Rethinking a classic

As I mentioned recently, I just took a long, cross-country trip with my family.  Said family includes my preschool-aged son, who is a young gentleman of prodigious energy and strong opinions.  Keeping him happy and placid during our various flights was a task of major importance, the better to ensure the happiness and placidity of everyone on the plane.

Voilà, the iPad.  A night or two before we left, the Better Half and I downloaded a selection of beloved movies for the Critter to watch.  In addition to two Pixar films and “The Princess and the Frog,” we chose Disney’s “Peter Pan,” one of his favorites.  As soon as portable electronic devices were allowed, it was quadruple-feature time!  (I feel compelled at this point to announce that the Critter acquitted himself admirably for the whole of our air travel, including the tedium of standing on various lines without electronic distraction.)

Except three of the four chosen movies got no love.  It was pretty much all “Peter Pan,” all the time.  He got very good at playing favored scenes over and over, and I saw no particular reason to make him watch anything else.  He was happy, I was happy, and so the Critter got to watch Smee shave a seagull’s backside repeatedly without interruption.

Now, I had never actually seen Disney’s “Peter Pan” all the way through.  When I was in residency, the clinics where I did my outpatient care had big televisions on which movies would be played, and “Peter Pan” was one of them.  I would sometimes linger and watch the “You can fly!” bit with the lilting song and the kids flying over London, which I found charming.  But that’s pretty much all I knew of the film, other than its status as a beloved childhood classic.

However, this trip afforded ample opportunity to better acquaint myself with it.  While I still haven’t seen the whole thing from start to finish, I’ve seen pretty much the whole thing piecemeal.  I’ve certainly seen enough to be staggered by its overt racism and (somewhat) subtler sexism.  I’d never seen either discussed before, and wouldn’t have thought to investigate before I bought the movie for my kid.

Midway through the film the plot involves the kidnapping of Tiger Lily, an Indian princess.  This is revealed by the character of her father, the Indian chief.  He speaks in the most horrifyingly hackneyed stereotypical fake Native American patois I have ever heard, complete with intermittent “um” suffixes.  It was painful to listen to, as was the charming ditty “What Makes the Red Man Red?“.

Then there are the female characters.  With the exception of the children’s mother (who never meets the titular character), every single female in the film is besotted with Peter Pan.  And they almost all display some form of sexual jealousy when confronted with another female character who might enjoy his attention (usually Wendy).  Indeed, both Tinkerbell and the mermaids display nearly homicidal levels of jealousy, trying to dash her against rocks or drown her (respectively) and only failing because of Pan’s intervention.  Whether or not Wendy’s taking on a maternal role with the Lost Boys may or may not be sexist (YMMV), but the female characters’ incapability of tolerating any rivals for Pan’s attention seems undeniably so.

This raises a couple of questions for me.  One of the things I enjoy doing with my kids is reading them books (though Squirrel is too much of a squirmer to get much out of it now), and as they get older I plan to read them a few that I loved as a child.  Among them are a few from an earlier era than include language and stories that I would consider racist or sexist, but the stories are of sufficient quality that I still want to share them.  However, I plan to read them to the kids when they’re old enough that I can address the issue directly.  Rather than expunge them entirely from my children’s experience, I’ll discuss the bad along with the good.

I suppose ideally I would have found some age-appropriate way of addressing the racist and sexist themes in “Peter Pan” the first time I saw them.  Let’s hope expedience didn’t cause me to miss a critical window to debunk pernicious ideas.  (I doubt it.)  The next time we happen to watch it together, I will see if I can squeeze in a short comment or two about the way the Indians talk or the women act, and whether or not Native Americans and women really talk and act that way in real life.  Perhaps I’m overthinking the whole thing, but I still feel like it’s important to address bigotry, even if it’s outmoded and even if my kids are small.

I also find myself wondering if I should have been more attentive to what my child watches, and if I should have known better.  We try to be judicious with what our son watches, keeping it limited in quantity and restricted to age-appropriate material.  Disney has a checkered history with some of its animated features, and perhaps I should have given more thought to its treatment of Native Americans (whose presence in the film I only vaguely remembered at all).  But unlike “Dumbo” or even “The Lion King” I’d simply never heard of there being anything problematic about “Peter Pan” (though a cursory Google search indicates the issue has been raised before if I’d thought to look).

Popular media is full of beloved movies that are, in retrospect, embarrassing in some way.  I remember a (straight) friend prevailing on me to watch “Revenge of the Nerds” with him (I’d never seen it), and then having to reconcile his remembered affection for the film with the offensively fey gay character, which he hadn’t really thought much of when he first saw it decades before.  (I wasn’t all that worried about it.)  Attitudes change, generally for the better in my opinion.  Unless we want to constantly cull things from our culture (which I am loath to endorse), we have to address the mixed bag of good and bad that they will appear to be from the perspective of our contemporary vantage point.

But it still leaves me a bit stunned that something so obviously racist was made such a relatively short time ago, and is still so universally embraced.  For all the talk about whether or not Washington’s football team or Atlanta’s baseball team need new names, I would honestly have expected more attention paid to the much more overtly problematic content of a movie that has spawned a whole “fairies” franchise of its own.  America’s attention to such things remains quite selective, it seems, and makes me wonder how much more attention I should be paying than I have up to this point.

