Fangirl Isn’t a Dirty Word

September 3, 2013

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Deborah Stanish is the co-editor of the Hugo nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who with L.M. Myles and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them with Lynne M. Thomas. She has had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords, Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III and Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers. She is also a regular columnist for Enlightenment, the official zine of the Doctor Who Information Network and the moderator of Verity! Podcast, where six women, from around the globe, debate and discuss Doctor Who. She can be found online at and on Twitter @DebStanish.

It’s not easy being a modern fan. We’re battling decades of institutionalized sexism, racism, and imperialism. We’re working on it. We may still be struggling with all of the —isms but we’re clawing our way toward second wave fandom, particularly when it comes to female fans sharing the dais. We recognize that women really do game, read comics and geek out over all the things guys geek out over. But even in this enlightened age, the gendered term “fangirl” has become a casual slur, used with impunity to mock and ridicule a certain type of fan.

Google “fangirl” right now; chances are, your first hit is the charming Urban Dictionary definition:

A rabid breed of human female who is obsessed with either a fictional character or an actor. Similar to the breed of fanboy. Fangirls congregate at anime conventions and livejournal. Have been known to glomp, grope, and tackle when encountering said obsessions.

Hugh Jackman: ‘ello.

Fangirl: SQUEEEEEE! *immediately attaches to Jackman’s leg*

Jackman: Security!

Even enlightened fans — who would never dare “fake geek girl” a woman — use the term with barely concealed contempt. Fangirls are just the shallow adolescents who glomp onto the hottest actor du jour and spend all their time posting gifs on Tumblr, right? They’ve already proven they’re not one of us, what with all the squealing and obsession with hair and pecs and abs.


When Peter Capaldi was recently announced as the 12th Doctor, replacing Matt Smith, Doctor Who fandom brought this point home in a particularly virulent way. Capaldi, 54, is the oldest actor to play the role since William Hartnell in 1963. Matt Smith, by comparison, is retiring at the tender age of 30. Within minutes of the announcement, Twitter and Facebook were filled with gleeful declarations of how an “old” Doctor will finally drive away the fangirls, and how they couldn’t wait to see the fangirl diaspora because Capaldi wasn’t young and/or hot. There were reports of fangirl meltdowns and hysterics, and declarations that Tumblr would burn from the fangirl ire. Even fans who didn’t dab eau de schadenfraude behind their ears cautioned “the fangirls” to give Capaldi a chance.

So, yeah. Somewhere between here and there, “fangirl” no longer means a fan who identifies as a female, but instead became a pejorative term used to Other a whole section of fandom — a primarily young, female section of fandom.

There are a couple of issues to unpack here. The first is fandom gatekeeping: protecting fandom from those who don’t appreciate it or who aren’t doing it “right.” (The translation for right, by the way, usually means “the way which I find acceptable.”) There’s been a lot of discussion about fandom gatekeeping lately, some of it even from the creators of the things some fans feel they need to protect from the unworthy. John Scalzi recently posted a primer to those who feel the need to police what he creates. It pretty much boiled down to “you’re fucking with my livelihood”.

The harsh economic truth is that the things we love depend on a healthy cash flow in order to exist, and fangirl money spends just as well as the devoted brethren’s money. ALL of that money, collectively, is keeping the things that we love in existence. Do you think the BBC cares who’s dropping cash on DVDs, sonic screwdrivers or TARDIS USB hubs? 20th Century Fox certainly isn’t checking to see if theater seats are being filled by X-Men experts or fans who want to check out Hugh Jackman’s more physical assets. Artists, writers, directors, actors, etc. may be creating from a place of love, but they’re also pretty invested in eating and paying the mortgage. Go ahead and ask them. My guess is the vast majority of them will be on Team Scalzi.

You’ll notice that I’ve been very careful up to this point to not to make this a male vs. female fan issue. While you often can’t escape the misogyny that holds up this entire fannish house of cards, in the case of barring the doors against the fangirls, it’s not only the guys who are filling the sandbags. You’ll find a distressing number of women who distance themselves from the term fangirl, not just because of the word “girl” which may imply a certain sense of immaturity, but rather because of the negative connotation they’ve internalized and helped perpetuate. Women in fandom have a hard enough time being taken seriously, we certainly don’t want to be lumped in with the rabid, glomping, groping sort, right?


