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The Female Gaze

ETA: Courtesy of metafandom, this post has gotten a fair amount of reasonable criticism, much of it about the very limited selection of images I used. I'm currently considering doing a follow-up post exploring the concept in more detail than this simplified version. I respect the viewpoints of everyone who's commented, even those few that I outright disagree with, and I'd like to thank everyone for contributing to such a lively and valuable discussion.

ETA again: Initially, I thoughtlessly posted other people's art here. I was more concerned with haste and post stability than with respecting the artists I was referencing, which was a mistake. I am truly sorry for any offense I caused, and have done my best to make it right. I have replaced images with links to the original artists, with three exceptions, the images still below. In those cases, I found the images on sites far removed from their original artists, and have not been able to find a link to their sources. Iceman no longer hosts the first Batman image on his own site; it's become one of those orphan fan works that drift around the internet like Dickensian waifs. The other two were displayed on other sites that did not provide sources. If anyone knows who created either of them, please let me know so I can seek their permission.

Also, in response to the discussion here, I will definitely be doing a more thorough and detailed followup post exploring this concept in more detail. I hope some of those reading this will participate in that post, either with recommendations of images they think are interesting or illustrative, or in comments once it's posted.


When I tell people about Syzygy, one of the questions I sometimes get from the uninitiated is "If women like seeing guys get it on, can't they just look at regular gay porn?"

The answer is, of course, no. One can determine that from looking at the sales figures for gay porn magazines—very few of their readers are women. I'm not one to put blind faith in the wisdom of the market, but honestly, if something is for sale and people aren't buying it, it's probably because they don't want it.

The question of why women don't read "mainstream" gay porn is an interesting one, however, and the answer is that there is such a thing as the female gaze.

We're all familiar with the male gaze: the particular way women appear when being regarded as sexual objects by men. If you're unfamiliar with it, a quick look at MAXIM, or five seconds on Google image search, will show you what it looks like. The thing is, porn featuring men is also made entirely of male gaze. PLAYGIRL magazine was, I'm told, originally intended for women, but its readership quickly turned out to consist mainly of gay men. That's because there's as much male gaze in PLAYGIRL as in PLAYBOY.

I realize that it sounds like I'm making bald assertions here, so let me clarify what I mean with clear examples. The following is going to contain a lot of broad generalizations based on a binary concept of gender, for which I apologize. While I acknowledge that there are plenty of legitimate exceptions to the principles under discussion, they remain pretty useful as rules of thumb.

Unfortunately, I can't show off photos, for two reasons. First, there are legitimate copyright and intellectual property issues, and I don't want to step on anyone's IP rights if I can avoid it. Second, while another five seconds on Google image search will show you lots of examples of male-gaze photos of men, there just aren't many female-gaze photos to show off.

Fortunately, there's the wonderful world of fan art to draw on, where both men and women can bring their own visions to life without filters or lawsuits. I've chosen superhero fan art because it's got lots of examples on both sides.

Let's start with Batman—everyone loves Batman. Thing is, when men love Batman, he looks like this:

ETA: Second image here removed, with sincere apologies to Rai. I wish she'd told me directly that my use of it was offensive, so I could have removed it sooner. I won't be making the same mistake again if I can avoid it, and I hope that Rai can forgive me for my error. Any other artists featured here who'd like their work removed have only to ask. Also, if anyone would like to submit or suggest a different "sexy Batman" picture, feel free.

Likewise, both men and women enjoy the idea of Batman getting involved with Robin, but when a man pictures it, it looks like this:

And when a woman pictures it, it looks like this. ETA: Link removed by request of the artist.

To jump comics universes for a moment, let's take Wolverine and Sabretooth, the Marvel Universe's classic example of Foe Yay. When a man imagines them getting it on, you get this.

And when a woman imagines the same two characters, you get this:

By now, you can see the differences I'm talking about. These three examples are a fair representation of a general principle. There is a female gaze, a way of looking at men as sexual objects, and it is visibly distinct from the male gaze.

