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A Feminist Bait-and-switch: The Hunger Games And The Illusion Of Empowerment

The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins, has been praised for its strong female protagonist who resists societal conventions and stands as a symbol of resistance to patriarchal systems. Yet Katniss Everdeen eventually abandons her steadfast individualism and feminist sensibilities in order to submit to the domestic desires of a male character. The series uses feminism and the illusion of female empowerment to establish Katniss as a role model for young readers, but ultimately pulls a bait-and-switch. In the end, The Hunger Games series reinforces the same patriarchal systems it supposedly resists and encourages hetero- and repronormativity, thus indoctrinating young readers toward prescribed gender roles and constraints.

Because The Hunger Games is categorized as young adult (YA) literature, there are very specific implications of this feminist bait-and-switch that are crucial to the understanding of why the series is not only anti-feminist, but also extremely antiquated in its value system. In Ideologies in Adolescent Fiction: The Dialogic Construction of Subjectivity, Robin McCallum explores how YA fiction lends itself to identity formation. It is generally assumed that the readers of such fiction are adolescents, who are considered not to have fully formed into the adults they will eventually become. YA literature seeks to participate in this formation by instilling didacticism within its narratives, guiding young readers to not simply find their identity, but specifically to find the correct kind of identity. Gail Schmunk Murray adds that this literature reveals the essence of mainstream culture in terms of behavioral standards and expectations (xv). This includes emphasis on themes present in Collins’ work, including: heterosexual and reproductive relationships, conformity, respect for authority figures, the value of the nuclear family as well as general patriarchal structures, and acceptable gender roles.

This is, by no means, a new phenomenon, nor is The Hunger Games unique in its ultimate didacticism. In Criticism, Theory and Children's Literature, Peter Hunt explains that a well-constructed children's narrative "ultimately, proscribes thought” (116). Children's literature often functions as a lecture meant to mold children before they even reach adolescence and the ability to question the values or lessons being presented. Jack Zipes describes literature for young people as being unique in that it has "always been used as weapons or instruments to train" young readers into becoming ideal adults (66).

Providing insight as to why antiquated gender and sex standards exist in contemporary narratives, Belinda Louie's article, “Why Gender Stereotypes Still Persist in Contemporary Children's Literature," explores the presence of gender stereotypes in this literature as well as the cultural history of these ideals. In the 1970s, interest in this topic began because of the women's movement when gender bias became a major topic of cultural interest (142). Louie describes literature for young readers as a mechanism for socialization that influences children by "molding and shaping our definitions and expectations of how we should behave, think, and feel as male and female in our world” (142). Karen Coats demonstrates how this literature continually reaffirms patriarchal values and thus privileges and promotes heterosexuality (7). She argues that even when the text is deliberatively and blatantly attempting to celebrate diversity or alternate lifestyles, such as what Katniss may have desired for herself, "there is often the unconscious acknowledgment that deviance from white, masculine heteronormativity is a problem to be solved" (7).

Alison Lurie's research explores expectations of gender roles present in literature for young people, including classical folklore and ultimately argues that female characters who steps out of proscribed constraints is usually punished in some way for her betrayal of societal conventions, thus continually frightening young girls and reinforcing conformity to traditional gender roles. Using the façade of Katniss’ empowerment, individualism, and anti-patriarchal rebellion to position her as a feminist role model for YA readers, The Hunger Games ultimately reinforces that the ideal heroine will surrender her personal power, will abandon any sense of self outside of heterosexual/repronormative domestic pairings, and will submit to restrictive systems.


Aside from literary contexts, social theories also shed light on the use of a seemingly feminist character to ultimately prescribe patriarchal values. In “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich states that the socialization that occurs during childhood establishes and reinforces heterosexuality and repronormativity as the only "right" way of life, particularly for women. Rich proves her point by demonstrating a natural inclination for women to seek relationships with other women, along a spectrum that ranges from purely platonic and even maternal, to romantic and sexual. She describes heterosexuality as being so thoroughly grounded in societal structures that women are often without the choice to live their lives as they would like and must enter heterosexual conventions in order to survive socially and economically (659). This is particularly true for women, like Katniss, who are economically disadvantaged and explains the character’s ultimate decision to enter heterosexual domesticity:

