been communicated through the genre conventions of classic suburban sitcoms such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or The Donna Reed Show.” Spigel, “White Flight,” 59.)) ]

Samantha struggles to make toast

Samantha forgoes her magical powers in order to make toast like a “normal” housewife

The sitcom, following David Marc’s observation in Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, is a genre of “comic mitigation.” [ (( David Marc, Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, Second Edition (New York: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1997), 203.)) ] Sitcoms, Marc suggest, desperately seek a middle ground, that is neither progressive nor regressive. In this way, we can see the jokes on Bewitched as simultaneously interested in white women’s liberation at the expense of embracing a repressive racial politics. The discussions of what will happen if Samantha is discovered — which mobilizes discourses of passing — and the problems she might face if she is in fact found out, underscore the limits of the Bewitched’s seemingly-progressive politics. Here, the sitcom reflects a racist politics of fun, reliant on the underlying assumption that white viewers will think it funny to mock the very real discrimination experienced by people of color.

Making women’s liberation palatable and comic in Bewitched, then, foregoes and dismisses any intersection with race, sexuality, or class. Here, like elsewhere in pop culture, nothing is ever just a joke. It’s both troubling and telling that Bewitched’s politics of fun remains relevant today: white feminist complaints surrounding The Women’s March reveal an ongoing inability to de-center white women’s experience and value intersectionality. We’ve seen this brand of feminism embraced by white feminists and marketers with best-selling books like Lean In and through the marketing of Pantsuit Nation and “Nasty Woman” mugs, t-shirts, and totes. In many ways, there is nothing wrong with buying feminist swag or raising money for organizations like Planned Parenthood through such promotions. However, we must remain wary of this strain of marketable feminism. Like Bewitched, consumerist white feminism troublingly masquerades as progressive or even worse revolutionary, even as it often ignores and relies on the erasure, labor of, and violence against those who do not fit the white heteronormative model.

Image Credits

All images are author’s screen grabs from the Bewitched episode “Be It Ever So Mortgaged.”

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Policing Pop Culture: “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” and Representing Southern Law Enforcement
Phoebe Bronstein/University of California, San Diego


screenshot from Danny Meets Andy

A still from the Make Room for Daddy episode “Danny Meets Andy Griffith.”

In February of 1960, The Andy Griffith Show premiered on CBS as a backdoor pilot to Make Room for Daddy (ABC, 1953–57; CBS, 1957–65): “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” (Feb 5 1960). [ ((The earlier ABC incarnation of Make Room for Daddy was called The Danny Thomas Show.)) ] While there is much to say about the unlikely success of Andy Griffith–which premiered at the height of the Civil Rights Movement–this column will focus on the construction of the Southern police in the pilot. “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” provides particular insight, given its timing and topic, into how a popular culture text reflected and obscured anxieties about the police, institutionalized racism, and the South. The end of this column then briefly considers “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” within the context of contemporary pop culture police representations.

Andy Griffith was not CBS’s first attempt at setting a primetime show in the South. Earlier efforts included the pre-emptively canceled Confederate-drama The Gray Ghost (1954) and the season-long Reconstruction-era western Yancy Derringer (1958-1959). But it was the network’s first successful attempt to feature the South in primetime. The region had, before Andy Griffith, posed concerns for networks and advertisers, worried about offending and alienating white Southern audiences with racially progressive television, or even with programs that appeared to critique the racism vividly on display in Civil Rights news broadcasts. [ ((For more on the ways in which Andy Griffith and earlier southern representations negotiated these concerns, see Eric Barnouw’s Tube of Plenty, Stephen Classen’s Watching Jim Crow, and Allison Graham’s Framing the South. )) ]

Central to communicating the terror and violence of the white South were a series of Southern sheriffs featured on nightly news broadcasts [ (( Graham, Allison and Sharon Monteith, “Southern Media Cultures,” in Media, ed. Allison Graham and Sharon Monteith, vol. 18 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011, p.17. )) ] . These men were versions of the same model–sweaty, overweight, angry, and ill-spoken types with deep Southern drawls. Their image came to stand for all that was wrong, terrifying, and violent about the region. As Allison Graham and Sharon Monteith note, by 1963, “nationally and internationally circulated images of [Birmingham, Alabama] city police commissioner Bull Connor worked as cultural shorthand, communicating within seconds the reasons for black protests and the kind of violent resistance that would meet them” [ (( Ibid., pp. 21-22. )) ] . These images, which allowed a national audience to see “glimpses of the brutality black citizens had lived with for over a century,” suggested that racism had a particular look and feel and was the fault of a few individual bad men, rather than a systemic problem. [ (( Ibid. )) ]

It is within this violent context that Andy Griffith premiered. The tensions and discomforts of representing the South construct Andy and the sitcom’s whitewashed world from the outset. “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” featured Danny (Danny Thomas) and his family traveling through the rural South by car. [ (( It’s worth noting here that Danny Thomas was Lebanese, which complicates his position in the South in interesting and important ways. )) ] The episode begins as Danny pulls into town behind Sheriff Andy’s police car after Andy has pulled him over for running a stop sign. Danny is frantic and fast-talking with a thick New York accent. Andy moves and speaks more slowly. He takes Danny’s insults as they come, from calling Andy “hayseed” to mocking Andy’s Southern drawl and asserting that the stop sign is a tourist trap meant to trick poor visiting “city slickers” like himself. He even calls Andy the “Jesse James of the police.” Danny insists on pleading his case in front of the justice of the peace (who, of course, happens to be Andy), sure that his Northern rationality will win out. After all, Danny exclaims, “who’s heard of a stop sign with no road.”