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159 thoughts on “Rethinking a classic

  1. I think that any fault’s with the Disney movie of Peter Pan are also going to be present in the original play and books by Barry. The original works by Barry may or may not be worse. Its been decades since I saw the Disney version and I never read the Barry’s Peter Pan but they came out in the very early part of the 20th century during the height of the British Empire so I can easily see them being worse than the Disney movie.

    I really don’t have any solution to this problem. A lot of classic stories are going to come across kind of bad because of the beliefs of the time are very different from our own. As you pointed out, things from as recently as the 1980s can come across kind of bad. You could either avoid old books, movies, and TV in their entirely or stick to the things that are more insinct with modern sensibiltiies or at least non-offensive to them. We can also follow the BBC approach and change our cultural past to conform to contemporary social mores and tastes like they did with the Arthur mythos in Merlin or Robin Hood in Robin Hood. The last approach is just to enjoy the classics and shrug away any problematic parts.

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  2. Racism was pretty rampant in Disney cartoons of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. If you liked Dumbo as a kid, don’t watch it now! Or Song of the South.

    None of them are as bad as Tom and Jerry or the old Loony Toons cartoons, though.

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    • Huh, I’ve seen most of Dumbo fairly recently and don’t remember anything weird. But I didn’t watch the whole thing and was only half-paying attention (the “pink elephants” scene is still MESSED UP).

      The Native Americans in Peter Pan, OTOH….wow. You CANNOT do that today. I was kind of surprised they didn’t trim it from the broadcast, this was on Disney Channel.

      OT, but my kid just started pre-school. We have tried, really hard, not to call playground equipment things like “jungle gym” and “monkey bars” because it was my understanding those names had fallen from fashion. But he was telling me about his new playground and mentioned it had a “jungle gym”. I’m not sure if I just slipped up and used the word myself at some point (in my mind, that’s still what they are, and probably always will be) or if my understanding of the current preferred terms is off, or if he heard it from another kid or something.

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      • I’m unfamiliar with the etymology of either jungle gym or monkey bars. The former is rarely used in my experience, often replaced with “climber”. Monkey bars is still commonly said in all the schools I’ve been in.

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      • “Particularly the coffee scene between the kids.”

        Or the bit with the subtitled jive, even though the whole *point* of that bit was satire on white people’s desire to sanitize reality. “sheeeeeeeit” subtitled as “Golly!”, sort of thing.

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      • We have tried, really hard, not to call playground equipment things like “jungle gym” and “monkey bars” because it was my understanding those names had fallen from fashion.

        “Fallen from fashion” being a euphemism for “considered racist,” or fallen from fashion like “gee willikers?” I’m pretty sure that they got those names because children climb and swing from them like monkeys.

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      • The Aristocats has some really obtrusive-to-modern-eyes drunk jokes, and a pervasive acceptance that OF COURSE everyone would have ‘that drunk uncle’ who can’t walk straight or remember half the things that happen to him and isn’t that adorable?

        Oh, and the treatment of the Siamese cat in the jazz band (FACEPALM). The guy who voices the male ginger cat is doing a kind of obtrusive John Wayne impression half the time that distracted me, too.

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      • – a euphemism. I was given to understand that some people considered the terms potentially offensive. As Kazzy says, they usually seem to be referred to as “climbers” now.

        I presume if I was at the playground with people of varying races and I started referring to the kids as “monkeys” or talking about monkeys & jungles, some people might take offense (even though that offense would be in no way intended – ALL kids act like monkeys, and I call mine “monkeys” all the time).

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    • Besides the infamous Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, which Looney Toons are racist? I think the even more infamous Song of the South by Disney takes the racist cake.

      Walt Disney was a notorious anti-Semite and racist. The gang at Termite Terrace were largely Jewish. Hanna Barbera were Jewish.

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      • Hanna-Barbera was a Jew and an Italian I think. Woody Woodpecker was created by an Italian-American.

        Whether Walt Disney was an anti-Semite or not is up to debate. Months ago, Tablet Magazine actually had a story trying to determine whether or not this was correct or what were the origins of this accusation. We do know that Walt Disney gave a lot of money to Jewish charities, which is kind of unlikely for an anti-Semite and that he did employ many Jews, also highly unlikely from an anti-Semite and he lived at a time where he could hire and fire for whatever reason he liked. The evidence of Disney’s alleged anti-Semitism is thin beyond the cartoon version of the Three Pigs that he made.

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      • What’s interesting about Speedy is that IIRC some Mexican-Americans were unhappy with his retirement – after all, Speedy’s the hero – fast, smart, always outwits the cats and saves his mouse friends, always gets the girl (“Speedy Gonzalez is friends with EVERYBODY’S seester.”)

        I think it was the non-Speedy Mexican mice that were the problem (as I recall, they were slow, and often drunk).

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      • My father taught English in a secondary school in Niger. One of his students handed in a story which echoed one of the Bre’r Rabbit stories. All sorts of theories are floating around about the origins of these stories but they are ancient and common.

        Years ago, I entertained a quixotic notion, wrote a screenplay based on the original Joel Chandler Harris stories. A ferocious old griot who despite a life of slavery still held onto his dignity befriends a white boy. The boy is not the child of the slave owner, just the son of a sharecropper, who in those times weren’t much above the slaves in social status, certainly below the haughty children of the slave owner. He’s a stable boy, good with animals, the butt of jokes by the highfalutin’ children in the Big House.

        The stories are told in firelight, down in the old griot’s cabin. As each story begins, there’s a fade into an African scene, the griot as a young boy in a magical world where the animals can talk. The aborigines of Australia would call it the Dream Time. The script starts just before the commencement of the Civil War. As each story ends, we’re thrust back into the world of Louisiana during the Civil War, progressing in stages through the war.