Women have married because it was necessary, in order to survive economically, in order to have children who would not suffer economic deprivation or social ostracism, in order to remain respectable, in order to do what was expected of women because coming out of ‘abnormal’ childhoods they wanted to feel ‘normal,’ and because heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure, duty, and fulfillment. (Rich 654)

Further explaining anxieties around choice for women, Maxine Baca Zinn describes changing familial values as women have gained more equality and fully entered the workforce. She theorizes that with these changes for women came the decline of traditional marriage as well as the rise of single-parent households and female-headed families, all of which cause fractured social, economic, and political systems (49, 52). Interestingly, as women gained more legal rights, birth rates in every population group in the United States dropped (D’Emilio 35). The Hunger Games series responds to fears of women migrating from the home into the workforce by featuring a strong, independent female who repeatedly declares her lack of interest in reproduction. John D’Emilio, in “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” elaborates that with the rise of capitalism and wage labor, familial functions and structures have transformed drastically (34). Compulsory heterosexual values and repronormative ideals altered as women found a place for themselves outside of the domestic setting, complicating Katniss’ and all contemporary women’s position.

Dystopias, like that of Panem in The Hunger Games, are exaggerations of contemporary social issues or fears and function as warnings of what could happen if change does not occur. Andreu Domingo’s “‘Demodystopias’: Prospects of Demographic Hell,” explains that “the late-twentieth century saw the emergence of feminist authors” and a call to return to classic values (735). He argues that the genre of deodystopic fiction is caused by fears about the population and fertility (735). This fear involves the population dwindling to extinction because of infertility or refusal (usually on the part of women) to reproduce. This concern seems odd when considering that the world’s population is at an all-time high, so it is likely that the real concern is not the quantity of reproduction that takes place, but the moral quality involved. Future generations must value the traditional, patriarchal family or such a system stands to vanish altogether. Collins’ dystopia reflects an underlying fear that women will remove themselves so far from the traditional, domestic home that they risk the extinction of all that domesticity implies. Katniss must marry and have children in order to reassure readers that there is a chance for a hopeful future.

Targeting young readers , The Hunger Games trilogy uses the illusion of feminism, empowerment, and individualism to reinforce the societal need for patriarchal domesticity and to reinforce compulsory heterosexuality and repronormativity. The result is a lesson for contemporary readers that traditional, heterosexual domesticity and reproduction are the only means for a positive future, and proof that choice for women is nothing more than an illusion.


On the surface, Katniss Everdeen stands for social justice as she demands empowerment in a social system where such freedom is not available. She is a symbol of revolution and resistance against a corrupt dystopian government that establishes and flaunts control over the disadvantaged by starving them and forcing children to slaughter one another. Her power and stance as a feminist heroine are established at the beginning of the series when she volunteers to sacrifice herself and serve as tribute, one of the young people forced to murder and die in the Hunger Games, so that her younger sister, Prim, will be spared ( Hunger Games 22). She actively chooses to participate in the system rather than allow her family or herself to passively be victimized. Instead of crying and worrying about what horrors await her, Katniss is more concerned with securing food for her mother and sister, something she had illegally been providing for years, and works to ensure that they will be taken care of in her absence (34). Katniss actively disobeys and violates the system, entering the games already familiar with working outside of societal parameters.

Throughout the initial games, she is bold and refuses to be underestimated, ignored, or denied as a worthy opponent. At the event when tributes individually demonstrate a survival skill for the assessment of game officials, an event that plays a major role in determining sponsorship and thereby chances of survival, Katniss is enraged to find that the Gamemakers are more interested in eating than in paying attention to her skill. She recognizes her value, even if they do not, and forces them to see it: “Suddenly I am furious, that with my life on the line, they don’t even have the decency to pay attention to me” and then fires an arrow directly at them, rendering them, if only for a brief moment, helpless ( Hunger Games 101-102). She then walks out of the room, aware that she has broken every rule of decorum, but unwilling to be overlooked, despite the potential damage to her chances. This moment is crucial, not only in her violation of protocol, but in the fact that a female has demanded, successfully, to be heard when society has no interest in what she has to say.

