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3 Gay Actor Documentaries

Apparently I was in the mood for documentaries this weekend! Fortunately for me, Netflix is currently offering three movies (mostly) about gay actors, particularly interesting watched together: The Out List, To Be Takei, and Tab Hunter Confidential.

The Out List (2013)

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This one’s not entirely about LGBT actors, I just thought it was. It’s a one-hour documentary about “some of the most influential voices in America’s LGBT community.” The advertising strongly features Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres. Turns out it’s actually more about public figures in general than celebrities, including a sheriff, some minor politicians, writers, that sort of thing. Fine, but misleading. That said, the film takes an interesting approach by showing one person at a time, giving about five minutes each for them to share their story and talk about what they want to see happen for the LGBT community. There’s no voiceover, and it’s not thematic or chronological, but it doesn’t get boring because each person is so different from the rest.

The selections are generally intersectional and inclusive, but not perfectly so — there’s only one trans person, and the one bi person spends most of her time explaining why she doesn’t like the word “bisexual.” I think I’d been hoping for a gateway documentary, something with recognizable actors talking about stuff that would be good for a total newbie. This isn’t quite that, but you can get a quick overview of current topics.

To Be Takei (2014)

To Be Takei

You may know George Takei as Star Trek‘s Mr. Sulu, as a gay-rights activist, or as “that guy with the funny Facebook page.” To Be Takei touches on all those things. It’s one and a half hours, with a gregarious feel to the editing, jumping from George and his husband goofing off to serious stories about George’s time in one of the US’s Japanese-American interment camps during WWII. The end result is something that doesn’t get super deep into his life, but actually kind of works as a whole, a snapshot of George.

My favorite bits were about Star Trek, which will surprise no one… We hear a lot about Uhura being an incredible symbol for African-American women, with good reason, but it was really cool to hear similar stories about Sulu as an Asian-American man. He also talks about taking horrible stereotyped roles early in his career and regretting it now, plus his decision to stay in the closet for the sake of his career early on.

Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

Tab Hunter Confidential

This is most straightforward documentary type thing of the three, but turned out to be my favorite. It’s about the fifties, and a movie star we’ve probably never heard of, yet it stays interesting. You don’t need any prior knowledge, and it maintains a lively tone while clearly showing it wasn’t all milkshakes and smiles. Tab Hunter was an all-American Fifties heartthrob who stayed closeted until well after he stopped acting… The level of control the movie industry had over actors, let alone the pressure from all sides and the cultural impossibility of being out, really comes through here.

In this documentary you get the movie history, a rare look at an actor’s life after his career, and a perspective on navigating sexuality in the public eye. Tab’s experience is his own, but it fits into a very typical white-middle-class-male gay narrative, and aren’t we all in the public eye in some sense? That’s the whole point of “coming out,” that people are watching. On top of that there’s plenty of footage and photographs, the great advantage of doing a documentary about a movie star. This may be the most traditional of the three, but it still uses interesting editing techniques to grab and keep your attention, almost using those clips and photos as stand-ins for footage of his off-camera life, if that makes sense. It’s clever and it’s way more interesting than the usual “voice-over while showing a bunch of black-and-white pictures in sequence” approach. And hey, he dated Tony Perkins from Psycho! Highly recommended if you’re at all interested in any of the topics it covers.

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White Lesbians on Race: Lillian Smith vs. Mab Segrest

Over the summer, I read several sets of books around the theme of Gender and Sexuality in the South as a directed readings course. The first pair were both specifically about feminist and queer theory, discussed here. This second pair — Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith (1949/revised 1961) and Memoirs of a Race Traitor by Mab Segrest (1999) — are both memoirs about race, written by white Southern lesbians. It’s been a while now since I read these books, but I do want to highlight them here because they dialogue with each other in interesting ways and you may find you’d like to read one or both.

Lillian Smith and Commentary…

Killers of the Dream is part memoir of Lillian Smith’s early life, part social-political commentary and call to end segregation. Smith was one of the few white people actively working on this as early as the 40s, and I can only stand in awe of her bravery as an ostensibly-single white woman living on her own. (She was, by all modern appearances, lesbian and living with her partner, but she wasn’t out). She also talks about harmful religious attitudes toward masturbation and the female body, and how the ideas of “body is sinful and dirty” vs “white skin is your symbol of superiority” conflict with each other. Again, I have no idea how she managed to do all this, because her livelihood was a mountain camp for young girls in Georgia. Maybe scaremongering about “corrupting the children” is a more modern thing.

