Why Didn’t Cinderella “Just Leave?”

Cinderella Dicussion

The other day I was speaking with someone about retellings and favorite childhood books, and when we got to Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, she said, “I always loved Ella Enchanted because Levine said she wrote it because she always wondered why Cinderella didn’t just leave.  I always thought that, too.”  As much as I also love Ella (I’ve probably read it about fifteen times), this comment troubled me because it seems to me the answer is is clear: It isn’t simple for people, especially children, to “just leave” the people who are abusing them.  When you also consider that most “Cinderella” stories take place in fantasy worlds or historical time periods when women didn’t have many rights, it becomes even more obvious why a young girl couldn’t “just” set out on her own to seek her fortune and have that venture go well.

As writers continue to offer variations on this classic tale, I hope more of them will take the time to thoughtfully consider that Cinderella’s “evil stepmother” is more than a trope or a plot point; she’s an abuser.   The effects of that on the Cinderella’s psyche deserve to be explored,  not glossed over as something unimportant that Cinderella happily endured while she sang with her charming animal friends (as Disney suggests).

Additionally, authors who want their Cinderellas to just “man up ” and go should make it clear what specific factors in their literary worlds enable the protagonist to do so–as well as clarify that Cinderellas who don’t aren’t necessarily wimps.  They may be bound to their abusers by psychological and societal factors beyond their control.

Why Don’t We Talk about Abuse in “Cinderella” Stories?

Wayfarer Quote

I’ve been taking issue with representations of child abuse in young adult and middle grade novels in general recently, and I intend to write a post on the topic more broadly in the future.  However, I am particularly disappointed by the number of “Cinderella” retellings (and other fairy tale retellings with abusive parents, such as “Snow White”) because the entire point of a retelling is to expand on an existing story, to explore things that were left unexplored in the originals.  Retellings give authors an opportunity to flesh out a bare-bones source story that often focuses on plot instead of things like character psychology/interiority.  In retellings, flat good or evil characters become complex, insta-love becomes a complicated romantic relationship, small details that “just happened” in the original are explained at length.  Yet somehow the fact that Cinderella is suffering from child abuse is left unexplored, as if it somehow doesn’t matter either to Cinderella herself or to the readers.

Conversations about abuse have become more public in our society recently, and I think the fact that victims of abuse often struggle with extricating themselves from abusive relationships is becoming more widely-known.  We have to remember this when we think of “Cinderella” stories and ask ourselves why she doesn’t just leave her stepmother’s home.  We have to remember not to victim-blame, not to assume it’s somehow Cinderella’s fault for “allowing” herself to be treated horribly by her stepfamily.  We should remember, too, she’s a child (or a teen), and children don’t just up and leave the only homes they have ever known.

However, we also should avoid the trap of gong too far in the other direction and assuming that Cinderella’s life isn’t “that bad,” of believing the abuse in the tale doesn’t need to be discussed.  I understand that many authors who retell the story are interested in the romantic aspects of it, whether that’s the rags to riches story or the love story.  They don’t want to delve into the dark world of child abuse in their retelling.  And yet it’s there.  I think responsible authors will tackle this somehow, will avoid the Disney mistake of suggesting that Cinderella’s main virtue is smiling throughout her abuse and being a happy servant.  I want to see Cinderellas who are troubled or depressed or angry because of their treatment and to see authors discuss how their protagonists deal with their abuse.  (Lili St. Crow does this in Wayfarer, but I can’t think of another author who does.)

Does It Even Make Sense If Cinderella Does Leave?

Mechanica Quote

Besides the opportunity to expand on a short story, another benefit of retellings is that they allow for many variations of the same story. So it makes sense that, in some, Cinderella will “just leave.”  However, I think whether she can is a question that should be thoughtfully considered by authors and readers alike.  Particularly if a “Cinderella” story takes place in a past or pseudo-past time period, she may not have the resources to leave or may realize that leaving could make her life worse.