        The stable boy’s father is killed at Shiloh. Times are very hard for everyone, but the griot maintains his dignity, for he has known hard times all his life. It all ends with the arrival of Union troops, bummers who loot the plantation. Just desserts for all, the griot has lived long enough, like Bre’r Rabbit, to have been thrown into the Briar Patch.

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      • – Not all pirates spoke in such a stereotypical manner; however, limited educational access (and in Silver’s case, a well-known childhood speech impediment, for which he was often the subject of mockery whenever he requested additional helpings of “arrrtichoke” at Miss Camilla’s Home For Wayward Urchins) often conspired to keep these working-class men on the outskirts of polite society, and their speech patterns reflected that.

        I would appreciate it if you could bear this in mind before perpetuating hurtful, outdated, and frankly offensive caricatures of hardworking seamen everywhere.

        Sincerely,
        Shoutin’ Randal Bones
        President, Pirate Anti-Defamation League (PADL)

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  3. Disney release Peter Pan in 1953, thats sixty years ago. Peter Pan first appeared in the world in 1904, forty-nine years before the Disney movie. The world of 1953 is much closer to the world of 1904 than the world of 2013 is to 1953. Despite all the economic, social, and technological changes between 1904 and 1953, there were lots of continuities. The colonial empires were still pretty intact in 1953 and would be till the early and mid-1960s. Racism, sexism, and homophobia were rampant and much more accepted in polite society. The Sexual Revolution did not happen and the acceptible norm was still no sex before marriage. As we talked about recently, the dressing your station was much more common and the vestiges of high society still existed in the Western world even though they were dying.

    In 2013, there are practically no direct and obvious continuities between the society of 1953 and ours let alone the society of 1904. The imperial empires, at least in a formal sense, are long gone. Racism, sexism, and homophobia while still existing are at least in large chunks of the world seen as bad and not supported in polite society. In 1953, racists in the United States could simply say they don’t like African-Americans and get elected to office. Racist politicians have to mannuever around the issue and at least make ritualistic denounciations of racism. High society as understood in 1953 and 1904 has basically disappeared from the West even though its remnants still exist. We are much more open sexually and no sex before marriage is no longer the norm even though some people would deeply love it to be.

    So even though Disney’s Peter Pan was released within the living memory of many people, the world to which it was released in might as well been more than a century ago. You can find more commonalities between the society of 1953 and 1904 than you can between 2013 and 1953. It was a logn time ago.

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  4. Man, you are right in my zone here!

    First, I think the reason more attention hasn’t been garnered by PP’s blatant racism is that the movie isn’t particularly popular among kids today. Very few of my students are even familiar with the character and are just as likely to have encountered him in other versions of the story than in the Disney version.

    Second, I think the approach you plan to take is the ideal one. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) published a book on developing an Anti-Bias Curriculum (ABC). They gave a checklist for evaluating children’s literature for bias. It is pretty thorough, noting things such as stereotypical representations but also more subtle things, such as which characters have agency and by what cultural norms is success defined. Going through the checklist, you quickly realize, “Holy crap, there won’t be any books left!” But the ABC notes that you shouldn’t toss out the baby with the bathwater. Some books have value in spite of their warts and if you are prepared to address the warts, can still be meaningful additions to a collection. Thankfully, there is more attention being paid to this issue and with some sleuthing, books that not only avoid these pratfalls but which actively resist them are out there; they just tend not to become dominant pop culture phenomena.

    Third, even Disney’s supposed “diverse” films are often full of ugliness. Some people point at Aladdin as a turn away from the racist past because, hey, it featured brown people. Unfortunately, the titular character was essentially a re-drawn Prince Charming with a slight tan while the villain was given a much darker complexion and stereotypically Arabic features. Oh, and the opening song where they sing about cutting off people’s hands? That is just flat out inappropriate for children. But, well, brown people! YAY! DIVERSITY!

    Good luck on the journey that is children and pop culture/mass media.

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    • I think Disney is in a damned if they do and damned if they don’t category when it comes to diversity issues. They are simply such a large and powerful presence that millions will find something to complain about. My understanding is that Aladdin wasn’t popular in the Arab world simply because the prominent view is that all the Arabian Night stuff is nothing more than orientalism. If Disney turned to Japanese mythology or folktales and given us Disney’ Momotaro, the Japanese would have eaten it up though. I’ve known people who complained that Disney shouldn’t have dumbed down the Greek myths in Hercules even though Greek myths are really not for kids. The Little Mermaid is attacked by feminists because it is all about a woman doing something to get a man.

      Disney simply can’t win, ever.

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      • I don’t think it is that they can’t win as much as it is they define winning by making money. Which they do, almost every time.

        So if the Arab world rejected Aladdin but it made millions at the box office, I don’t get the impression they cared all that much.

        I mean, plenty of people are able to craft stories that aren’t blatantly offensive.

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      • Pixar is anti-robot. In Wall-E, they deployed the stereotype that robots are mute, depressive, and lustful.

        Actually, on a more serious note, I think Disney’s causal, small-bore racism and sexism (not just in the big movies, but I seem to remember the smaller shows they did were the same) is an interesting and important bit of history. It may very well be a good way to show kids (with discussion, of course) what racism and sexism looked (and maybe still looks) like.

        And the nature of the racism and sexism changes over the years, too.