At any rate, it’s a remarkable book both historically and now. As a white Southern woman, I was totally right there with her, even 60 years later. I’m inclined to recommend this to outsiders as a way to understand some of our culture, but also not entirely sure it’ll make as much sense if you don’t already understand. I’d be happy to do more posts or some kind of discussion about this if there’s any demand, because I think it’s interesting.

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…vs. Mab Segrest and Memoir

Mab Segrest is a more modern figure, a political activist (since moved on to research) and openly lesbian. Memoirs of a Race Traitor is aptly named, more memoir and personal history than the kind of commentary-memoir we got from Smith. She’s also from North Carolina, which is still the South, but is not the Deep South. She narrates her early life as well as her most prominent activist stuff, against far-right racist organizations in the 80s and 90s. It’s interesting, but probably more so if you’re researching that history specifically.

For me, I felt like Smith’s book really took apart race as a systemic problem of power. Segrest’s was more personal, trying to deal with her own white guilt. That just didn’t have much to offer me, because I’m a horrible person who doesn’t really care about other people’s life journeys. I also don’t think guilt and responsibility are the same thing, so I feel like Smith’s is more objectively useful in an activist sense, but which is most meaningful will just depend on you and your preferences. Segrest also has more to say about modern activist structures and lesbian-feminism, so there may be more-accessible material here for non-Southern modern folks looking for explanations.

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Observations

Both books use history as a method of understanding, and as a potential push toward activism. In neither case would I be willing to say “Okay, I’ve read this book so I understand the Civil War,” but both shed light on how the war is perceived, which is the point when we’re talking modern Southern racism. They also both discuss how they were raised, their personal family histories, and how that affected their perceptions of racism.

A final point I found personally odd was the contrasts in identity — Smith didn’t identify as a lesbian when she basically was, I could put a “probably” but it’s really not necessary. Maybe she thought that would be the one thing her society couldn’t accept, or she was protecting her partner. Even so, they suffered threats and (as I recall) vandalism at the camp for their position on segregation. Then there’s Segrest, who talks at length about how she practically identifies as black, although not quite in such specific terms. These are just two drops in the ocean of identity politics, but they raised a lot of questions for me as a historian about how to parse an author’s identity and to what extent that affects the text.

In short, both these books come recommended, depending on what you want to get out of them. Smith’s was my favorite, but the two bring things out in each other that you wouldn’t get from one alone. Leave your thoughts in the comments as usual, and do let me know if I should be talking about Southern-ness more often!

Star Trek Column: Subversive Lady Guest Stars

This month’s Comparative Geeks column has been one of my favorites to write so far: Spotlights on three strong female characters tucked away in the original Star Trek series. My argument, insofar as I have one and am not just fangirl-flailing, is once again that the show was deeply feminist, especially (but not only) for its time. I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own favorites!

Star Trek’s Subversive Lady Guest Stars

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Museum Mini-Visits (Charlotte and Durham, NC)

Heeeey sorry about that two-week absence there! Finishing up the summer semester and time just got away from me. If it helps, pretend I was on this trip I actually took at the end of June. I visited Duke University in North Carolina for a week to do some research in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. More on that — the research and the library — in later posts. I didn’t have a lot of time to sight-see, but made a few whirlwind stops: The Levine Museum of the New South (Charlotte), the Pauli Murray House (work-in-progress in Durham), and the Nasher Museum of Art (Durham). Plus some shopping and whatnot. Took this post’s featured image on the street in Durham.

Levine Museum of the New South

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A post-it interactive in the Cotton Fields exhibit: “Does everyone have equal rights in the South today?”

The Levine currently offers four exhibits: Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers on the New South proper (aka history after the Civil War), Nuevolution! on LatinX culture in the modern south, and then two photo exhibits. I rushed through the first two only to find the other two are tiny and honestly offered me nothing — maybe if I had more background info? — so I should’ve spent twice as much time on the major exhibits. (Note one of the photography exhibits was cycled out and replaced with a new one in July, so I can’t speak to that).