In Victorian England, for instance, a woman’s occupations choices were often between a low wage worker (perhaps a maid or a factory worker) or a prostitute.  Some estimates suggest 1 in 12 women were prostitutes (source).  The situation for many Cinderella characters is similar, when you remember that most of them are isolated and have no friends or family to live with if they leave their stepmother.  Yet if a teenage female left home on her own, the likely options were:

  1. becoming a maid, just in someone else’s house instead of her stepmother’s (though this outcome is least likely since Cinderella would be alone without any sort of references, so no one would trust her enough to hire her)
  2. becoming a sex worker because no one would hire her
  3. becoming a beggar if she couldn’t find “honest” work and didn’t want to be a sex worker

So, no, many Cinderellas can’t “just leave” home.  If authors want their Cinderellas to strike out on their own, they need to create the circumstances in the novel that allow them to do so.  One example is Cinder by Marissa Meyer.  In Meyer’s futuristic world. women can lead independent lives, and protagonist Cinder has enough training as a mechanic in order to sell her skills somewhere.  However, most retellings in this vein–modern or futuristic ones–will still have to make some assumptions. Cinderella is probably at least 18 and legally allowed to just pack up and leave her abusive home.  In a contemporary story, she might simply wait till she’s old enough to go to college. (I can’t say I’ve seen any modern versions where Cinderella makes a bid for emancipation at fifteen and then manages to find a job when most require employees to be at least sixteen.)

Conclusion

Cinderella’s situation is infinitely more complicated than most readers (or authors) assume when they ask why she doesn’t “just leave” her abusive stepmother.  Psychological ties, lack of outside support, the inability to earn money elsewhere, and legal prohibitions on leaving home could all play a factor in stopping her.  Remember that in most Cinderella stories, our protagonist is a child or a teenager.  Most young people don’t simply pack up and leave home when they have no one to turn to and nowhere else to go.  I hope more readers will be sensitive to this, and more authors will put the investment in creating complex Cinderella stories that recognize the existence of abusive and deal thoughtfully with how Cinderella responds to it.

Briana

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43 thoughts on “Why Didn’t Cinderella “Just Leave?”

  1. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    I love this post! I’ve always thought about how awful Cinderella’s home life was, and I agree that modern re-tellings of the fairy tale fail to touch upon the most important part of the story. She’s being abused by her step mother, the one person who should be looking out for her. And I agree with how leaving home would lead to prostitution or a low-paying job. When I read that, I immediately thought of Fantine from Les Misersbles, and how she had to live the same life to take care of her daughter, only for her sacrifice to end up with the innkeepers abusing Cosette. She had Jean Valjean to rescue her from them later on, but not every child has someone like him. That story is heartbreaking. I’ll be thinking about this post for a while. Great post!

    Like

    • Briana says:

      The funny thing is, when I was a child I kind of admired Disney’s Cinderella for having some sort of inner happiness that couldn’t be squelched by her stepmother’s cruelty. While I do think this is a possible reaction–and I would still deeply admire someone who had so much inner confidence and joy–I now also find it a troubling portrayal. I wonder if we would think less happy Cinderellas “less deserving” of their happy endings if they weren’t just lovely virtuous women cheerfully performing the housework assigned to them. Most of the modern retellings I’ve seen don’t have quite the Disney Cinderella persona going on, but the protagonist usually seems singularly unaffected by the abuse,besides some self-righteous indignation at the treatment.

      I think Fantine is a lovely example! And Cosette’s situation is kind of one of the things I want to talk about in my next post–the tendency of literature to provide wildly unlikely scenarios for children to get out of terrible home lives. Middle grade characters in particular seem to constantly be having wild adventures that end with someone adopting them away from their abusive parents. I think that’s a nice thing for readers to hope for, but it’s not particularly realistic. I think a wider variety of stories could be helpful to readers in similar situations to these characters, since the chances a rich aunt is going to show up from the blue and save them seem slim.

