‘Frozen’: Disney’s First Foray into Feminism

Act of Love Poster Frozen

Spoiler Alert

Frankly, I was surprised by Disney’s latest animated film Frozen. Even though it featured the voice of my beloved heroine Veronica Mars (or as she’s known in real life: Kristen Bell), I was pretty sure Frozen was going to feed us Disney’s standard company line about princesses and marriage and girls needing to be rescued all the time. I was wrong. Though the film still showcases impossibly thin, rich, white girls who are princesses, this isn’t a story about romantic love or some dude rescuing a damsel in distress. Not only does Frozen effortlessly pass the Bechdel Test within five minutes, it’s a story that’s centered around sisterhood and the power that exists inside young women.

The most important relationship in Frozen, the one that drives all the action, all the pathos, is that of Anna and her sister Elsa. The two of them love each other very deeply, but they struggle to connect. Snow Queen Elsa strives to protect her little sister from harm first by hiding her own amazing abilities to create/manipulate snow and ice and then by refusing to allow Anna to marry a man she’s only just met. Elsa has donned the mantle of big sister with a great deal of seriousness, including all the responsibility that comes with it. When Elsa’s powers are outed at court, Anna’s unflagging love and determination prompts her to go after her fleeing sister who holes up in a pristine snow castle. We learn that Elsa was right to protect her sister from a hasty marriage, which is a huge change from Disney’s traditional espousing of the myth of love-at-first-sight, but we also learn that Anna’s love and acceptance is the only thing that can save her reclusive sister.

[caption id="attachment_6090" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Sisters Elsa and Anna join hands. Sisters Elsa and Anna join hands.[/caption]

In Frozen, female agency and power are paramount. Elsa has cosmically awesome winter powers (she should seriously consider a trip to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters). Anna, our heroine, is normal, which is a refreshing change of pace from most fantasy stories where the lead is imbued with a striking talent or birthright. Though Anna has no unique skills or magical powers, it is her compassion that makes her extraordinary. Anna’s personality makes her special because she never gives up, never questions her own capability, and never thinks she can’t do something. With her courage and conviction, Anna is the driving force behind all the film’s action. The male characters are mostly along for the ride, lending support or acting as obstacles to the true goal of the film: the reconnection of two estranged sisters.

Let’s talk a little bit about Elsa’s winter superpowers. From adolescence, Elsa and her parents fear her growing powers. Elsa seeks to control, minimize, and hide her powers. With the “swirling storm inside”, Elsa loses her grip on her carefully guarded secret and outs herself at her coronation party. After fleeing the scene, she sings, “Conceal. Don’t feel. Don’t let them know,” before declaring she’s going to, “Let it go.” (Full song below.)

Elsa’s abilities that are connected to her emotions and mature with age are obviously a metaphor for her powerful sexuality, and I’d even go so far as to argue that Elsa and her family struggle with her queer sexuality, her parents even fearing that she would infect her younger sister. Yes, I think there is general discomfort around female sexuality in all its forms. However, Anna is blossoming sexually, and there is not the same stigma or fear surrounding it because her conventional hetero sexuality gravitates towards marriage to a prince. There is no male love interest for Elsa (despite Anna having two suitors). Elsa’s queer sexuality is so foreign that her subjects are horrified, and she must isolate herself, becoming a literal ice queen. While Elsa feels free to be honest with herself and to feel her feelings within her isolated castle, she does not believe acceptance is possible nor that she can be a part of normal society.

[caption id="attachment_6098" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Elsa tries to scare Anna away and even accidentally hurts her in the process. Elsa tries to scare Anna away and even accidentally hurts her in the process.[/caption]

When Elsa accidentally strikes Anna with a shard of her ice powers, Anna’s heart becomes frozen, and only “an act of true love” can thaw it and save her from death. Everyone in the film assumes true love’s kiss will cure her, but, frankly, I had my fingers crossed (literally) that Elsa would have to kiss her sister to save her (platonically, of course). We were all wrong. It turned out that Anna had to perform the act of true love, keeping her firmly in the self-actualized role of heroine, making her own choices, taking action, and creating her own destiny. That’s an even better plot twist than I could have imagined! Anna’s act of self-sacrifice shows Elsa that acceptance is possible, that Anna knew about her dark secret and loved her anyway. They’re not saved by a man or romantic love. This is an act of true love between sisters, and that act saves them both. One word: beautiful.