Fandom gatekeeping also implies that there is One True Definition for being a fan and all other definitions are therefore invalid. That is an absurd notion. You can call yourself an Apex Magazine fan whether you’ve been a subscriber from issue one or if this is your first read. You can call yourself an Avengers fan whether you’ve got a monthly pull order from your local comic shop, or have only seen that one movie that one time. You can call yourself a Sherlock fan whether you’ve read the entire Doyle canon or just think Benedict Cumberbatch is ridiculously hot. You get to define yourself; no one else has that power. This is an amazingly difficult concept for some people to grasp. I actually had a gentleman, whom I had never met, gently reassure me that I was not a fangirl, but rather a fan who happened to be a girl. (A not uncommon distinction among enlightened male fans, I might add.)

You can guess how well that sat. Having someone else determine how I should define myself, how I required reassurance that I was not one of those fans, smacked just a little too close to controlling the parameters of my fannish experience.

This brings us to the second issue of concern in the demonization of fangirls — the systematic belittling of women’s, particularly young women’s, opinions. Fangirls are not only being told they are doing it wrong, they are also being mocked and marginalized within the larger fandom community. Granted, there are some more welcoming, female-friendly environments, such as Tumblr, but in the larger context, fangirls are being told that their opinions and fannish expressions don’t count — or worse, are hysterical and overwrought. The Hysterical Fangirl has obtained near mythical status. After the Capaldi announcement, a single YouTube reaction vid went viral and was held up as proof that the fangirls had lost control. See? said The Internet. This is what happens when you let fangirls into the clubhouse.

Oddly enough, there was way more talk about fangirl hysterics than there were actual fangirl hysterics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there was plenty of grumbling (there was that one video, remember?). After all this is Doctor Who fandom, where bitching about the show has become its own cottage industry. Fifty years of existence will do that to you. Every actor change has brought out the torches and pitchforks from some faction. During the live announcement special, Matt Smith noted that there was a backlash against his casting. And there was. After the Internet shook off its confusion at the casting of a relatively unknown actor, the protests against his age, looks and pedigree were almost immediate. Yet at no point did we see the wall of admonishments for the “fanboys” to give Smith a chance; that the “fanboys” had let go of their ageist ideas and just get over it; that perhaps having a younger Doctor would finally rid fandom of the “fanboys.” That backlash was non-gendered. This time around, the backlash against Doctor Who fangirls was all about putting the girls in their place.

Sadly, it’s not hard to see how this developed. Geek culture is riding high on the wave of pop culture approval at the moment, but that wasn’t always the case. For years, fans of both genders had to scramble for respect as terms such as “geek” and “nerd” were tossed at us with a sneer. We rose above that by finding our tribe, regaling each other with facts and quotes and bootleg VHS tapes. To be fair, male fans had a harder time of it. Socially it was okay for girls to be enthusiastic about movies or books. Gendered expectations were that it wasn’t quite on for boys to lose themselves in fictional worlds once they outgrew G.I. Joe. They countered by becoming experts within their chosen hobbies, creating their own geek hierarchies where the only currency that mattered was knowledge, and advancement in the ranks had everything to do with intellect rather than how they handled a ball. They built magnificent clubhouses with intricate rules for inclusion and all was well. They made gatekeeping an art form. But now, those social barriers are crumbling, the once obscure things they loved are now cool and hip and — horrors — accessible to everyone. Even to girls who persist in doing it wrong. These ARE the fake geek girls. They haven’t paid their dues, they’re too irrational, too emotional, and not able to comprehend anything more significant than pretty actors. Not the fans who happened to be girls mind, just the fangirls.

These petty fandom politics are damaging, and create an environment of exclusion that seeps into the real world. These are the same sort of arguments that were used to keep women out of voting booths, jobs and political office. It’s the rationale that is still used to drive women away from video games, comics, and the Internet at large: they don’t count, their opinions don’t count and we’re going to make sure they know it. The Doctor Who incident may have started out as smug fannish gloating but soon turned into something darker and, at times, the Internet reverberated with the sound of older fans shouting at what they presumed to be teen-aged girls. A prominent Doctor Who forum twitter account started using the hashtag #wehatefangirls and lots of people saw nothing wrong with that.