      Liked by 1 person

      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        When I was little, I had admired Cinderella because of her ability to take a negative situation and still manage to find some kind of joy in her life. But now that I’m older, I can look past the singing and the pumpkin carriage and see the story for what it really is. I agree that it’s not realistic for someone who was a prisoner in their own home to be that happy. If that were me, I’d be so depressed I wouldn’t even want to move off the bed, let alone run around signing and sewing. I can’t wait to read your post about Cosette. Les Misersbles is one of my favorite books, and that story is so heartbreaking. I also agree with you on that one. The likelihood of someone adopting a child in that situation is probably rare, but in fiction they always find a home. I also find it troubling when someone comes from a home where abuse or addiction are present and the author acts like the person is all of sudden better once they don’t live there anymore. They could move to another country, but the past will always be with that person. I find it so irritating when I see that. Because a child in that situation will remember that the rest of their life, have nightmares, etc. I wrote a review last week of a book that addressed all of these issues and it really hit me hard. The author even commented on my review, which was really nice. I pretty much thanked her for writing a story that was accurate to real life for a change. It was refreshing to see someone tackle it head on like that.

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  2. Kat says:

    YES, YES, YES. I LOVE THIS POST.
    I’ve never really thought about Cinderella leaving before (mind you, I haven’t read many retellings of this story) but leaving has NEVER even crossed my mind and your reasons just assured the way I felt but gave me SO MUCH MORE to think about.
    Hmm, I’m definitely going to keep thinking about this for awhile. Brilliant post.

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    • Briana says:

      I think Cinderella leaving home is one of those things that seems superficially obvious. “Living with her stepmother sounds terrible. Why didn’t she just go live somewhere else?’ Except life is never that easy, right?

      I think the intriguing thing is that there are so many variations on the story–and yet leaving is very rarely viable for her. In past time periods, women didn’t just leave home. In modern times,children and teens don’t just leave home. It’s only “simple” if we assume Cinderella is a modern woman over 18 years of age who has a reasonable chance of finding a job somewhere else. Even then, there’s so much binding her to her stepmother’s home. Would leaving seem worthwhile to a modern Cinderella if she thought she’d just end up on welfare, for instance? Very often people prefer the bad things they’re familiar with to the unknown.

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      • Krysta says:

        I find arguments that Cinderella should have “just left” especially interesting in light of recent financial instability. An eighteen-year-old woman probably could not simply walk out of the house even today and find a good job that will provide her with benefits and enough money to pay rent and buy food. (Plus she’d have to figure out how to apply for jobs, interview, search for an apartment and roommates, etc. all without her evil stepmother finding out–which would be quite impressive considering how hard she’s worked and how much oversight there is.) Now imagine trying to do that back in the day without any references.

        I also think we need to recognize that Cinderella’s stepmother is apparently somewhat wealthy/part of the upper class and might be influential enough that she could actually sabotage Cinderella’s career if she found out Cinderella was trying to be employed. To be most successful, Cinderella would probably have to find a way to leave town so her stepmother couldn’t find her. But to do that, she would first have to find a job so she could make enough money to travel. It would be rather complicated.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    Ahh such an awesome post! I never thought of Cinderella leaving before, nor of why she couldn’t leave – this was just eye opening! I loved how you made your argument, how logical and cohesive it was 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing, Briana! 😀

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    • Briana says:

      I’m not sure leaving was something I ever really expected Cinderella to do either, but it’s something I’ve heard people mention before, so I wanted to write about it. It borders too much on victim-blaming for me, which makes me uncomfortable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

        Ah yeah, I see how it makes you think of victim-blaming – it does to me too, now that I think about it! Honestly, it’s crazy what people can think of, when they think of fairy tales! I know that for me – I never really thought about Cinderella or anything at all in such great depth!