I don't want to belabor the differences or try to draw large sociological conclusions from them; that's not my job. You will notice, though, that the male gaze tends to focus very much on the dick. Even the shots that don't actually show the dick are, implicitly, entirely about the dick. The female gaze... just not as interested in looking at dicks. This is a useful lesson to the straight men of the world: not everything is about your dick.

There hasn't been any real examination of the female gaze because there hasn't been any acknowledgment of it. Unless I'm missing something, and please let me know if I am, there has been little or no public discussion of the fact that women have a different erotic vision than men. Most of the time, when you see a "sexy man" presented on TV or in movies or whatnot, even when he's supposed to be purely a female fantasy, he looks like the guys in gay porn. Bulky, muscled, oiled and shaved. And yes, there are women who go for that, and god bless 'em. But when women create their own erotic images of men, without having to go through publishing houses and production companies, more often than not they look like this.

And this.

And, well, all of these.

And outside of yaoi manga, nobody is selling men who look like that.

Let me repeat why the examples I gave are fan art: there is almost no erotic photography from a female-gaze perspective. Again, I don't want to get into analyzing the reasons why. There are better-trained feminist theorists out there to do that. But speaking as a capitalist, it strikes me as criminal that there should be such a large need going unmet by the market.


( 264 comments — Leave a comment )
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Dec. 19th, 2008 12:06 pm (UTC)
As a photographer, I'd LOVE to be able to photograph m/m through a woman's eyes, trust me, but like you said, there's just no market for it, and that is a shame.
Dec. 19th, 2008 03:51 pm (UTC)
Well, "market" can mean two things there. If you mean there's no audience that would pay for photos like that, I believe you're wrong. If you just mean that there's no publication that would buy photos like that, then you are, alas, right. For now.
(no subject) - deviant_dev - Dec. 19th, 2008 05:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dharma_slut - Dec. 20th, 2008 10:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pirateseneschal - Dec. 25th, 2008 05:06 am (UTC) - Expand
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Dec. 19th, 2008 02:12 pm (UTC)
The fem gaze has a femininity within it, a softness that is truly woman throughout. Women want to see more than raw sexuality, we want to see passion and connection.

Not that all the male gaze pics you have posted up here were bad either. I'm not much for Batman/Robin but the male gaze pic you posted I found to be quite hot, but that was more from the raw energy of the picture feeling so masculine and aggressive.

The fem gaze tends to define clear male/female roles even in the fact it is a male/male pic. It seems there is a need for that relationship style nurture. A need to show more than carnal lust and objectivity.
Dec. 19th, 2008 03:54 pm (UTC)
Good observations. And yes, there is a lot of variance within both the male and female gaze, and even an area where they overlap. Part of why I included that Batman/Robin picture is that, just in terms of content and composition, it could almost be a female-gaze drawing... but you can still tell a guy did it, because women almost never draw asses like that.
(no subject) - spankingfemme - Dec. 19th, 2008 09:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - arinye - Dec. 25th, 2008 02:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spankingfemme - Dec. 25th, 2008 04:34 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sparkedbylore - Dec. 30th, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - spankingfemme - Jan. 7th, 2009 08:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 20th, 2008 11:54 am (UTC)
Nice post! It's something I've been wondering about for a while. The closest I can come to putting a finger on it is the thought that female-done, female-targeted works involve the males in question being objects of adoration, rather than just lust- we want to see their emotions, their stories, how beautiful they are, etc.

A good example I've found of photography/art through a female gaze is Male Submission Art. The guys are shot nicely, posed beautifully, and each picture has some emotion to it. Compare that to male-targeted manporn, and there's an obvious difference. Watch him fit his tight, tiny undies on his fit body, until he gets so horny he shoots a thick load from his juicy thick cock.? Bleurgh, no thanks. I'll take girl-drawn fanart over that anyday.
Dec. 20th, 2008 05:37 pm (UTC)
Nice link. I know a few women I'll want to forward that to. ;)

It seems to me that the key component in both the female gaze stuff here and the art on that page you linked to isn't just emotion, it's more specific than that. It's vulnerability. Emotional or physical vulnerability, works out to the same thing. The men in these pictures have lost that alpha-male swagger, the veneer of invulnerability that men are taught never to give up, and in losing it have gone from being men to being human. Instant sexiness.