It was deeply inappropriate and deeply uncomfortable.

Ascribing this behavior solely to a fandom that has a reputation for being cantankerous would be convenient, but fangirl derision is widespread. Ashton Kutcher’s 2013 Teen Choice Award acceptance speech, during which he explained key life lessons he had learned in his career, quickly went viral. One heavily linked site was where Pete Blackburn’s snarky entry said:

I’m not the biggest Ashton fan but this is a pretty amazing speech with a great message behind it. It kind of sucks that it probably went in one ear and out the other on a bunch of screaming girls who didn’t even pay attention to what he was saying but, hey, at least the rest of us got to enjoy it.

When a few commentators noted that the assessment was unfair and that the audience did listen to the speech, the response was a disheartening combination of sneering at teen-aged girls and accusations of rampant feminism. Apparently the very worst thing you can be in this world is an enthusiastic young woman. The second worst is a supporter of enthusiastic young women.

Geek culture is going through growing pains. We’re struggling, and continue to struggle, to be as inclusive, as fair, and as decent as we should be. But there are still those of us who feel awfully safe mocking female-centric fandom and fannish expressions. (Just drop the Stephenie Meyer/Twilight bomb in the middle of a SF/F conversation and see what happens. Hint: It won’t be pretty.) While we’re struggling with these issues which will, hopefully, lift us up to the next level of fannish enlightenment where we’re all just known as “fans”, the least we can do is strip the negative power from the word fangirl.

I define it and I own it.

I’m a fangirl. I’m the mother of fangirls, sister to fangirls and friend to many, many fangirls. I engage in some fandoms very deeply and very thoughtfully, and some simply because Rupert Graves is ridiculously hot. I applaud the creativity and enthusiasm that young fans are bringing to this crazy, amazing world and urge them to forge their own paths.

We’re all fangirls and we’re here to stay. So run, you clever boys, and remember us.

© Deborah Stanish

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  1. Tansy Rayner Roberts (@tansyrr)

    Oh, Deb. Just, wonderful.

    Having seen you work through your thoughts on this topic over the last few weeks, via Twitter and podcasting and finally producing this eminently linkable essay…

    Just, yes. You say it beautifully, and it needed to be said.

  2. ElanorMJ

    Yes. Just yes.

    Thank you so much for this, Deb. I am with you, a grown up fangirl and proud of it.

  3. RobertaK

    Enjoyed this piece; I’ve made some jokes in the past about fangirls in my particular field of interest (sports fandom)…yet as a 50+ woman, I confess to fangirling myself over one of my team’s media analyst, and I look forward to lusting after the new Doctor from afar without feeling like I’m robbing the cradle. 😉

  4. ruth waterton

    This is music to my ears, particularly the words “mother of fangirls”. If you think it’s tough being a New Who fangirl, try being one in your 50s. I am still extremely cautious about who I mention the name David Tennant to, but he had a lot to do with why I went back to college and did an MA in Shakespeare Studies in 2008.

  5. Mateus

    “Do you think the BBC cares who’s dropping cash on DVDs, sonic screwdrivers or TARDIS USB hubs? 20th Century Fox certainly isn’t checking to see if theater seats are being filled by X-Men experts or fans who want to check out Hugh Jackman’s more physical assets.”

    Ultimately they may not care, but it would be naive to think they’re not paying attention. DW’s casting in the Moffat era brought attention to the show and introduced new audiences to DW partly because of the “hotness” factor. A lot of the people that came to DW fell in love with the history and the lore and others just went on watching the new series disregarding it. It was bold from the BBC to cast Capaldi because ultimately we don’t know if this will impact the audience, but yes, there WAS a ~fangirl~ backlash, at least that’s what I witnessed in several threads and videos throughout the internet.

    • Shea Wong

      It’s interesting that you note the backlash. I too very closely followed the Capaldi choice, and I’d say from all the forums, groups, facebook threads, and tweets I read, the ‘complaining about fangirl backlash’ to ‘actual fangirl backlash’ was about 10 to 1. Most mentioned Capaldi’s age in a ‘oh no, I hope they still include running’ variant of complaint, not a ‘oh no, however will I fap my girly bits to this new incarnation’ complaint. However, the men and boys gleefully cheering on their beloved Doctor as all theirs again was deafening to the minor complaints of casting. The poor dears are going to be in for quite a shock in a few months when those ‘fake’ fangirls are still watching the show, aren’t they.