[caption id="attachment_6100" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Beautiful sisterhood. Beautiful sisterhood.[/caption]

Disney was clearly doing their feminist homework when they came up with Frozen. They created a story about young women that didn’t revolve around men, where family and sisterhood trump everything else, where two sisters save each other. They even have Kristoff ask Anna for consent before he kisses her, and the movie doesn’t end with a wedding. Disney still has to work on its depiction of impossible female bodies that are usually white. They need to start telling stories about regular girls and not just richie-rich princesses. They need to be more open and honest about their queer characters instead of hiding them under metaphor, but all in all, Frozen is a huge leap forward for Disney. I’m glad I went to see it. I’m glad I took my six-year-old niece to see it with me, and though their white skin and privileged lifestyle doesn’t match hers, I think Frozen imparted an important lesson about sisterhood, love, and acceptance that is invaluable to young girls everywhere.
Amanda Rodriguez is an environmental activist living in Asheville, North Carolina. She holds a BA from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio and an MFA in fiction writing from Queens University in Charlotte, NC. She writes all about food and drinking games on her blog Booze and Baking. Fun fact: while living in Kyoto, Japan, her house was attacked by monkeys.


  • aliye mehmet
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    I like this write. Thank you Bitch flicks is a amazing!

  • LeE
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I agree with sooo much of your article and how important it is that Disney is stepping in the right direction for strong females who can be the protagonists of their own story! However, I can’t see solely labeling Elsa’s powers as a symbolism of sexuality. I see her powers as more of the “essence” of herself that she has been told/taught to suppress by her loved ones and society…whether it be sexuality, a unique gift, or an ability. I think it shows the struggles that ANY girl/woman has in life due to society’s stigmas towards females in general. Her powers are connected to her emotions, as you mentioned, which one can relate to a girl or woman suppress her feelings, beliefs, or emotions (“don’t feel”) in order to appease her loved ones or society. Whether it be to appease family, friends, lovers (no matter the sexual preference), teachers, bosses, etc. If you look at her powers as a persons unique abilities, gifts, or interests being suppressed by others, due to society’s beliefs/agendas, you could argue a woman could feel discouraged of her abilities/gifts in a male dominated field. Professors criticizing “women’s inability to design” in a class lecture, or a women’s ability/knowledge being questioned on a construction site, women trying to emerge in male dominate sports hearing “you’re a girl, you’re not strong enough, women aren’t made to do that,” etc. Elsa had suppressed herself, her feelings, and interests to in order to “protect” people from herself. One could argue she felt she didn’t have the option for a life or love with anyone (no matter what sexuality preference she would choose – as you can see she didn’t even consider love PERIOD for herself) she only saw protecting others from herself. How can one say she had a queer or hetero sexuality if she had never allowed her self to come out of the room in the first place. I don’t think they were trying to “blanket” a queer characteristic under a metaphor – as I don’t think that was the metaphor intended – it’s much bigger/general. I think it was to show people to embrace their own differences, gifts, abilities, interests (and sure, sexuality) and how suppressing them will only lead to unhappiness…and how learning to embrace someone else’s abilities/gifts/differences can bring joy and blessings to the world.

    • Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for your response and glad you enjoyed the read! I see what you’re saying. I find that it’s difficult, however, to extricate coming of age stories from sexuality readings. I’m reminded of the famous tongue-in-cheek line from X-Men 2 where Iceman Bobby’s mom says to him, “Have you tried not being a mutant?” I interpreted Elsa’s parents’ oppression of her abilities in the same fashion. Of course, as with any outsider tale, the protagonist’s source of isolation is often designed to speak to the viewer’s own sense of isolation, whatever the cause, leaving interpretation up to them, giving them an opportunity to connect with the story and empathize no matter what their background.