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  5. Here is one thing I will say about cartons that is somewhat OT.

    People tend to be Looney Tunes lovers or Disney lovers.

    I hated Disney cartons when I was a kid and still do. I loved Bugs Bunny though. There was an anarchist and bohemian spirit to Looney Tunes. Disney always struck me as drab and conformist.

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  6. Speaking of reading. I highly recommend these books. I loved them when I was a kid:

    Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C O’Brien.

    D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.

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  7. Sometimes even the same character or series will trip you up at different times. I loved the Tintin books when I was a kid, but there are some that have some borderline stuff, and some that I wouldn’t give to kids under any circumstances (I didn’t even know “Tintin in the Congo” was a thing until I hit my late teens and was idly reading Wikipedia–it’s no longer published).

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  8. The approach you mention is the approach we took with our kids (teach rather than censor, assuming it’s good enough otherwise to be worth it). But on reflection, I think this kind of thing would’ve had pretty close to no impact on our kids regardless of how we handled it — a stray bit of racial or religious stereotyping here or there could never overcome the influence of the family, community, and culture they were raised in. If either of them had ever uncritically accepted such a stereotype, the first time they referenced it among any peers or adults would’ve brought a swift correction.

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    • “…the influence of the family, community, and culture they were raised in.”

      But the problem is that subtler sexist and racist tropes permeate much of our society, which overlaps with family, community, and culture to varying degrees.

      Do you know how hard it is to find good children’s book that feature fleshed-out characters of color but which aren’t explicitly about the experiences of people of color? Books that just show people of color doing all the things the “regular” books full of white people show? It’s, like, really, really hard. You have Eztra Jack Keats, Donald Crews (though a lot of his books are character-less), a few others. But they are still few and far between. Couple that with how people of color tend to be portrayed in other media (e.g., criminals on the news, bad guys on cop shows) and kids slowly internalize an impression based on this. Not because the kids are bad or racist, but because they are doing what kids do: generalizing about the world based on the input provided. Extrapolate that out over several years and you have big effects.

      It can be resisted but takes pretty active efforts. The whole “No neutral on a moving train” idea.

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      • Well, unless your parents happen to be penguins. And even that is still sort of about gay penguins.

        But, yea, spot on.

        Along those same lines, I haven’t found any particularly good resources for discussing with children the scientific advances with regards to child rearing.

        “Well, yes, technically everyone has a mom because everyone is born from a women but Joey doesn’t have a mom because he has two dads and, yes, he is related to both of them because one of his dad’s sisters gave one of her eggs to Joey’s non-mom so that… argh, just go out and play.”

        I joke, but it is a real issue.

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      • Oi, and while I think of it, have you read ‘King and King’ or ‘King and King and Family’? I had a child of two dads bring in the former because it was a special book for his family, but I couldn’t bring to read it with the class.

        The plot of the former is that a king ultimately marries another king because he is displeased with all the queens. In the former, while on their honeymoon, they have an eery sense of being followed before returning home and finding that a little jungle girl stowed away in their luggage and, together, they make a family.

        The books seemed to be written with a positive intent, and were perhaps interpreted poorly from their native Dutch, but they always seemed to be promoting the idea that gay people are gay because of dissatisfaction with the opposite sex and that gay families get babies from the jungle, with no attention paid to their birth parents.

        But maybe I’m being over sensitive. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

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      • ,

        I wouldn’t disagree with anything you wrote, but I think you’re kind of changing the subject here — I was specifically thinking of the sorts of older stereotypes that we all agree would never be tolerated if the given work was created today. My kids never for a moment thought that Native Americans said “how” or “ugh” or any of that stuff — starting in first grade they were going on field trips to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and attending Schemitzuns. The idea of gender equality was firmly embedded in their schooling and churching, and it wasn’t long before they were even more sensitive than we were (if such is possible!!) to the portrayal of stereotypical gender roles and traits.

        Of course, this experience is certainly not society-wide, but I’d guess that the environment that Doc Saunders is raising his kids in is broadly similar to ours.

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    • Interestingly I have mixed feelings on the Bechdel test.

      I think it is good for discussions on the movie industry in the aggregate but don’t think it should be applied to all movies. There are a lot of great movies that will fail that Bechdel Test or any other tickeybox test that can be devised.

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      • I just looked it up: The Russo Test. I applaud the aims: more LGBTQ characters that are not defined by that attribute (Russell has talked about this, I think). I don’t know that it is as fair as the Bechtel Test, though. The Bechtel Test works, in my mind, because it talks about something that the vast majority of movies ought to have, but too few do. Which is the case because women are half the population. LGBTQ are considerably less than half of the population, and it’s not as identifiable a trait a being a woman (by which I mean, there could be two gay characters talking about what the CTU should do next to stop the next terrorist plot, but we may or may not know they’re gay because it doesn’t come up. It says less about a movie that it doesn’t have it in there. Even if more should

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      • They did and this is where I think we get into tickeyboxism.

        These kind of tests are good for the industry overall but not necessarily great as discussion for individual movies or other pieces of work. Does a piece of work need to meet every tickey box test? Should great movies be held in less esteem for not meeting a tickey box test or two like The Verdict or 12 Angry Men?

        What if a movie meets the GLAAD test but fails the Bechdel test because it is about gay men?

        This is where the free speech side of me comes in and is possibly in conflict with the social justice side of me. I understand and support the need for inclusion. I also don’t like telling artists what to do or what they can and cannot explore.