While this act was driven by passion, the reader understands it to be a bold act of defiance that only furthers her position as a feminist role model. Aside from this moment, Katniss stands apart from many other YA female characters who are easily swayed by emotion because she is able to constantly control her emotions. She understands the game and how her conduct not only influences the audience’s favor, but also stands as one of the only things she has control over ( Hunger Games 164). She refuses to cry or show weakness because she needs to convey her strength, needs to draw in sponsorship, and needs to show that the games have not broken her. She holds herself as a person in control and is thereby able to view herself as such, giving her the confidence to beat the system and win the game. Katniss, in her independence, fierce courage, and emotional self-control appears to serve as symbols of direct opposition to patriarchal values and gender conventions. Yet she eventually abandons her individuality, quiets herself, and begrudgingly enters a domestic heterosexual and reproductive relationship in order to serve the same values she seemed to have once directly opposed. Her surrender at the end of a series that positioned her as a feminist heroine tells young readers, so inspired by her courage, to follow her lead into antiquated systems and gender roles.



Rich describes lesbianism existing on a continuum, where such relationships vary from sexual in nature to maternal, sisterly, and platonic friendship. She theorizes, “Lesbian existence is also represented as mere refuge away from male abuses, rather than as an electric and empowering charge between women” (658). Katniss demonstrates close bonds with other female characters, and is denied prolonged existence in these relationships. This denial is either under the illusion of personal choice or it is enforced by outside forces.

Throughout the series, Katniss has two characters who inspire and compel her: her sister, Prim, and Rue, a young, female tribute from District 11. As these relationships are between children, they are not sexual in nature. Katniss acts as a mother to both characters and seeks to protect them, no matter the personal cost. Interestingly, both relationships are preferred to partnerships with males, and both relationships end in the death of the young girl. This reinforces that while Katniss (or any woman) may prefer a female companion, ultimately, this is not a viable choice for physical and societal survival.

Katniss and Rue form an immediate partnership based on trust, symbiosis, and intimacy in a hyperbolically turbulent and violent setting. Rue is never portrayed as a threat, as though the two had an unspoken understanding. She assists with a defensive strategy and protects an unconscious Katniss without being prompted. Perhaps solely because of the resemblance to her sister, Katniss takes on a maternal role and cares for Rue, who, despite her young age, had thus far been successfully surviving the game. The two work together and combine their skills to gather food and navigate other tributes ( The Hunger Games ). They are perfectly complimentary partners, one being a hunter and the other a gatherer. Although the nature of the competition means that they are pitted against one another in a battle for survival, the two trust each other “wholeheartedly” and lovingly snuggle in their sleep (208). This relationship, unlike her eventual partnership and marriage to Peeta, is Katniss’ choice. She enters without reservation and develops a true connection with Rue.

This relationship ends abruptly when Rue is violently murdered by another tribute. It is curious, when considering the eventual emphasis on traditional reproduction and domesticity, that a maternal relationship would be eliminated. One might assume that any interest on Katniss’ behalf to become a mother would be celebrated. However, this relationship resembles a single-parent household rather than the ‘ideal’ heterosexual patriarchal family that the series seems to advocate. Katniss’ mother, also a single parent, is portrayed as unable to care for her two daughters, thus Katniss must become mother to her sister. Again, she becomes a single parent in a relationship that ultimately ends with the death of the child.

Traumatic loss is often used as a tool in literature for young people. Death and loss are the primary focus in Eric Tribunella's work where he argues that death functions as a way to teach beneficial lessons to young readers. The protagonist loses something or someone dear to her and is able to grow and mature because of that loss (xi). Tribunella explains that the trauma of death becomes: “a kind of inoculation by which the toxicity of loss is introduced into the life of a child in order to help the child develop a resistance" to the hardships of life (xii). In essence, loss ideally brings about the necessary loss of childhood (125). Masha Rudman, however, argues that death does not represent opportunities for maturity, but instead exists as punishment and threat. In Children's Literature: An Issues Approach, she claims that death is used to frighten or deter characters from "wickedness" (341). This threat is effective in showing young readers that wicked characters who continue their wicked ways will always be killed "justly" (341). She continues: "All witches and dragons and ogres and giants die. So, too, do most if not all of the hero's enemies. The death is often violent and described in gory detail" (341). And while neither Rue nor Prim are presented as “wicked,” perhaps their relationship with Katniss is meant to be understood as such, if only inappropriate. The point is clear: these familial bonds, formed without a traditional heterosexual relationship, cannot be sustained.