      • Mateus

        I really don’t mind the reasoning behind people watching DW as long as the show survives all the while it stays true to itself (I have my complains about Moffat’s Who, but overall Im still able to enjoy it). I hope people really keep watching the show, whoever they are and why, but this remains to be seen since the tone may shift. I have some friends who really hate DW for their own reasons, and for them I just say “oh well, it’s not for everyone”. I, for one, am very excited for whatever it is to come, just hope the BBC can keep it going for the next 50 years.

    • Jacqueline Moleski

      I disagree completely with Mateus. Why is it that men assume the ONLY reason a woman could watch a movie or TV show is the “hotness factor”? Do you REALLY think we are that shallow?
      The incredible rise in *Doctor Who* popularity has to do with many factors – but I don’t think Matt Smith’s supposed’ “hottness” is one of them. And it’s certainly not the most important one.

      1. FOUR actors have played the Doctor, since it’s re-launch in 2005, not just Matt Smith.
      2. Steven Moffatt has CONSCIOUSLY gone after the American market. From BBCAmerica’s special “Amy” introduction for Series 5 (I hated it, most fans hated it, it quickly disappeared, but guess what folks? THAT VOICEOVER DID NOT AIR IN THE UK!!!) to shooting part of an episode in the US, and setting several episodes in the US — Moffat is courting US fans. IMO, he’s doing it badly, but that’s another essay.
      3. The new series is successful WORLD wide, not just in the US, Canada, and the UK — tho’ those markets are obviously important to the BBC. BBC World-Wide not only airs the show, but is behind the sonic screwdrivers and TARDIS everythings.
      4. Doctor Who has been on the air for 50 years. Worlds longest running SF program. One of the longest running dramas for sure (other than soaps – can *you* name a drama that’s been around for 50 years?) obviously doing something right.
      5. Moffat, is good at PROMOTION. You see this with *Sherlock* too. Heck, you saw it with his comedies that he produced prior to *Sherlock* and *Doctor Who*. The guy understands international television, sales, promotion. He can talk the talk and walk the walk and speak to suits in languages they understand. Not every producer can. This in turn means ALL *Doctor Who* fans get things they want: the show airing immediately after the UK, cast appearances at Comic Con, merchandise, the 50th Anniversary world-wide simulcast.

      6. You said, “It was a bold move for the BBC to cast Capaldi,”. However, technically speaking, Moffat cast him. These days, producers cast shows, NOT the BBC. (This was NOT true back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s when the BBC operated with a system very similar to the US film industry “studio system” of the 30s, 40s, and 50s.) You can’t say: ‘Moffat cast Smith which brought in the ‘fangirls” then turn around and say, ‘the BBC cast Capaldi which is a bold move’. Sorry – that’s a failure of logic. You have to complement Moffat (or the BBC) for both. Or blame him (or the BBC) for both. But you can’t *blame* Moffat then turn around and *complement* the BBC.

  6. Shea Wong

    Amen Amen Amen. I too am an older fangirl (late 30s) who has dug sci fi and the Doctor since he was wearing a long scarf (and, strangely, he wasn’t that attractive. Oh, how did my fangirl self ever keep up with the storyline?). I now have nieces who grew up on DT’s incarnation of the Doctor, but who love the character, not the person who plays him.

    A few months ago when Iron Man 3 was doing the press rounds, winners of a ‘Fanboy rountable’ competition got to chat with Drew Pearce and Shane Black for about a half hour alone. Of the four of us at the table, two were female, two were male. The youngest was 13. I was the oldest. Each of us had incredibly in-depth questions, asking them about canon construction, backstory, the works. We were all clearly fans of the comic book as well as film franchise. It did my old geek heart proud to see the young ones trade twitter handles after the talk and geek out irrespective of their gender. Gave me a lot of hope that the new generation really are figuring out that more fans equals a better fandom. If only some of the old guard could get it through their skulls, we’d be a lot better off.