Even as Danny insults Andy and the town of Mayberry, Andy remains calm and level-headed. He responds to Danny’s quick-talking outrage with logic and reason. Facing the camera and Danny’s children–and by proxy, the viewers–he explains that, indeed, the town did vote to put in a road six years ago but they’ve only raised enough money for a stop sign. Andy’s calm and fair demeanor renders Danny’s complaints, insults, and his assertion that he’s been duped ridiculous. Against Danny’s Northern brashness and the slew of Southern stereotypes he unleashes–which includes a claim that Andy probably doesn’t even know about television–Andy is calm, kind, and patient, not to mention, handsome. In fact, Andy is as far from a lawless Jesse James as one could possibly imagine.

Like earlier renditions of the police on television–for instance, Joe Friday of Dragnet–Andy’s appearance and mannerisms signal his moral fortitude and trustworthiness. Andy’s patience is epic, and even comic when juxtaposed against Danny’s small-mindedness about him and the South. Through their exchanges, Andy comes across as rational and fair-minded, while Danny appears childlike and petulant. Like Joe Friday and the police of 1950s procedurals, who as Jason Mittell asserts were “part of [the] social order…not to be questioned—at least not on mainstream television,” Andy’s presence as sheriff, justice of the peace, and jailer, carries the same authority [ (( Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Television. New York: Routledge, 2004, p.41. )) ] . Thus, when Andy charges Danny with $100 and ten days in jail for running a stop sign, we mostly feel empathy for Andy, who has to tolerate Danny’s rudeness, even as we know this punishment is perhaps excessive (and won’t be enforced).

Furthermore, Danny’s subsequent stint in jail is comfort-laden: home-cooked meals from Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and a cell door that doesn’t lock. The jail, the pilot suggests, can’t possibly be so bad, when citizens of Mayberry even voluntarily commit themselves to prison. As Danny stands and protests Andy’s position as the all-around law in these parts, a drunk older man stumbles in from the background and ambles up to Andy’s desk, declaring himself “under arrest.” The camera follows him as he locks himself into a cell, the next shot revealing a close-up of Danny and Margaret’s (Jean Hagen) confused expressions.

Reaction to man jailing himself

Danny and Margaret react to the man jailing himself.

At the height of Civil Rights violence and its attendant news coverage, Andy Griffith suggested an entirely different and virtually opposite vision of the white South, where even jails were friendly, despite nightly news reports providing clear evidence to the contrary. If, as Stuart Hall attests, “representation is a practice, a kind of ‘work,’ which uses material objects and effects,” where “the meaning depends, not on the material quality of a thing, but on its symbolic function,” then re-making the white Southern sheriff in the midst of civil rights news coverage on an entirely white sitcom worked to smooth over and re-imagine the symbolic function of Southern law enforcement, and by extension, the region [ (( Hall, Stuart. “The Work of Representation,” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997, pp.25-26. )) ] . Where the Southern sheriff by 1960 signaled all that was horrific and violent about the South, the pilot of Andy Griffith upends this image to envision both the Southern sheriff and Southern law enforcement more broadly as kind, compassionate, and above all fair. After all, Andy doesn’t even carry a gun and instead carries out Mayberry’s justice system with a gentle paternal touch.

Andy brings food to Danny

Andy brings Danny food in jail.

The set of complex and conflicting representational maneuvers enacted in “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” to re-make the South as safe provides a sustained example of how ideas about the police were tethered to ideas about America. This narrative smoothed over and obscured the cracks in the legal and political system which the Civil Rights Movement made glaringly visible. Notions of the police as the moral center still persist in contemporary pop culture and in many primetime police procedurals, from Law & Order to Major Crimes, Bones, Elementary, and the recently canceled Castle, to name just a few. More often than not, even when a corrupt cop plot arises, the episode resolves with the bad officer being jailed, killed, or at least dismissed. This plot device suggests that it is not the police system that is corrupt, but rather that bad policing is caused by bad individuals.

We must pay attention to contesting narratives, more often than not caught on tape, about systemic police violence–from the death of Sandra Bland in police custody to the murders of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, and too many more. Looking back at “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” we can see how the episode mocked racism and the attendant violence supported, enacted, and often condoned by Southern law enforcement. This vision was extremely effective in making the South safe for primetime viewers: Andy Griffith became one of the most successful television shows to ever air. The pilot, then, reminds us that police representations in popular culture still serve a dangerous ideological purpose that must be questioned, historicized, and, ultimately, re-imagined.

Image Credits:
All images are author’s screen grabs from Make Room For Daddy episode “Danny Meets Andy.”

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