Katniss must eventually partner with Peeta as the rules force the tributes to partner up with someone of the opposite sex. This mandatory union is purely for the sake of survival and t to adhere to game rules. Similarly, at the end of the series, Katniss cares only for Prim, who is killed by a bomb in one of the final scenes. Again, Katniss is left no other choice than to unite with Peeta. These female relationships are violently torn from her to reinforce the lack of choice. Rich claims that lesbianism is viewed as a direct attack on male access to women and their bodies (649), as Katniss surely never would have chosen to partner with Peeta had she any options or if Prim and Rue had survived. Relationships along the lesbian continuum are acknowledged but would have impeded Peeta’s eventual domestic ownership of Katniss.

In Beauty, Brains, and Brawn: The Construction of Gender in Children's Literature, Susan Lehr explains that literature for young people often functions to control females in either codes of conduct or general expectations for their lives (7). She references Roberta Seelinger Trites, who argues that a true feminist narrative would be one where characters of either sex have options, choices, and possibility (Lehr 15). Importantly, a true feminist text would "reject the notion that heterosexual relationships are more important [than] friendships and bonds between women" (15). Katniss seems to have the choice of relationships with other female characters, but events in the narrative continually reinforce the fleeting nature of such choices and the ultimate need to partner in a heterosexual pairing.


In the late-twentieth-century, many feminist scholars declared marriage to be the “primary site of women’s oppression” (Baca Zinn 45). Yet, as women gained further equality and freedom in the workforce, many chose to return to the home and work solely as mothers or homemakers. Women have earned the freedom to choose domesticity or to reject it. In looking at the evolving feminist standpoint on marriage, “Feminist viewpoints have challenged the tendency to treat families as if they were natural and inevitable human arrangements. Instead, feminism has argued that families are social. They differ dramatically across time, space, and social strata” (Baca Zinn 46). Feminist scholars recognize that families vary widely as do the reasons women decide whether or not to create one. There still exist claims, such as Rich’s, that marriage is a forced convention of patriarchy, something no woman would enter freely.

For Katniss, any outward interest in domesticity and conventional femininity is nothing more than a tool to ensure audience favor and survival in the Hunger Games. She does not make these choices freely, but purely out of a will to survive. She feigns affection for Peeta because she believes the audience will prefer her as a lovesick young girl rather than a headstrong, independent woman. After she wins the first game and is forced into the second, this illusion becomes less tolerable. Forced into the role of a bride by the Capitol, the illusion of traditional domesticity is used to convey the appearance of acceptance of societal norms and a resistance to change. When Cinna directs Katniss to spin on stage in her Capitol-selected wedding gown, it catches on fire and transforms into the costume of a mockingjay, the symbol of the revolution ( Catching Fire 252). The destruction of the wedding dress, of domesticity, allows for expression of her honest personal beliefs and position. Resistance of domesticity and forced traditions is used to reinforce that Katniss is a leader, a hero, and a symbol for change.

This resistance is part of her character throughout the series. From the beginning, Katniss directly states that she never wants to have children ( Hunger Games 9). She never pines for romance or fantasizes herself settling down into a traditional domestic role. In the last book, she daydreams momentarily about running away from everything, now that her family is safe. Her fantasy of the future involves being completely separated from and not responsible for anyone else. The only thing that stops her from living the life she wants is Peeta: “If I knew for sure that he was dead, I could just disappear into the woods and never look back. But until I do, I’m stuck” ( Mockingjay 13). It is crucial to note that she does not hope to find him alive and make a life with him. Rather, she expresses an interest in his death so that she can avoid feeling guilty about living the life she wants. Instead of this desired autonomous existence, Katniss eventually enters a life of domesticity with Peeta. The most problematic issue of this choice is her confession that, “It took five, ten, fifteen years for me to agree. But Peeta wanted them so badly. When I first felt her stirring inside of me, I was consumed with a terror that felt as old as life itself” ( Mockingjay 389). She has children with Peeta, despite her own fears, despite her own adamant feeling against it, because he persists and she submits. This submission reflects Rich’s notion that heterosexual men, as well as patriarchy in general, need to take ownership of women’s bodies in order to assert their dominance—out of fear of women resisting such submission (643).