This ties in, I think, with what I've heard called "wounded man fetish", one of the few fetishes found almost exclusively in women. (Don't bother Googling for it; as usual, female sexuality is not on the internet's radar.) It's when a woman is aroused by a man who is injured, ill, or otherwise in need of help. Again, the key component is vulnerability.

This, in turn, leads us back to fandom and the classic fanfic genre of hurt-comfort. Take a tough character, beat the hell out of them physically or emotionally, and force them to rely on a less-tough character for help and support, which they would not normally do. Women have been writing variations on that one for 40 years now. 160 if we count Rochester going blind in JANE EYRE. Again, vulnerability.

It's odd; one of the reasons men learn the alpha-male swagger is that we're told women love it. Oddly, that seems to be true, but mostly in that y'all love seeing us lose it. :)
(no subject) - eclective - Dec. 21st, 2008 05:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kaatsu - Dec. 23rd, 2008 03:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - eclective - Dec. 23rd, 2008 07:02 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kaatsu - Dec. 23rd, 2008 07:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dharma_slut - Dec. 23rd, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - divalucia - Dec. 21st, 2008 05:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 20th, 2008 12:12 pm (UTC)
Speaking as a woman, that third picture is fairly hot. And I've seen variations of that style in yaoi manips and drawings around in deviant art by women for women.

But the fifth picture. Yeah no, I agree, I don't think it's intended audience is female - Ewww.
Dec. 20th, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC)
Like I say, there's no hard-and-fast rules here. I don't want to seem like I'm trying to dictate what anyone can find hot; I just want to point out that there are clearly different tendencies, even though there's plenty of legitimate exceptions to these rules of thumb.

I'm curious: could you link me to some examples of yaoi stuff using that style? Looking at data that doesn't fit one's current model is how one develops a better-refined model, after all. :)
(no subject) - ms_maree - Dec. 20th, 2008 09:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhanon - Dec. 20th, 2008 10:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ms_maree - Dec. 20th, 2008 10:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - starlady38 - Dec. 21st, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 20th, 2008 10:24 pm (UTC)
Fair warning-- you are about to be linked from metafandom...

Anyway, great post, and pretty comprehensive for such a tricky, convoluted subject. Myself, I prefer a more hardcore approach than, say, Theban Band offers-- more emphasis on cocks and asses-- even so, there's *still* a difference!
Did you see Ponderosa's now-notorious Snarry fanart, that got her bolded back when? VERY graphic-- Snape's finger up Harry's butt, Harry's own come all over his face-- and it was, still, defineably a woman's gaze. So, just-- yeah.
Dec. 20th, 2008 10:39 pm (UTC)
Hey, it's an honor to be metafandommed. Thanks! Haven't seen the art piece you mention, but if you've got a link, I'd love to check it out.

And yeah, it's odd how subtle the difference can be, but still be right there. One interesting example I saw recently is the movie version of MAMMA MIA!, which presents both men and women as objects of desire, including middle-aged men and women. I have never, ever seen middle-aged men shot the way they were shot in that film, and I didn't realize until afterward that it was straight-up female gaze. It felt weirdly empowering, actually. Not that us straight white guys really need a lot of empowering in our society, but there are odd issues around male beauty, ones that most people don't talk about.
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Dec. 21st, 2008 03:12 am (UTC)
*nods* There are a lot of exceptions to the rule, yeah, but there's also a lot of truth to this. It's one reason why comics, bastion of the male gaze that they are, have such an intense homoerotic vibe to them at times -- all those men in spandex drawn to fit the male notions of what's sexy, looking like they've stepped right out of gay porn half the time. All those panels focussed on Superman or Captain America's crotch (real Cap, I mean. A lot of old school Kirby art is All About Steve Roger's Crotch. Also his ass). The odd thing is that there are a handful of characters who break the mold and are drawn much closer to what I think of as the female version of desire, Nightwing and Gambit being high on the list.