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      • They did. Like ND, I have mixed feelings about these sorts of tests. I can understand why some people like them but a lot of really good art wouldn’t pass them. A good chunk of Shakespeare would fail the Bechdel test yet somehow I do not think that we should get rid of Shakespeare. Sometimes you have to let art be art and not worry too much about anything else. Otherwise you are stuck with aesthetic Stalinism.

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      • This is one of my stronger disagreements with Alyssa Rosenberg (whom I don’t like much as a critic usually)

        She is right about white-washing. A live action Akira should be cast with Asian actors. Anything less is immoral and unethical. Same with the Last Airbender movie.

        However, she does not know enough about casting and film and her social justice mode makes her suspicious of casting directors. There are probably times be suspicious of casting directors and PR departments but sometimes to often they are really casting the best audition for the role. Casting is a very complicated and tricky art. It is not only the person for the role but how they interact with the rest of the cast in terms of on-screen performance and being a team player.

        My artsy side makes me want to defend my people.

        Also it is acting!!! The entire idea of acting and theatre and film is that it allows people to be what they are not. Most actors love this about the field. We don’t expect actors to be really master criminals. Nor do we expect them to perform surgery or be able to write a winning legal brief. A heterosexual actor should be able to play a gay character convincingly and with sympathy and vice-versa.

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      • To me, the thing about the Bechtel test is not what it says about any particular movie (and those who talk about TBT expressly say as much). But it’s about something missing from movies with too much frequency. It’s about the pattern, more than the specific black and white dots.

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      • Will,

        I don’t know all the in’s and out’s of the Russo test, but my sense is that it is intended to be used to judge movies that include LGBTQ characters, not all movies.

        More of a, “IF you include LGBTQ characters, you get a thumbs up if you flesh them out like straight characters,” than a, “You get a thumbs down if you don’t include fleshed out LGBTQ characters.” But, that’s just how I would look to use it.

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      • ND, I had similar feelings about the entire movement to have the new Doctor Who be played by a woman or a person of color. A lot of the articles advocating for a female Doctor Who or a Doctor Who of color seemed to come across more as a parody of liberalism than actual liberalism. I also thought that in the new Doctor Who, which is much more sexualized than the old Doctor Who, this all could come across as “well meaning but.”

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      • Kazzy, that seems fair.

        Diversity is a hard thing, from a writing perspective. There is a thin line between relying too much on a character’s racial or gender identity… and just “painting a white character black.” I have decided to sort of seek diversity-within-diversity. Where you have some characters that their racial identity is critical to their characterization, and others where it is more incidental. In the latter case, often taking a character that I had, by default, considered to be white or male and thought “You know, there’s nothing about this character that makes it necessary for them to have this particular demographic profile” and then going from there.

        One of my favorite female cop characters of all time is Claudette Wymms from The Shield. I found out later that they had iniitially intended it to be Claude Wymms but then thought of the perfect (female) casting choice (CCH Pounder). And so you get a female cop character who is definitely female, but not written to be A Female Character.

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      • That’s a thoughtful approach, Will.

        I think the way it is often done nowadays is troublesome for all folks. If black folks are only written as BLACK FOLKS, that is troublesome. LIkewise, if white folks are only written as FOLKS, that is also troublesome. The latter scenario is often ignored, but it contributes to the tendency of white people to not see themselves as having a race.

        Call me crazy, but I always thought “Scrubs” did a really great job of handling the race, ethnicity, and gender of their characters. Some episodes/story arcs dealt explicitly with their demographics (including the white male lead), including riffs that developed between the characters because of them, while others could have had characters exchanging roles in the story without a miss. Just a really nice balance. Not perfect, but really good.

        If I remember correctly, the opening lines of the show are JD asking Turk if, when singing along to a rap song, he can sing the N-word… but before he even got that far, Turk told him, flat out, he couldn’t. A pretty ballsy move (if, indeed, memory serves that that was the opening salvo).

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      • Mike,
        … poisoning them?

        Dr. Who can be black white yellow or red (I really don’t mind), but for the love of g-d, keep him British!

        ND,
        I’m always curious how much control the casting folks have. Whedon has a “casting call” for underappreciated young actors for the new avengers movie. D&D (from GoT) really put their foot down on not casting Michael Anderson.

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      • I don’t see the apparent race of the Dr making any difference. Seems like just a matter of time until we get a non Caucasian regeneration. Especially on a show which goes out of its way to show healthy racial balance.

        The woman idea is great. This will completely change the dynamic of the show and the role of the companions, and even the relationship to the TARDIS. Great idea for a new creative angle on the most interesting show of our generation. What this leads to with the Dr’s wife is another question.

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    • Every time I hear about the Bechdel Test it seems to have evolved further. “It’s a movie with more than one female character!” “It’s a movie with more than one female character and they have a conversation!” “…with no male characters present!” “…and it’s not about any of the male characters!” “…and it’s not about relationships with men!” “…or relationships at all!”

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  9. Popular media is full of beloved movies that are, in retrospect, embarrassing in some way.

    And I said, what about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”?
    She said, yes I think I remember that film,
    And as I recall, we both kinda liked it,
    Even though Mickey Rooney’s scenes made everybody cringe
    .