      • LeE
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

        I couldnt agree more! :) on all counts!!!

      • smiavs
        Posted December 21, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I don’t know, I think I prefer that it’s more general in this case. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a lesbian, and I’d love to see an openly gay Disney princess. However, I’m also an introvert and a very private person, and while I’m open about my sexuality, it’s often left up to interpretation for outside observers. I enjoy that Elsa and/or Merida could be queer, but that their sexuality isn’t really relevant to the story one way or another. It seems a lot more in line with the love is love idea….

        LGBTQI individuals aren’t the only members of society being told to conceal their abilities, mask their emotions, etc. Elsa’s struggle for acceptance could just as easily be in reference to how often women are expected to be less than themselves. I imagine someone who’s differently-abled (someone on the autism spectrum, for instance) could relate to her character, as well.

    • Groovy
      Posted December 26, 2013 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      I also saw Elsa’s power as a metaphor for something different: in this case, the stigmatization of mental illness. As an individual with bipolar disorder and anorexia, the portrayal of Elsa perfectly captured how I felt about trying to control and conceal my bipolar, especially after I hurt my younger sister during a manic episode. (Yeah, the similarities were a bit strong.) I developed anorexia during the course of my attempts to control my emotions through willpower and became extremely isolated — both due to my own designs and desire to be alone, my parents’ desire to hide me out of shame and fear, and the nature of my disease.

      I’m LGBTQ and wouldn’t want to discount queer interpretations of Elsa, either, of course, but I definitely got more of a disability vibe than a sexuality one, in this case.

      • Evan Tintle Charpentier
        Posted December 27, 2013 at 1:41 am | Permalink
      • DeannaNMc
        Posted December 28, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        Late to the party, but I think it is amazing that so many people who have considered themselves “other” in some way can relate to this movie. Our family’s take was disability as well–autism, in particular, where children are forced to suppress their hands and bodies for the comfort of the neurotypical population. That repression often builds into a meltdown that can hurt people around them, though that is not the intent of the disabled person–it’s an uncontrolled reaction to the repression. Elsa is a character with a backstory that my daughter may be able to relate to (though we don’t do behavioral therapy with her) one day, which is great. I hadn’t considered the queer angle, but can absolutely see how it relates. I am impressed that this level of discussion stems from a Disney movie!

        • Guest
          Posted March 31, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          Nonsupression can also lead to neurotypical people melting down.

  • Portzblitz
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks much! I’m sharing your piece on Plus. Cheers.

  • A_Nonny_Moose
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Not the first foray, the second. Brave came first :)

  • Sircodsworth
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    You know what I love most about this film? It easily breaks all Disney traditions in ONE.FELL. SWOOP. Anna is not a Disney princess looking “adventure and a great wild something,” nor is she the archetypal princess that just sits there and brushes here eyelashes waiting for a characterless prince to whisk her off her feet. Furthermore, the act of “true love” really blew me away. That’s just a twist of The Sixth Sense level. Now The only thing I’m hoping is that Disney won’t put Elsa or Anna in their disgusting Disney princess marketing.

    • smiavs
      Posted December 21, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      I’d say don’t bet on it, unfortunately. Anna, at least, is certain to join the princess club. Would have been nice if their heads weren’t bigger than their waists, eyes larger than wrists, etc, too….

  • Guest
    Posted December 13, 2013 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    More sexism and misoginy from the infamous Return of Kings site


    If you haven’t signed the petition to remove that site from the internet yet, then please do so now:


    Good news- we got over 12,000 signatures now.