  7. Shelley Lee

    Bravo Deb! The tide does seem to be turning as these conversations are finally being had. The most disturbing aspect has been women gate keeping other women. This essay is the cream of the crop for the idea that there is no wrong way to be a fan.

  8. Ginger Crawford

    I’m just sick of the term being used, especially on FaceBook, as a club with which to shut us up and belittle Tennant fans. Most of the ones that do it are convinced that all polls are fixed and that Mr. Tennant has only every acted in Doctor Who. I’m 59 and don’t mind being a fangirl as long as it isn’t used as a form of abuse to shut up people like me. In all honesty I’ve left most DW groups because of a small but very vocal and very abusive subset of Tennant-hating bullies.

    • Jacqueline Moleski

      You’re in the wrong fan groups! The ones I’m in on Facebook love Tennant fans.
      I’ve also seen David Tennant in other roles. It’s outright *creepy* in “Secret Smile”, and his *Hamlet* with Patrick Stewart is brilliant. I’m currently watching “Spies of Warsaw” and it’s out and out depressing. But Tennant ALWAYS impresses.

      I guess for the record I should point out my favorite Doctors are: Davison, McCoy and Tennant! 🙂

  9. Robert Smith?

    Awesome article. But Peter Capaldi is 55 and Matt Smith will be 31 by the time he retires in December. But then perhaps this article was penned a year ago, in an incredible bit of foresight 🙂

  10. Sidsel Pedersen

    Also notice that part of the problem apparently also is women noticing and commenting on men’s hotness, while men do and have done the same at women without being called hysterical and/or overly emotional or silly. There is a reason that female superheroes’ costumes are skimpy. What is wrong with us woman thinking that men are attractive?

    Great piece!

    • Shea Wong

      Not even that – can you name one ‘ugly’ female companion on Who? Even when the Doctor was not ‘hot’ like Tennant, the companion has always been a lithe, gorgeous creature. Yet no one calls a guy who found Sarah Jane attractive ‘less than a true fan’.

      • Robert Smith?

        Donna wasn’t lithe and yet she’s many people’s favourite companion. (Though she’s the *only* non-lithe one.)

  11. Kathy

    And the war on women exists in fandom just as it does in mundania.

  12. Jacqueline Moleski

    Brilliant, brilliant, excellent essay — with so many good points it’s hard to say where to start. I think I want to start by saying that, overall, I think the Internet is a fun and brilliant place for Fannish Women. Yes, you are absolutely right – attacking other girls for “not doing it right” isn’t what fandom should be about. I’ve seen the Gatekeeping too – both on and off line. (And off-line it’s sad because the loudest voices in the “not doing it right” camp are gatekeeping themselves right out of the “business” – frankly we’re getting older, and if you’re not welcoming the new fans, you’re going to go extinct. There’s a convention I know that has this problem.) Anyway, though, when I see young Cosplayers at a convention, or read fanfic on-line, or watch music vids, or read blogs and other Social Media — I know that the women, often very young women, but the women are at least DOING something. They are engaging with media and transforming it in a way that suits their own means. So somehow – snarky criticism of the fact seems unfair. The backlash against the anti- Comic Con-Cosplayer (the girl in the purple outfit with the green hair that someone labeled “trying too hard”) shows, to me, that others ALSO think it’s unfair. It’s important to keep in mind the difference between a fanfic written by a 12 or 13 year old — and someone who’s been around writing fanfic for 15 or 20 years. But it’s EQUALLY important to encourage the young fan. Suggestions for improvement can be made without being harsh or mean. It can be hard – but it’s possible. (Here’s a hint, if you want to help the younger fan improve their: fic, vids, costumes, etc — don’t write a critique when you’re tired or having a bad day, put it aside for a bit).
    But what I also saw in a thread about bullying on Twitter (um, the thread was on Twitter, not the bullying) was a call to “Throw the entire Internet baby out with the bathwater” – ban kids from any Internet contact etc. And a tolerance for bullying in person (or a disbelief that it still happens). Views to the contrary were shut down so fast and so coldly it was almost, ironically, a form of bullying the opposing view. Not a view that bullying is ‘good’ – of course not, but the view that the Internet has good things too.
    So, anyway, thanks for the brilliant post. I loved it!