And it probably says something that I recognized all of the comics-related art on this page. Ah, Iceman. Where would the world of comicbook character pr0n be without you? (Also Rai -- I love her ability to draw Bats and Supes in manga style without losing their classic broad-shouldered, muscular appearance. As opposed to the weirdly uke-fied Wolverine in that second Sabertooth/Logan picture).

Also, I just can't get over the first Batman picture, and his awe-inspiring manboobs. It makes me giggle in a deeply immature way every time I see it. "I'm the goddamn Batman, and this is my goddamn cock! And my goddamn manboobs!"
Dec. 22nd, 2008 12:33 am (UTC)
Your last paragraph is giving me the giggles something fierce. :)
(no subject) - elspethdixon - Dec. 22nd, 2008 05:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - andreth47 - Jan. 6th, 2009 06:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 21st, 2008 07:15 am (UTC)
he looks like the guys in gay porn. Bulky, muscled, oiled and shaved.

I'm curious... how much gay porn have you actually looked at? I make my living promoting gay porn and I can tell you that the bulky, muscled, oiled and shaved look you are describing is the minority. The most popular gay porn websites feature average to athletic builds with very regular looking guys. Some of the most popular sites are sites that have many women subscribers, such as Corbin Fisher and Sean Cody and Randy Blue, etc.

As for the rest, I think this is too simplistic, too reductionist, and too binary.

If you want to make a go of actually making money off the female gaze, I think you need to take a deeper look at both the gay male gaze -- which is far broader than your assumptions, and the female gaze which I don't think can be reduced to a couple of images from yaoi of guys hugging. They dovetail more often than you are giving them credit for and your binary assumptions about what men and women like are NOT a good rule of thumb at all. And those sites that get it right will be your main source of competition because they already understand this.

For example, check out Corbin Fisher's Amateur College Sex (google it) for one -- it's designed to appeal to both gay men and straight women. It features videos of attractive college men having sex with women, but the videos are shot with the "gaze" on the male. Hell, even just the still images on that website should lead to the conclusion that the male gaze itself is not all about the dick.
Dec. 22nd, 2008 03:00 am (UTC)
You just said exactly what I wanted to say.

I don't see the female gaze images in this post as very representative, even for yaoi/BL fandom. For example, stories that have extremely graphic artwork that places emphasis on the genitalia are often among the most popular.

A good example would be Maki Murakami, who draws hentai as well as yaoi. Her yaoi work has a lot in common with hentai, and it seems like she's one of the best-known and most popular yaoi artists out there.

On the other side, there are a lot of yaoi fans who aren't into the weird seme/uke dynamic that prompted the artist of that Sabretooth/Wolverine picture to make Wolverine look like a blushing teenager. That artist's "gaze" is a total turn-off for a significant percentage of females into yaoi, so how can it be representative of the female gaze?

I do think that there's a difference, but it's much harder to pin down than "muscles and cocks = gay" and "emotional = female."
(no subject) - alexandramuses - Dec. 22nd, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 21st, 2008 04:48 pm (UTC)
Here via metafandom
Fascinating post! There's some truth to what you say, but boy howdy, you do make with the over-generalizations! And so, I wanted to present my (probably minority) anecdotal data.

I'm a straight female (well, mostly straight), and I adore regular old gay porn. I buy the mags, I buy the movies, hell I've got a login at Brent Corrigan's freaking website. And for this straight girl? Skip the hugging and the romance.

It's all about the dick.
Dec. 22nd, 2008 12:36 am (UTC)
Re: Here via metafandom
Yeah, any general rule of thumb is going to have PLENTY of exceptions to it. I hope I didn't come across as saying that your own tastes are somehow invalid or wrong, because that's certainly not what I meant.
Dec. 21st, 2008 05:01 pm (UTC)
Also here via metafandom
You make a few interesting points here, but I have to add my voice to the chorus that says you're oversimplifying. I understand you're not trying to pigeonhole people, but I really feel trying to put women into separate categories like this does us all a disservice. It's difficult enough for us as women to have the diversity in our sexuality recognized and respected without drawing arbitrary lines between us, IMO.