    • Sterling Wilson
      Posted November 12, 2014 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      Fuck that. #censorship

  • Evan Tintle Charpentier
    Posted December 27, 2013 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    I TOTALLY got this metaphor too, but I didn’t bring it up because I told myself, “Eh, no way, it’s Disney, I’m just foisting my own viewpoint onto this.” Hearing someone else say it, though, totally confirms it for me. Yup: Elsa = total lesbian princess. (Now watch them hurriedly slap her with some dude in the direct-to-DVD sequel. -_- )

    • blindspot
      Posted May 12, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Nothing wrong with “foisting your own viewpoint” on to media. People should do it more often and exhibit free thinking.

  • Posted December 27, 2013 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    Love the analysis! Where are the images from, though?

  • Monmonmon
    Posted December 29, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Ya, Kristoff asking for consent at the end was the final straw that just blew me away! (So great!) It was so adorable and such a big change from the days of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White :)

  • just some person
    Posted January 3, 2014 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    Sorry, Mulan was a feminist movie long before Frozen, and it is far more feminist than Frozen could dream of being, too.

    Mulan is about a girl who, wanting to save her father, takes it upon herself to go out and join a war. And you could argue that the whole “I’ll Make a Man out of You” sequence detracts from the feminism, but it doesn’t, because MULAN is the one to reach the arrow (on her own merit, through her own determination and willpower, without help), MULAN is the one to inspire the rest of the guys, and ultimately, MULAN is the one to pull Shang’s army out of its slump. Later still, after her secret is outed, she still makes her own decision to return to the capital to warn everyone of Shan Yu’s return–and when Shan Yu makes his grand reentrance, MULAN is the one who rallies the guys into joining her with her plan, most of the guys end up dressing in feminine attire just as she does (and it’s important that SHE does–Mulan reclaims her femininity while still kicking butt), and MULAN is the one to ultimately save China. Not only does the whole country bow to her, but she is still allowed to make her own decision and return home to see her family at the end.

    The entire movie is about Mulan making decisions for herself, about how her life is not going to be dictated by her gender identity or by what others think she should do. Mulan has an incredible amount of agency and power and that would have to be Disney’s first foray into feminism.

    Lilo and Stitch would be the second, by my count. If there was ever a Disney movie that promoted the powerful love between sisters, it’s that one. Nani works tirelessly to make sure that Lilo is safe and happy, struggling with the fact that it’s hard for her to maintain a job and she has a social worker breathing down her neck. Lilo is ostracized from the other girls at her dance school, but instead of being told that it’s wrong and she must conform, she’s allowed to be herself and grow along with that. And though Nani does have a love interest in David, he plays a very small role and it is ultimately the sisterly love between Nani and Lilo that inspires Stitch to be good AND convince Cobra Bubbles that they DO have a good family, and that they need to stay together. Nani and Lilo are also two of Disney’s strongest heroines, both in their individuality and the way they’re written (because Lilo is never JUST annoying and weird, she’s also sensitive and sweet and lonely; Nani is never JUST rough and impatient, she’s also very protective, loyal, and nurturing, etc).

    Frozen has its good points, but to say it’s Disney’s first foray into feminism is forgetting two very good movies with excellently written and portrayed characters. Frozen is all right, but it has nothing on Mulan or Lilo and Stitch when it comes to ladies.

    • Randi Cramer
      Posted July 4, 2014 at 3:52 am | Permalink

      Mulan begins with her being rejected by males because she’s awkward and ends with her being married… as if everything she did and went through finally made her worthy of men. Lilo and Stitch still has the girls being rescued by men (even if the “man” is a space alien, he still is in the role of rescuer).

      • Mick Price
        Posted January 5, 2015 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

        Yeah but she’s still not the feminine ideal she was supposed to be to get married. Men accept her despite the fact that she’s not the conventional housewife with great makeup. In fact because of it.

      • kyle
        Posted March 31, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        The snowman is racist towards jewish people.

  • Good Manners
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Hi Amanda,
    Thanks for the detailed analysis. I loved Frozen on several levels. While I picked up on the released sexuality in the “Let it Go” sequence, being a slow white Antipodean male your analysis helped me put it all together.

    I agree with another poster here that Mulan should get the accolade as Disney’s first animated movie with a emotionally strong, independent-thinking female lead.