  13. JohnDavis

    The simple truth is many of Doctor Who’s more vocal female fans were put off when Tennant left DW. A HUGE number of the female contingent that got into it through his time as the Doctor complained about Smith’s looks when he was announced. I don’t need to choose examples because we all remember the back lash too well. It was an incredibly frustrating time to be a long term fan of DW. The fans that had been watching since forever got their backs up because of this and of course would make comments and call people fangirls when Capaldi was announced. It’s merely a case of long term fans being afraid of history repeating. I have met people first hand and witnessed girls on the Internet complaining about Capaldi not being hot. I’m sorry but I have! They’ll all quickly forget about that when he takes over of course.

    While I agree with the sentiment of this post I do think the writer has clearly forgotten what it was like around DW fandom 4 years ago when Smith was announced and has probably not spoken to hundreds of DW fans about Capaldi before making the presumption that the young female fan contingent have just welcomed him with open arms…

    I am willing to bet that we will come back to this article a year from now with a GENUINE example of how the young female fans have taken to Capaldi, until then I will join everyone in congratulating the author in calling out the chauvinistic attitudes of many of the DW fan circles!

    Also one last question – who here would like a female Doctor to take over after Capaldi?

    • Robert Smith?

      “The simple truth is many of Doctor Who’s more vocal female fans were put off when Tennant left DW. A HUGE number of the female contingent that got into it through his time as the Doctor complained about Smith’s looks when he was announced. ”

      You have data to back up your claims, of course? Statistics and the like?

    • Mateus

      I really wish someone like Tilda Swinton would take the role when the day comes for a female doctor

      • Kathy

        “I really wish someone like Tilda Swinton would take the role when the day comes for a female doctor”

        That day should have come long ago.

        • Mateus

          Hopefully it won’t take much longer than it already is. Tilda has an androgynous/alien quality that I identify a lot with the Doctor and an actress that could translate these to the screen would be an instant favorite, perhaps the best incarnation of the character yet. She could be a bit like Eccleston and Smith, but more alien and unattached. I have seen some pics of Tilda sporting some steampunk apparel and it looked awesome, very akin to what I would like to see with DW, I mean, just look at this:

    • Tansy Rayner Roberts (@tansyrr)

      I think you’re missing the point that there were just as many outspoken ‘old school’ Doctor Who fans who were upset about Matt Smith’s casting because of how young he was. Is that a more valid response than fans being upset he isn’t as conventionally attractive as the previous Doctor?

      Fans getting upset about the new actor between him being cast in the role and actually turning up in his first episode is a long-standing tradition and one in which people of all ages, fan histories and genders often participate in. Complaining is, basically, what most Doctor Who fans do.

      Just look at the anger and resentment that has been bubbling about the 50th anniversary story not being a good enough celebration for us, up to a year before it ACTUALLY airs.

      It’s a basic double standard to call out the young female fans for voicing their responses without acknowledging that everyone else does it too. I saw probably as least as many fans upset at the Capaldi choice because he wasn’t female or an actor of colour (a minority but a very angry minority)- and I also saw male as well as female fans concerned that Capaldi’s “advanced age” meant he might not be able to do as much running as his predecessors.

      And let’s not forget how many long-term (mostly male) fans have been complaining about David Tennant’s Doctor for years (and still continue to do so). I’ve talked to male fans who love Smith but hated Tennant AND male fans who couldn’t accept Matt Smith after Tennant. An awful lot of men have also been nitpicking at and bitching about Jenna Coleman for the last year. Many male fans hated Amy Pond. MANY of them were quite vile and horrid about Donna. And let’s not forget the Rose-hatred that rolls out of Doctor Who fandom circles that are dominated by men to the point that many women who love the character don’t feel they can speak up at all.

      I personally love Peter Capaldi, but then I love all the Doctors, and I do despair at any and all waves of negativity around Doctor Who casting.

      But Deb’s essay is about how the fannish responses of young women are being treated with a different level of sneering, trivialisation and anger than any other fannish responses. It doesn’t matter how many girls actually have complained about Peter Capaldi’s hotness levels on the internet, the backlash against those fans for daring to feel that way has been much louder and more ugly.

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