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  10. May I submit a minority report? There is a difference between bigotry, racism, sexism, etc., on the one hand, and simple insensitivity on the other. I also recently rewatched Peter Pan with our daughter, and there was an acknowledgement between her parents that the depiction of the “red man” was insensitive. But why go further than that? In the 1950s, Indians, pirates, mermaids, fairies, these were the major inhabitants of a child’s imagination. What supposed animus did the animators, screenwriters, actors, and producers harbor in using these characters, perhaps sometimes in ways we now find obviously insensitive, to delight children and sell movie tickets? None, I submit. Choosing to cite “bigotry” when “insensitivity” will do only supports the view on the right that folks on the left actively seek to maintain a racially charged atmosphere where social and cultural conflict may erupt at any time. I don’t impute that motive to Russell, I hasten to add. I just think its part of recent cultural conditioning to opt, even if subconsciously, for words that carry allegations of evil intent.

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    • This seems like splitting hairs. What animus did they have? Well they may not have been out to hurt whatever minority but that doesn’t make their depiction any less “insensitive” or bad. That a negative stereotype was commonly held is a reason why it was done, often thoughtlessly, but doesn’t make it any less negative.

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      • The biggest issue, it seems to me, is that these were groups whom they could treat entirely stereotypically, because these groups didn’t have a voice. It may not be animus, but it is something almost as pernicious, to perpetuate a mindset in which the voiceless are lampooned while the voiced are treated with infinitely more texture and nuance.

        I don’t know if it matters whether we call this bigotry or insensitivity. Within a certain cultural climate, they amount to the same thing.

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      • In some ways, I think it’s good to use these words to describe old Disney, because it helps to show just how pervasive these… insensitivities were. I mean, if children’s cartoons (or adult cartoons that we can show children, as they often were) have these insensitivities on display, so casually, often as the comic relief, how bad must have the real monsters have been?

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      • True there are only so many words. We might choose to use different words on this. We agree on the general concept of the badness of the message. Maybe we could also agree, Tim, that if some people use the B word that doesn’t mean they are “folks on the left actively seek to maintain a racially charged atmosphere where social and cultural conflict may erupt at any time”

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      • Having thought it over, I agree with Tim on the word-choice issue. I think bigotry ought to imply a more aggressive act or an intent. Whether it’s carelessness or anger that causes someone to break a dish doesn’t mean that the dish is any less broken, but I think it does matter in the characterization of how or why the dish was broken and the breaker of the dish. And I think that principle applies here, as well.

        That doesn’t lessen the damage, but I think it is a more accurate characterization.

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      • Disney, especially the earlier stuff comes from an age where white people did monstrous stuff to people of other races and other white people were rather casual about it. Some of the background culture is bound to be such that in this day and age, it would represent something that is kind of monstrous and the urge to morally curate the content of what our own kids see in their formative years can expectably lead to some harsh language.

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      • I’m willing to call it something other than bigotry, but “insensitivity” seems too innocuous. I mean, I’m insensitive to plenty of racial and gender issues, but you don’t see me putting out stuff like Song of the South. At that level of insensitivity, there must be a stronger word that we can use while leaving ourselves the ability to make linguistic distinctions between nasty insensitivity and monstrous racism.

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      • Oh, I’m not arguing that they isn’t culpability involved. To use my dish example, carelessness still implies culpability.

        I hear ya. Insensitivity does seem a big on the weak side, as bigotry is on the strong. I think insensitivity is a little closer, but it’s hard to say. At the very least, it’s a particularly offensive insensitivity.

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    • insensitivity is a soft kind of bigotry or at least it is the kind of thing that doesn’t help foster a good understanding of the other. A lot of bigoted behaviour stems from people not understanding what is culturally offensive. So, if a person seriously lacks the relevant kind of awareness of what offends he comes across sounding like one of those colonial types. There is a type of ugliness to it that does seem intuitively akin to bigotry. A more detailed analysis may explain why sounding like a colonial master is bigotry-like or in fact a kind of bigoted action independently of the particular animus or lack thereof. Sometimes its not that people lack the relevant awareness. Sometimes, people don’t care and that takes a kind of animus to pull off. Sometimes a lack of awareness is not entirely innocent. By the time a person is of a particular age, the reason why that person lacks the awareness of the sensitivities given opportunities to have interacted with minorities is that the person may have had some kind of animus which kept them from interacting with and encountering the culture and ethnicity in question.

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    • Hmmmm… let me think this through.

      Perhaps “bigotry” was too strong a word? I will readily concede that I have no reason to believe the animators and writers of “Peter Pan” wished Native Americans harm. If that is the necessary bar to pass for using that specific word, then I withdraw it.

      But I’m not sure I would use “insensitivity,” either. It implies, at least to me, a certain degree of being unintentional. People are insensitive, but not deliberately. It’s through a lack of awareness or some other understandable flaw in their perception.

      The Indian characters in the movie are buffoons. Their speech is risible, their heritage a colorful little just so story. (For the record, I can’t wait to read my kids “Just So Stories,” fully aware of the racism within.) The people responsible for depicting them thusly were making them the butt of jokes, which seems rather worse than mere insensitivity to me.

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    • The problem is that “insensitivity” is a symptom of the greater cultural and social factors that marginalize the groups being portrayed in a negative light. It’s a systemic thing. It’s a sort of bigotry that exists despite it not being a conscious choice, and that’s what makes it so pervasive. You don’t need evil intent to do evil.

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  11. Good grief. Peter Pan is just loaded up with characters on loan from a dozen children’s novels of the time. Tinker Bell is straight out of the Andrew Lang fairy story books, tremendously popular children’s books. Captain Hook is based on the entirely real Oruc Reis the Ottoman pirate, Barbarossa, complete with hook for a hand. Smee is out of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the Crocodile out of Kipling’s Just So Stories. Peter Pan and Wendy are also archetypes but just a bit more original.