    But great to see Disney shaking off some of Hollywood’s stereotypes.

    Kind regards, Jim

  • Posted February 2, 2014 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    Soooooo problematic…https://medium.com/disney-and-animation/7c0bbc7252ef

    Kristoff might ask for Anna’s consent before he kisses her, but that’s just about the only time anyone in the movie gives a crap about consent.

    • windy_way8192
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but your take of the movie on Medium is waaaaayy off, IMO. You shared some interesting data about Disney films, but fail to understand Frozen. The protagonists are both sisters Elsa and Ana, the antagonist is Elsa’s power. The triumph is finally learning how to manage it.

    • Anonymous
      Posted April 11, 2014 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      So, the article you posted is on a website that doesn’t allow comments. So you’re basically a coward, but that doesn’t have anything to do with how much I disagree with your analysis. And this coming from a person who is currently getting her doctorate in feminist theory. You are full of shit, and are trying to couch it in some kind of “I-get-it-more-than-anyone-else-does,” because I’m a “real” feminist. Seriously, nothing makes me more annoyed than people who pretend to be feminists, but are more interested in being self-righteous then helping any kind of cause that has its foundation in the realities of women.

      • Posted April 11, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        You’re welcome to comment at the paragraph level; there’s just no global commenting system. It’s designed to keep comments on-topic and focused on the text.

  • TheRoyalDreamer
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Although I agree with most of this, I also have always read Elsa’s powers as a metaphor for metal health problems (‘conceal, don’t feel’) and stigmatisation of mental health issues in society rather than a metaphor for any kind of sexuality. Although I support LGBTQ+ cause with all my heart, I think that reading Frozen from this perspective would make it a duller and more straightforward story. Sexual interpretation of Elsa somehow reduces femininity to be associated ONLY with sexuality, straight or not, and that sort of undermines the main ‘feminist’ message of the movie. Basically, it is the same as saying ‘oh, if it’s about a woman, it HAS to be about sex/relationships’, as if women can only be associated with romance. Why can’t Elsa be a female character whose gender does not define her? Why can’t she have traits relating to more than just romantic love?

    • Evie
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Kind of: while I see how it is a good metaphor for queer sexuality, and there’s nothing wrong with reading it that way, it’s certainly no allegory, and perhaps a better metaphor for neurological difference: both the “out-of-control” aspects, and the positive, creative aspects.

  • shaunn
    Posted March 13, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks. Enjoyed your commentary. I would argue, however, that Elsa’s situation symbolizes whatever you want it to symbolize. It is not only a metaphor for being gay; it is a metaphor for whatever source of isolation people may feel. That is one of the reasons that Elsa resonates so powerfully with so many people. Also, note that Elsa’s powers are explicitly dangerous when uncontrolled. I think that brings it closer to the idea that the powers are a metaphor for sexuality, but I also think that it is possible to take a metaphor a bit too far -sometimes, it really is just about the story!
    I really liked your point about Elsa blocking Anna’s marriage out of love for Anna. That is undoubtedly true. As you point out, the whole story really does revolve around the two sisters. Almost everything they do is in reaction to each other. Anna’s jumping into an engagement with Hans is a reaction to the loneliness of her life and her alienation from the love of her sister. Elsa’s actions all the way down the line are largely motivated by her desire to keep her sister safe, even to the point of spending her life in isolation. Olaf, who is an extension of Elsa, defines love for Anna and, tellingly, uses the example of Kristoff being willing to leave Anna forever. He could just as easily have said “Elsa”.

  • awesomescorpion
    Posted March 18, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to see a reasonable feminist, most of the “feminists” I’ve heard are boycotting this movie because it “sets unrealistic beauty standards”. Thankfully, you don’t go that far, and actually admire the things Frozen does well as well. But I would like to address the “rich and white” part of this story.