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  4. Ashley @ Sitting In The Stacks says:

    Thanks for stopping by!

    I have to admit — I never thought of Cinderella’s life as abusive. Yet, it immediately made sense upon reading the first sentence of your post! I was always frustrated that a man had to come save her, but I can accept that if it is “historical.” Now I can’t believe I didn’t see this reading before! Haha Thanks for a great post!

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    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s partly a historical issue, but when we think in terms of retellings, Cindrella’s choosing another life could also be viewed as an act of courage. The people who are supposed to love and support her have been abusing her. For her to choose to place her trust in another person, to marry that person and to believe he will love her rather than hurt her is, I think, a sign of her strength rather than a sign of her needing to be rescued by a man.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Krysta says:

    I think it’s interesting that Ella Enchanted is the answer to “Why didn’t Cinderella just leave?” because it suggests just how difficult it is to do. Ella “just leaves” and finds herself about to be eaten by trolls, for example. Also, in this case, Ella has an end goal–her father. In most versions of the tale, Cinderella’s father is dead. So Levine answers the question by giving Cinderella resources she doesn’t traditionally have.

    Levine also conveniently has Ella meet a bunch of helpful people to guide her on her journey. Imagine the reality of a young girl travelling alone without money. She would probably end up in the newspapers as the victim of a terrible crime, not the travel companion of a charming, wealthy, and morally upright young man.

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    • Briana says:

      Right? I don’t mind versions where Cinderella gets up and goes, but those stories need to do a lot in the way of explaining how this is possible for her. Ironically, Levine seems to have answered her own question, “Well, if she leaves she’s going to need to find someone who will give her money and help her out because otherwise this will all go horribly wrong!” And I don’t think finding that kind of help is impossible or necessarily unrealistic. But I do think most people would not want to count on such serendipity. They wouldn’t leave in the first place because they’d be skeptical they’d find any help.

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  6. danielaark says:

    I’m not that much into retellings but there is one retell that I for some reason my brain refuses to acknowledge as a retell: Cinder. In this AWESOME book Cinder is not ok with the abuse, is not a doormat and is indeed trying to escape. Maybe that is way I don’t think of it as a retell Great post! Briana and Krysta

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    • Krysta says:

      Credit goes to Briana for this post.

      I don’t think I ever saw Cinderella as okay with the abuse. Even in the Disney version, she’s clearly trying very hard to make the best of a situation and to pretend it doesn’t bother her that she’s being yelled at all the time. When she breaks down over her sisters tearing up her dress, it’s clear that this is the moment where she can no longer pretend. It all comes crashing down on her at once.

      Liked by 1 person

      • danielaark says:

        Yup I didn’t meant “ok” s in accepting it but more as in enduring it. I couldn’t agree more with the fact this are mostly children or teens characters that would not have anywhere to go especially in medieval times.

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  7. Jorelene @ Page Chronicles says:

    This is a fantastic post!! You do thorough research and back up your statements with great evidence! I haven’t ever really thought about this topic before, so I definitely will be pondering this for a while now. I agree that this issue is much more complex than a lot of people make it out to be. I’ll probably be discussing this with my friends later today when we hang out! Thank you for this!

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    • Briana says:

      Thanks! I get that Cinderella’s home life isn’t necessarily the aspect of the tale people are interested in, so it gets glossed over in retellings. But I think that the fact that so MANY retellings blithely ignore the fact that, yes, she’s being abused is problematic in itself. I don’t want or need every Cinderella story to become an “issues book” about child abuse, but I think we have room for retellings to look a little more closely at the fact that the issue does exist.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Monica @ Curiously Bookish says:

    This is a fantastic post! 🙂 I completely agree with your point about many retellings glossing over her home life and the abuse she suffers at the hands of her step-family. I feel that most people just want to skip over to the “good” stuff like the romance and magic, but in falling to set up Cinderella’s home life they are doing themselves a disservice. I think that’s why some Cinderellas can feel like so shallow/boring. Readers just think of her as a wallflower or a weakling for not taking a stand, instead of the author showing them why can’t “stronger.”