    The Red Indians were inspired by stories written by an actual Native American, Charles Eastman, a Dakota, for St. Nicholas Magazine, then a must-read for every boy and girl.

    Legends take on a life of their own. We mustn’t grumble too much in hopes the Red Indians would get better treatment in children’s books. The Red Indians represented freedom and fit into Neverland perfectly. The Disney version is dated and embarrassing but for crissakes, if we look back on it with a grimace, I don’t see any reason to stop children from watching it, or treating Disney’s Peter Pan as if it taught hatred for native peoples.

    The novel really is much better than the Disney movie. It makes a fine bedtime story book. As a child, I was tremendously attached to the book.

    “I don’t know if you have ever seem a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.”

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    • I don’t see any reason to stop children from watching it, or treating Disney’s Peter Pan as if it taught hatred for native peoples.

      Neither do I. Where did I say otherwise?

      Disney’s “Peter Pan” most certainly laughs at Native Americans, however, and neither should we elide that reality when introducing it to our children.

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      • Does Disney’s Peter Pan laugh at Native Americans on its own accord or is this just a problem of the source material? Disney’s works are adaptations from fairytales, mythology, and literature.* Back when Peter Pan was adapted into a movie, eliminating the problematic elements of fairy tales wasn’t the style yet. The faults of Disney’s Peter Pan should be more properly attributed to J.M. Barrie.

        *I would really like to why Disney thought turning the Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame into an animated family movie was a good idea. All their other adaptations, even Hercules, were less problematic and more kid-friendly in their original forms.

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      • I don’t know the source material, so I can’t speak to your question. (100% with you on “Hunchback,” though.) It’s an important question, I suppose, when one is trying to locate moral responsibility for the racism. (I somehow doubt that the song is in the original.) But when discussing the end result, however, it’s kind of moot.

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      • Russel, the songs are original to the Disney movie but from what I’ve read, Peter Pan is one of the more faithful adaptations done by company. I suppose my point is this, Peter Pan the movie came out in 1953. These sort of things were just accepted at the time. They are still immoral but most things aren’t ahead of the their time. Changes were beggining to happen but as I pointed out, the world of 1953 has much more in common with the world of 1904, when Barrie first published Peter Pan, than it does today. Read my second post on this thread. We really shouldn’t be surprised that works from the past aren’t really that enlightened when it comes to issues of gender, race, and sexuality. Especially if they are mass market family entertainment, which always hews closely to what is and is not socially acceptible. Who weren’t going to get something that meets current ideas about race and gender from Disney in 1953.

        That leaves you two choices. You can either prevent your son from watching Peter Pan or you could allow him to watch but explain why parts of it are bad.

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      • Your words and mine do not mean the same thing. Wondering why something that is so flagrantly racist (which it is, whether or not it is simply being true to its source material) is not more widely acknowledged as such is not the same thing as stopping children from watching it (I have not stopped my own from watching it, for example) nor do I think it “taught hatred.”

        What it does, really quite obviously, is make fun of a particular population of people, playing on stereotypes openly. And it was surprising to me that, in contrast to films like “Dumbo” that have taken their share of criticism for similar offenses, that “Peter Pan” has not had more negative attention given to its own racist content.

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      • You want your fairy stories to be pleasant fictions. Fairy stories don’t work that way. Unhappily, they are full of horrible people, often supernaturally horrible episodes of cannibalism, mutilation, transmogrification, retribution, execution. Abuse of every sort. Whatever you do with your children, do not let your little darlings around an unexpurgated copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Andrew Lang’s. The results may be too horrible to contemplate.

        Charles Eastman the Dakota wrote those stories and inspired a generation of children playing at Red Indians. Barbara Tuchman once said the hallmark of the bad historian this: he looks at the past through the lenses of the present. The myths stare back at us, not little tales of edification nor yet amusement. They are the stones which make up the mountains of the past. You complain about Disney’s Red Indians. My complaints with Disney go far deeper than yours: he played with fire, conjuring up old myths and attempted to prettify them. Those myths did not stay very pretty, any more than a grizzly bear in a gingham smock.

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      • First of all, friend, I do not care at all for the sarcastic tenor of your comments. I’m not entirely sure why you feel it is warranted, but it seems needlessly churlish.

        Nor do you really have standing to assert what I want my children’s fictions to contain. That’s not really my point. My point is that Disney’s “Peter Pan” is, as far as I knew, treated as a wholly unobjectionable little entertainment, and I was quite surprised by the racism therein, which I’d never seen anybody acknowledge before. (I also find it interesting that nobody has had anything to say about the sexism, which is almost as flagrant.)

        Please do not presume to tell me what you think I’d want my “little darlings” (use of which I assume you meant to set my teeth on edge?) to watch or read or see. I am quite capable of making my own decisions about that, thanks, and I know what’s in the original Grimm. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t watch “Peter Pan,” merely that it surprises me that very little attention is paid to its overt mockery of Native Americans.

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      • Needlessly churlish? A few choice adjectives of my own come to mind, all of which I will reserve for posts which deserve them. You spent very considerable time and 1138 words to Rethink this particular Classic, very weak sauce indeed for a topic which deserved far better, the bowdlerisation and prettifying of myth for the supposed benefit of little children. It is exactly what Barbara Tuchman described, looking at the past through the lenses of the present. It has been my observation children learn to interact with other people by example, not from books. If parents practise decency and kindness, their children will also be decent and kind.