    First of all, being white is not a problem. It boggles my mind why I’d have to explain this out loud, but I’ll do that just in case. To really get rid of racism, we merely need to ignore skin colour. To manually diversify it is just, well, harmful. In the end, some movies can not be made because of that skin colour, whether its white or brown, the issue remains. If we just start ignoring it, and considering it a variable to be filled in by the context, or at random if there is no reasonable delimiter for it, soon enough we will find enough non-white characters, and all of them being reasonable.

    An example where being non-white doesn’t make sense, is in 17th century royal Scandinavian society. If a princess was born coloured in that time period and region, questions would be asked about who her father was, and it just doesn’t make any sense in general, since we see who her parents were. I sincerely hope this does not need explaining.

    The second point you make is them being princesses, rich and skinny. Even if we ignore the part that this is an animated movie, where eyes the size of modern cellphones are normal, then we still see the latter two being an immediate result of the former. As a princess, wealth is a given, and looking good is a part of the job. (To be honest, I’d rather say: looking healthy, but some might read too much into that, as in me hating fat people, which I don’t.)

    As to why they’re princesses, it is quite simple: in the royal society, Elsa’s powers would be much more of an issue. Were she born in some village, it’d be something the village knew as one of Elsa’s quirks, and she probably wouldn’t have such big issues of hiding it, she would’ve learned to control it much quicker. Anna being Elsa’s sister, follows into the high-pressure royal society needed for the situation from which the movie starts off.

    Also, Disney is probably one of the most liberal big companies you’ll see. To get angry at them for not being liberal enough, is really, really unfair.

    All in all, reasonable critique, but with too much critique and too little critique of critique. But I do agree with your final statement: definitely worth seeing.

  • Tami Menzed
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    the only thing I liked from frozen was olaf,

    and no, it’s not disney first feminist movie, lilo and stitch, mulan, little mermaid, beauty and beast

  • blindspot
    Posted May 12, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Just saw this movie last week and hadn’t read any criticism until today. I had to watch it three times with my daughter to try and figure out the “subtext”. All the best Disney movies have a subtext.

    To me, Frozen is a statement on the nature of female power and how it works in society. The ice and cold are a symbol in the film for non-sexualized female power. Disney is going all the way back into myth for this one, where many myths previous have equated female power with chaotic forces and creation itself. Remember, in humans, only the female has the power of creation itself, but so many myths throughout time have depicted the male wresting that power away to make it his own.

    I feel I could write a term paper or scholarly article on this, but don’t have the time. But the themes concerning the experiences of women are all here, including virginity (close the gates/open the gates), the power of sex/procreation (Anna very nearly “gives hers up” in hasty marriage but doesn’t, Elsa “hides it away” because her parents raised her that way.

    Even the trolls represent symbols of a certain understanding of love and sex. They are “love experts” after all and want Anna and Kristoff to seal the deal right away. The sex, while certainly not on display, is obvious in the profuse amount of reproduction they apparently engage in (lots of baby trolls about) and their easy-going (literally “rolling” with it) attitudes. But theirs is a representation of equal, if perhaps fantastical, sexual powers of both male and female, as depicted by the fact that they all look and act pretty much all the same, but are all very happy and in touch with the true nature of old “magical” power apparently so powerful, they are consulted by Kings! (But what about Queens?)

    Fast forward to the end when Anna throws up a hand to block the male sword (phallus symbol) from attempting to destroy Elsa. It’s not just a hand, but the film very specifically has the sword fall between the V-sign of Anna’s fingers. I’ll let you figure out the feminist interpretation of a V-sign. I think you get it.

    There is certainly room for a lesbian interpretation, if you like, but that would be an even deeper subtext. I think the feminism on display in the film applies in either case, hetero or homo.

    Yes friends this film is rich in feminist and mythic imagery, and from what I can tell it is incredibly positive and progressive in this. I hope to spend more time with it, understanding and unpacking all of its rich symbolism.

  • Mick Price
    Posted January 5, 2015 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    “Elsa has cosmically awesome winter powers (she should seriously consider a trip to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters). ”

    You’re not the only person to think so.


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