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    • Briana says:

      Yes! I get the appeal of wanting to talk about the prince and the ball and the talking mice or whatever the retelling has, but I’d like to see at least a couple retellings look more closely at Cinderella’s home life. And it’s true that doing so would add so much to Cinderella’s character development. She’s doing more than just passively scrubbing floors while she waits for a prince to show up!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. klyse3 says:

    This is a really, really good topic. I’ve never heard someone say that Cinderella should have just left and never would have considered that viable myself, since she was a child. Perhaps that tendency comes from the current independent dystopian heroines? (Or even not dystopian). YA has become a genre of super independent teenagers, which in real life is simply not realistic.

    I do think authors are less likely to think of the abuse because Cinderella is a fairy tale, so we expect step-mothers to be evil without relating that characteristic to real-life situations. Tangled (Disney’s Rapunzel film) came the closest to representing an abusive step-mother, at least closer than any other fairytale adaptations I’ve read/seen.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      Ah, that’s a good point. “Strong female characters” have become such a big thing in YA that I think readers are sometimes surprised and disappointed when they find characters that don’t immediately fit that mold. (Though I think there are many different strengths, and not all of them involve being like Katniss.)

      Good point about Rapunzel! The stepmother is pretty creepy and is really effective at isolating Rapunzel.

      Like

  10. theheartofabookblogger says:

    Great post! I definitely have a lot of food for thought now about Cinderella’s story, and you know this will definitely be on my mind next time I read a Cinderella retelling. I’m trying to remember from past retellings if this has been touched upon, but the only one I’m remembering right now is Cinder. If I remember correctly, I believe Cinder couldn’t just leave since she’s a cyborg and cyborgs don’t have full human rights in her world.

    -Jordan @ The Heart of a Book Blogger

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    • Briana says:

      Good point about her being a cyborg. Barring that, uh, rather significant detail, she was pretty well-equipped to live life on her own, though. So she seems to me a good example of a character for whom circumstances might conspire to make leaving possible; she’s an older teen, she has marketable skills and job experience, she lives in an era when young women getting careers isn’t odd, etc. But, yeah. the lack of cyborg rights is definitely a flaw in any concrete plans for independence.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight says:

    It’s funny that you mention this because I’ve never read the original Cinderella, but I’m a huge Disney movie fan, and I think often about how her stepmother is actually one of the most terrifying Disney villains to me because she’s the most realistic. And she’s clearly an abusive sociopath. And some of the villains, well, the characters themselves created their own problems with them by making deals and whatnot, but Cinderella didn’t have a choice, which is again a realistic situation. I agree that she couldn’t “just leave.” Especially in those times. But even nowadays, there are times when just leaving is not an option unless the person wants to live on the street or die. It’s not like a minor can just decide to get a job and move out, people with health problems may not be able to get a job, they may have familial obligations, etc. And also, as you said, even when people *can* just leave an abusive relationship, they often struggle to.

    I also really love what you said about retellings, how it’s a chance to expand on the originals and add emotion and depth and all that because I never really thought of it that way, but it’s true. I like retellings, but I tend to avoid the Cinderella ones since, as you said, they focus on the rags to riches thing and often have instalove. It would be a great thing if some writers would make retellings that go deeper and explore the psychological aspect.

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    • Briana says:

      I think I read some early versions of “Cinderella” years ago, but certainly not recently.

      I agree the Disney stepmother is terrifying! She seems to be cruel for absolutely no reason, which i think is most chilling. You never get the sense that there’s a way for her to change her mind or be redeemed.

      I also agree leaving home is still hard today. I just have to think of how many young people in their twenties are still living with their parents because the economy is bad and they don’t have jobs that would support them if they left, even if they found roommates. Add to that other issues like, yes, health, and leaving certainly looks easier said than done for many people.