        The myths do not care. The Red Indians (Charles Eastman’s phrase, not mine) were people very different from us. But not all that different: they waged war on each other with genocidal ferocity, practised their own forms of racism and sexism and many another un-Pee Cee sin. Charles Eastman did his best to promote the virtues of the Red Indian. His books were around my house and my children read them. They, too, idolised the Red Indian and thought him a very fine, if ferocious, human being.

        You were very near the mark when you wondered if you were overthinking all this. There are no age-appropriate myths, that much I can tell you for a sovereign fact.

        Political Correctness in all its forms is so much lying edict from the Ministry of Truth. I hate Political Correctness and hate all who preach it. If the myths are to teach us anything, it is that mankind does not change much over incredibly long periods of time. Under our fine clothes, we are the same sorts of monsters we were before. But the myths teach us a greater truth, that we are all voyagers, all travellers, all in need of the kindness of strangers. If magic seems to have retreated from the world, if heroes are hard to find, they always were a bit scarce and the world is still in need of them.

        Faces along the bar
        Cling to their average day:
        The lights must never go out,
        The music must always play,
        All the conventions conspire
        To make this fort assume
        The furniture of home;
        Lest we should see where we are,
        Lost in a haunted wood,
        Children afraid of the night
        Who have never been happy or good.

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      • Righto. We’re talking past each other and you persist in missing my point entirely. You have yours to make (about which I actually have no objection) and I have mine, and they really have very little to do with each other.

        So I’ll put this aside, tip my hat to you and say that I agree that it’s best to let the classics stand on their own without trying to pretty them up for contemporary audiences, and hope that next time we chat about something it will come to a more agreeable conclusion.

        God damn me for a fool, I am struck by a need to see if I can’t get this right, one last time.

        My point is not “Your kids shouldn’t watch ‘Peter Pan’ because it is racist.” If you sift through the comments I have made, you will see that I have stated outright that I plan to read books to my kids that I know full well are racist and sexist. If you want to know a movie my kids won’t watch if I have a say, it will be the horrible Disney “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which is basically an animated lie with an ending nothing like the real one.

        It is not my point that children must be shielded from this movie or others of its ilk. My point is that the movie is racist, and it is necessary to say so. We do not become a better society if we fail to look back on where we’ve been and speak honestly about our failures. By all means, watch and read things from bygone eras evincing attitudes that would make our contemporary hair stand on end, but make sure that as you do so you speak openly about what is both right and wrong therein. And I don’t think it has been widely-enough acknowledged that this particular film mocks Native Americans, unlike (for example) “Dumbo,” which has rightly been criticized for its pretty remarkable racism.

        Watch the film. Let your kids watch the film. But call it what it is.

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      • That’s a sensible enough statement. For all that JM Barrie did to prettify the myths and Disney even more so, every attempt to do so only dresses the Grizzly Bear in the Gingham Smock. The ugliness of the original peeks out, doesn’t it?

        The putting of Wendy on a pedestal, the sickening sweetness of the Lost Boys building her a house, Peter Pan’s statement about one girl being worth twenty boys, the cluelessness of the parents — especially the latter, we see a good deal of that nasty business these days. How many television shows or movies depict parents who are involved in their children’s lives, play with them, enjoy their children’s company? Almost none. Instead, it’s smart-ass kids making smart-ass remarks to clueless and disconnected parents.

        Some children do love their parents. Mine loved me. I don’t want to fight with you about this. You’re very near the mark, there is something to your complaint. But I’m attempting in my own way, to peel back your annoyance with the stereotyping to point you at the actual problem: the Grizzly Bear in a Gingham Smock is still a grizzly bear. Those who would conjure up myths seldom find willing servants.

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  12. Bummer I am late to this but here’s my two cents: I was a Looney Tunes guy growing up but Peter Pan remains a classic for me. I still love it and can forgive it as a product of its time, like hundreds of other movies that would make us uncomfortable today.

    I will also say that my stepdaughter is 1/4 Navajo and my wife kept her away from Peter Pan while she was growing up. Now that she is almost 15 and comfortable in her own skin, she jokes about my wife being over-protective and how terrible it was that she didn’t get to watch until she was older.

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  13. The thing that one should be “stunned” about is not that every film made before 2010 is racist or otherwise pernicious, but that we have allowed our children (and ourselves) to be taught that they are. There is a term .. the “brainwash”. In Oregon last week the governor vetoed a bill that would have accommodated bona fide Native American tribes of Oregon to retain their own Native-American flavored mascots at their own schools if they so chose. The white man knows better than the Indian .. the problem with the Indian is that he has not yet been able to be made to understand that his own symbols are offensive to him.

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  14. On the topic of “rethinking a classic”, you should check out Disney’s Pinocchio.
    I think parts of it are terrifying for children.

    And speaking of offensive cartoons, have you ever heard of the “Censored Eleven”…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censored_Eleven

    You can watch “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” here…
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x51ver_merrie-melodies-coal-black-and-de-s_shortfilms

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  15. You mocked the “fairies” franchise, yet Disney’s “Tinkerbelle” is epic. (I assume you didn’t actually watch the movie.) The writers seized on the “tinker” part of her name and flew with it, making Tink smart and problem-solving. There is nothing in the current Disney fairy mythology that any thinking parent should worry about.

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