Interestingly, Collins includes a love triangle that ends with the very intentional rejection of a true partnership with a male. Katniss rejects the potential equality of a relationship with Gale. It is Gale she trusts to watch her family when she has to enter the Hunger Games, Gale who helps her hone her skills as a hunter, and Gale who provides her with a sense of security and safety in turbulent times ( Hunger Games 109, 111). Gale is the only character, besides Katniss, who dares to risk his life for others ( Mockingjay 7, 165). She is a capable, selfless hero who would do anything to save others, and so is he. Towards the end of the series, when Katniss is no longer sure who can be trusted and what side is right, he is the only thing she is still certain of: “Heart pounding, adrenaline burning through me, everyone is my enemy. Except Gale. My hunting partner, the one person who has my back” ( Mockingjay 341). It seems incredibly strange that, as she is positioned so that she must make a choice between the two male characters, she would not choose the only person that she considered to support her and not to be her enemy in some way. But one must wonder if their equal partnership contradicts traditional patriarchal structures where one partner, typically a male, is superior and dominant. What might the series tell young readers if Katniss were to end up in a relationship where such a structure was obsolete? Further, there is a sense that their “heart pounding adrenaline” would foster a relationship filled with excitement, which might make it impossible for her to settle into the expected role of tamed, traditional domesticity.

In order to better disguise the inequalities between Katniss and her eventual partner, Peeta saves Katniss’ life at several points throughout the series. He burns bread intentionally so that her family will not starve, he tells her to run while still pretending to be working with the career tributes, and every invention of domesticity or romance is purely for the sake of helping her chances at surviving the games ( Hunger Games 30, 193). When Katniss is plagued by violent nightmares that will haunt her for the rest of her life, her only relief comes when sleeping in Peeta’s presence ( Catching Fire 85). However, the majority of their relationship revolves around her taking care of, protecting, and serving him rather than interaction as equals. From the onset, he is aware of his weakness and admits that he stands no chance of survival and only hopes to die without disgracing his family ( Hunger Games 141). Despite this, Katniss repeatedly risks her life in order to save his even though she has a family depending on her for survival and he does not. She carries the weight of her own life, her family’s, and his on her shoulders without any assistance or relief, even after the games and revolution are over. During the initial games, Katniss pulls Peeta from the mud, risks her life to obtain medicine for his festering wound, and drags herself back to apply it before collapsing from her own injuries. After she wakes, after risking everything to save him, she finds that he has eaten nearly all of their food and she is expected to hunt for more ( Hunger Games 291).

One could argue that Katniss’ choice to wed a weaker male is evidence of shifting gender roles in domesticity and a sign of the rise of feminism, or even that her role as a caretaker is taken by choice and a reflection of her character. However, this is clearly not the case. Physical abuse in the relationship between Katniss and Peeta is not only present, but brutal. After Peeta has been brainwashed by the Capitol, he chokes Katniss with such severity that her throat is crushed and she nearly dies ( Mockingjay 177). Considering that this series is aimed at young readers, this violence is extremely problematic, especially in that Katniss eventually marries her abuser. To diminish the appearance of approval of domestic violence, Collins explains that Peeta is no longer his normal self and has been mentally compromised. Society is to blame, not him. He couldn’t control himself and should not be held accountable. Regardless, even after Katniss has rescued him from torture and he has just attempted to kill her, he is still the victim; she will always pity him, protect him, and place his needs and experience above her own ( Mockingjay 230, 302).

As the final blow to any sense of feminism or empowerment, Katniss confesses at the end of the series that she is still and will forever be plagued by violent nightmares. She explains that survival and maintaining any sort of optimism about life is all part of a game, a game she finds redundant and tedious after more than twenty years. The series ends with this statement: “But there are worse games to play” ( Mockingjay 390). Are these her choices: a life she never wanted or the exaggerated violence of corrupt government? Both are a punishment and both are unfair and unjust constrictions. Her final defeated sentiment tells young readers, “You might not want these conventions for yourself, but being forced into a life and role you never wanted is a lot easier than taking risks, being independent, and living the ‘dangerous’ lifestyle as woman not in heterosexual, reproductive domesticity.” Or perhaps, less subtly: “The choice is between patriarchal conventions or brutal violence.” What choice is a young reader really expected to make for herself?