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  12. Alicia @ A Kernel of Nonsense says:

    I love everything about this post! I agree, asking why Cinderella doesn’t just leave can oversimplify the situation. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of Cinderella’s circumstances in terms of abuse, at least not in the parental sense. I always thought of the step-mother as a cruel mistress who mistreated her servant (Cinderella). It’s still abuse, but not in the way you are discussing and now I feel like I need to reevaluate my point of view because Cinderella wasn’t the child of a servant dropped into the step-mother’s lap, she was the daughter of the man she married. She had a responsibility to raise this child as her own, but chose to banish her to a life of servanthood. If this were to take place today, we would not hesitate to call it child abuse. Now I suddenly feel very protective of Cinderella. Great post!

    Like

    • Briana says:

      Well, I think the difference is that servants are typically paid and usually get perks like a free day off once in a while. They also often have some freedom in terms of deciding to seek another position elsewhere if their employer is particularly cruel. In many Cinderella stories, the Cinderella character is not paid at all–in fact what should be her rightful inheritance from her parents is taken away from her and she has practically nothing. She’s also usually isolated from society and not allowed to have friends outside the home.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. DoingDewey says:

    Great post! As soon as you asked the question, I thought it was silly for people to think Cinderella should be able to just leave and I think you bring up some really important broader issues in literature as well.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      This isn’t the first time someone has brought up that they thought she should have just walked out of her house! I’m really not sure why people think that, but apparently it’s a popular opinion!

      Like

      • Krysta says:

        I’ve seen this argument a lot from a feminist perspective. People seem upset that Cinderella “allows” herself to be abused and needs a man to rescue her. I have a problem with this because it sounds a lot like victim blaming. And I think that it can be argued that Cinderella is a strong female character. It takes strength for her to defy her stepmother and go to the ball. And it takes strength to accept a proposal of marriage when all the “love” she has known has really been abuse. Maybe Cinderella is not an independent working woman, but that doesn’t mean she has no value.

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        • Briana says:

          I was a bit disturbed by that, too. I haven’t actually verified the quote (someone just told me Levine had said that), but my immediate response was “Levine is an adult. She should be able to come up with a lot of reasons Cinderella didn’t just leave!” I like that the question resulted in a creative book, but leaving is possible for Ella only due to a certain combination of convenient circumstances.

          Liked by 1 person

          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            Yeah exactly- I haven’t read the book- but in the film version she’s also conveniently older for that to actually work- and even then it’s difficult. It’s also a bit of a ridiculous thing to say (if it’s true she said it) cos it just implies no knowledge of the real world

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  14. Bailey @ Fictional Fox says:

    Preach! As I was reading this, it occurred to me the irony of modern society criticizing Cinderella when in fact, domestic abuse is still a huge problem. Even in a modern world where women have more privileges and rights then ever before, women still stay in abusive situations because it’s never easy to just leave. I do think people too often brush off Cinderella’s situation and don’t think of it as abusive. But it really is. It truly is.

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    • Briana says:

      And it’s really interesting because there seems to be more awareness of abuse. But apparently there’s something about the way it’s portrayed in “Cinderella” that makes people fail to see relationship as abusive. Like, because we’re talking about an “evil stepmother,” it’s basically like talking about a witch or some malignant force of nature, not a person who’s an abusive parent. Or maybe it’s that we know Cinderella gets out, so we’re not all that worried for her.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. daleydowning says:

    All very good points… It was something that I was very aware of while reading/watching “Cinderella” (as a youth and an adult)… The context of the original tale makes it clear that she had no option – her natural parents were dead, or broke, or both, and in that day and age, she would indeed probably have ended up as a prostitute or something similar (and just as terrible). Also, one of the most enduring, and endearing, themes of this story is the way Cinderella always manages to keep a positive outlook *in spite* of the abuse she suffers.

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