Edited because I just read your userinfo and realized I jumped to a conclusion myself by thinking you were a woman. My apologies.

Edited at 2008-12-21 05:23 pm (UTC)
Dec. 21st, 2008 05:15 pm (UTC)
As a number of people have already pointed out, you've hugely oversimplifying. For one thing, the images you've picked are extreme examples of particular types and they are NOT representative. There's a ton of male/male erotic art, by and for gay men, that looks just like your examples of the "female gaze"--a focus on emotion and not on dicks, body types that are less stereotypically masculine, etc. And there's a ton of male/male erotic art by and (primarily) for women that is sexually explicit and very much about the dick.

Personally, I don't find any of the images you include very erotic. And while I know one person does not disprove a generalization, you've already heard from several people saying they don't like the images they're "supposed" to like according to your view of what men and women want.

Your argument recycles the old stereotype that women aren't really interested in (visual representations of) sex, but prefer (visual representations of) cuddling. That's nonsense in itself, and also ignores the fact that woman are people with a wide range of tastes and preferences.
Dec. 22nd, 2008 12:42 am (UTC)
Man, I knew the images I picked would come back to bite me. :)

I'm not trying to recycle the stereotype you mention; I've seen plenty of more hardcore stuff that's definitely female-gaze imagery, and the comments here have links to a bunch more. Part of what I want to do with this post is explain the difference to people who have NO idea what I might be talking about, who might never have seen this kind of erotic art before, so I chose a few images with the highest possible contrast between the male and female gazes. In retrospect, I realize that has the effect of caricaturing them both somewhat.
Dec. 21st, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC)
Hmmmm...I'm at a loss here. None of either the male or female gaze images you've chosen are appealing to me. Both seem stuck in their own adolescent expression. Like the male gaze is the boy gaze, and the female gaze is the girl gaze. It's meat-head jock DICK! versus cuddly-wuddly one-must-be-smaller/de-empowered. Am I supposed to feel in tune with either of them?

Although the images have various appealing qualities as illustration or art, only the first Batman & Robin in black and white comes close as an erotic experience for me. My orientation is sex or affection with emotional realism between smart adults.
Dec. 21st, 2008 05:32 pm (UTC)
That is the explanation I was looking for! I've stared at my screen for a good ten minutes now, trying to articulate why exactly none of the images (except for the first Batman/Robin image (and the eights picture from a less sexual viewpoint)) were doing anything for me and you've just said it: The examples do come across as "teenage boy's perspective" and "teenage girl's perspective." Granted, that is an oversimplification in and of itself, but bear with me for a moment.
So, thanks! ^^
(no subject) - bradhanon - Dec. 22nd, 2008 12:52 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 21st, 2008 05:43 pm (UTC)
Here via Metafandom
You have chosen an image from the Theban Band collection which fits in well with your overall argument; however, it is not the only type of image within those galleries, nor the only type of female fan-generated image.

You might be interested to consider the number of female slash writers currently getting their writing, with the numbers filed off and published under male pennames, published by those aiming primarily at the gay market. A deal of this work is notable for the absolute equality of the characters, which goes much further than a simple switch pairing. To many slash writers that equality is a far more attractive quality and one that can be 'played' with by the characters within their own settings.

Incidentally, reviews of this writing within the gay press tend to make mention not only of the care and complexity taken in the writing of the relationships between the characters, but also the impact of the erotic scenes.
Dec. 22nd, 2008 12:59 am (UTC)
Re: Here via Metafandom
Oh, I know that the images I picked aren't a great representation of the broad range of female erotic imagery out there. It's not meant to showcase everything that exists, just to point out the general idea, for people who are mostly unfamiliar with the concept.