For Katniss, domesticity is a strategic maneuver to survive. Gale clarifies, “Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can’t survive without” ( Mockingjay 329). Her affection for Peeta is purely a survival method. This becomes so ingrained in her that even after the games have ended, she cannot abandon these learned techniques. She wants to pull away from Peeta’s embrace but can hear the voice of Haymitch, their advisor, telling her to play the part in order to win the games ( Hunger Games 302). In Catching Fire, after being told of the violent repercussions if she does not fake domestic bliss, she thinks, “There’s only one future, if I want to keep those I love alive and stay alive myself. I’ll have to marry Peeta” ( Catching Fire 44). This is her choice: marry Peeta or die. Yet the choice is further complicated because Katniss feels that she owes a debt to Peeta, one that only her affection can repay ( Mockingjay 116). Guilt and trauma are instrumental in her life and decision-making process. As Rich theorizes, domesticity and marriage are the only ways to ensure survival and a better future. They are the only ways to signal that Panem has been fully disassembled.

The complete erosion of the patriarchal system and the refusal to reproduce signals a declaration that there is no hope left for society (Domingo 735). Rich confronts this notion when she discusses Dorothy Dinnerstein’s book, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and the Human Malaise, where Dinnerstein claims that the end of two-parent, heterosexual families will lead to “violence and self-extinction,” which is the exact setting Katniss must prevent from occurring (634). The Hunger Games functions to provide an answer to the decline of marriage and traditional familial structures. The solution is for a strong woman to choose a traditional, inferior role in domesticity. Katniss’ choices inform young female readers that a woman should do everything in her power to preserve the family system. The series ends with Katniss having surrendered all of her personal power in order to give Peeta the domestic life he desires. Yet she is the more powerful figure in their relationship, even if she chooses to suppress that power and serve her husband. According to Domingo, the fact that her ‘happy ending’ only comes once she has surrendered her power “suggests that gender equality promoted by feminism is one of the causes leading us to hell” (736).


The Hunger Games series seems to be designed to convince readers of Katniss’ role as a fiercely independent, selfless heroine in order to build their confidence in her choices and personal resolve. She has already become a role model for readers by the time that they arrive at her domestic surrender, which does not take place until the last few pages of the last novel. Her domesticity is strategic, and so is its placement in the series. Readers have joined her for three major adventures, have seen her always choose the best way to survive, and are presented with her ultimate choice in such a quick, nonchalant fashion, that they do not have time to digest its implications before the series ends. While initial impressions might position Katniss as a feminist character who rejects conventions, this subversion is purely superficial. In the end, the reader is to understand that the changes in her are necessary, thus “instilling lessons about maturity, adulthood, and social values” ( Disturbing the Universe ix).

In Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children's Novels, Seelinger Trites expands on the urgent need and importance of true feminist literature for young readers. She explains that because educators and parents recognized the efficacy of books to indoctrinate children "into socially sanctioned behaviors," authors continued to include such lessons and values in their work: "As a result, the politics of the marketplace have determined the politics of gender in children's literature for over two hundred years" (4). Feminism and youth are defined by "issues of freedom and choice," so YA literature must reflect the choices and freedom available in contemporary culture (2). A true feminist protagonist must be aware of her agency, true to her own personality, and free to make her own decisions (6). The Hunger Games series features a character who lacks agency, choice, and the freedom to be true to herself and to pursue her inner desires. Because of this, it seems apparent that Collins intentionally positioned Katniss as a feminist heroine in order to reinforce patriarchal values, gender constraints, and that the only responsible choice a woman can and should make is to submit.

Author's Bio: Sarah Thaller received her PhD in literature from Washington State University, where her research focused on young adult literature, mental illness, disability, gender and sexuality, and positions of "Otherness." Her other research interests include comics, language and accessibility, Native American literature, feminist literature, and children's literary theory. She currently teaches composition and literature courses for community college students, and always encourages her students to bring new lenses to familiar texts. Sarah lives in Seattle with her family.


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