It's a bit like giving a brief rundown of the plot of HAMLET to someone who's never heard of Shakespeare. Yes, it'll be a very shallow and limited take on the play, but one must consider the audience. To extend this analogy, let's suppose that this brief synopsis is overheard by a group of very well-educated Shakespeare scholars. I'm now trying to explain to these wise academics why I left out the troubling duality of Hamlet's "antic disposition", if you will.
RE: That Troubling duality - dharma_slut - Dec. 24th, 2008 04:31 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 21st, 2008 05:44 pm (UTC)
I don't think gay magazine readership is really something to go on. There's a dozen good reasons women aren't big purchasers of porn magazines, and doubly so for gay porn magazines. However, a great deal of women I know who like m/m are also big fans of, say, nude rugby calendars and many of them watch mainstream gay porn. They may rarely purchase it, but they certainly watch it online, and while perhaps more of them may go for yaoi-style twinks, I know my share into the ultra-masculine bearss and muscle daddies too.

I like what you're trying to do here, and a difference in gaze is certainly something I've noticed between slash and mainstream gay art (most specifically with less of a focus on ass and sometimes dick in the former), but I find the pictures you chose a little problematic because it gives the impression of women supposedly preferring not a certain physique or view but softer, more romantic pictures instead of hardcore - which certainly isn't representative of most of the women I know in fandom, who are responsible for their share of raunch.

Just a random sampling out of my own files finds pictures like this:
by vikingcarrot
http://destiny.ponderosa121.com/devil-inside/#more-147 by Ponderosa (all NSFW, obviously)

These are popular and very well-received works by women largely for women, but I think they paint a rather different picture than the examples you chose. And yet, there are likely quite a few women who wouldn't like the pictures I just posted - and that's because just as male tastes vary greatly across sexual orientation and culture and personal preference, so do women's. This is an interesting area for study, but I think a more objective view and wide-casting view is required to do it.
Dec. 21st, 2008 07:53 pm (UTC)
It's funny that I immediately thought of VikingCarrot's art after reading this post! She definitely balances the sugary images, doesn't she?
(no subject) - bradhanon - Dec. 22nd, 2008 01:04 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 21st, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
This is a very interesting subject, and I agree: typical "male-view porn" isn't attractive to a good segment of the female population (or straight male or gay male population either). Because personal taste in porn is highly subjective, there will be all kinds of room for boundaries to blur. But there is something about defining a specifically female point of view which makes me think of books written by committees, once the darlings of school curricula everywhere, and how awful they were: flat, boring, all the controversy and danger carefully weeded out of them, reading them was like being sentenced to some sort of grey intellectual gulag.

The thought of looking at porn by committee makes me want to bash my head repeatedly against jagged rocks. I know that's not what you're trying to do, but I think that the "female view" is evolving in a very organic and natural fashion as a result of fan works, internet communities, women who feel the urge to pick up a camera, palette and digital illustrator to express what they find beautiful and stimulating. This leads me to wonder if this is a discussion with an objective of concretizing the female view, in which case I say, good luck, but I like my porn to be elusive and wild and free as the damned birdies.

I don't expect anyone to produce a marketable product which meets my tastes, because they range and ramble and change.
Dec. 22nd, 2008 01:07 am (UTC)
I like your way with words. I'm certainly not trying to concretize, pin down, or in any way limit anyone's erotic tastes or expressions. I'm just trying to study, explore, and call attention to something that gets very little recognition in the mainstream. And, yes, trying to start a magazine, too.
(no subject) - 7veilsphaedra - Dec. 22nd, 2008 02:12 am (UTC) - Expand
getting a bit ot - ms_maree - Dec. 22nd, 2008 02:15 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dharma_slut - Dec. 22nd, 2008 05:57 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 21st, 2008 06:09 pm (UTC)
I think you make some interesting points. I don't think it's entirely accurate to say that women align along those faultlines necessarily - there are women for whom it is also all about the cock, and gay men who focus on other aspects of the body.

Sexuality is much more fluid, and women much more inventive than you give credit.

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