I quite enjoyed those bigger features, rushed as I was. Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers seemed to do a solid job focusing on that “effects of the Civil War” theme, and I loved the way they created a series of small immersive experiences. The part about Billy Graham is in a mini-church. The explanation of department stores is in a mini-store. Sections on segregation take place at a lunch counter, and there’s a little living room and TV set up with the TV showing actual broadcasts about boycotts and riots.

Nuevolution brought me to the museum. I’d done some mock promotional work for it in a class last year because it’ll be coming to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Atlanta History Center over the next few years. It’s really cool, very engaging with a lot of interactives, but also a lot of information and personal stories about LatinX immigrants and locals. I’d love to see some usage numbers, but it was impressive and I definitely saw others interacting as I went through. (Wish I’d taken more pictures, this was the point where I was feeling super rushed for no reason).

Pauli Murray House

Pauli Murray was a black queer woman deeply involved with the civil rights movement, who also became the first African American female Episcopalian priest. I met some people from the Pauli Murray Project at the National Council on Public History conference earlier this year, and had the opportunity to meet up with one of them for lunch and see the house while I was in town.

The house won’t open until 2020, but it was awesome to see it coming together and hear about the project’s approach. The house won’t be a house museum, but a Center for History and Social Justice, a kind of community center with a historic bent. The house reconstruction is only part of the overall Project — they also do basically anything with a thematic connection to Pauli Murray and her life. There was a mural project at some point, a kind of youth poetry/sermon slam, other stuff. Loving this whole thing, check it out!

Nasher Museum of Art

The Nasher is a smallish art museum operated by Duke. I heard about a tour on the representation of place and place-based identity in art, so I went. The tour was kinda boring, to be honest, and seemed to focus on several specific artists’ lives rather than the topic alone, but in fairness I was very tired by Thursday evening and the other tour-goers seemed engaged.

I was more impressed by the size of the museum. They manage to get a lot into their couple of galleries, from ancient pottery to contemporary photography, with descriptive labels so you can appreciate at least the general idea of a piece, you’re not abandoned to your own impressions. I also loved how vibrant and inclusive the place is, no stuffy definitions of high art. I’m told they’re doing a large show soon on the topic of Southern artistic identity and if such a thing exists, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for any web content/publications/traveling exhibits associated with that!

Blue Spider's Attic

Review: Blue Spider’s Attic (book subscription box)

I love subscription boxes. It’s like having a personal shopper and my birthday at the same time! I’ve never tried a book subscription box before, but Blue Spider Press offered to let me try their Blue Spider’s Attic program free in exchange for (honest) review, and here we are! The concept is really cool — “All the magic of a used book store, delivered.” In each box you get three gently-used books, a sample package of coffee, and assorted goodies. You have the option of subscribing month-to-month at $19.99 per box plus shipping, or you can get variously discounted rates for prepaying up to six months in advance.

I must say the box delivers on its promise, no pun intended. It is like a used book store by delivery. Mine came very well packaged, and I love that the books are individually wrapped too. It prolongs the giftlike excitement and kind of creates that sense of stumbling on books one at a time.

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Initial unboxing.
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Box contents. Cat belly not included.

I got the promised three books, a Fairwinds Coffee sample in chocolate raspberry, a bunch of cool stickers, a bookmark, some coupon codes, and a pretty beaded book spider that Mo (the cat) immediately tried to eat. Fortunately he failed. I’ve tried the coffee and it’s delicious — there’s meant to be enough for a full pot, but I use an espresso machine and it’ll last me four or five cups probably. I also super love the stickers, because that’s not something I see often and I’ll totally use them. I can’t wait to think of the perfect place for that zombie hand.

Of course,  you want to hear about the books. First up, The Ashes of Eden by William Shatner! Read it and love the series but didn’t own this one, so thrilled to get that. Next, Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I’ve seen the movie, haven’t read the book, but I’ll have to decide just how strong my constitution is before I give it a go. Finally, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It’s a classic from 1958, but I’ve randomly heard several people talking about it in the past couple weeks and am excited to read it myself. So, two super excited and one not-sure-but-can-always-toss-it-in-a-Halloween-gift-basket, I call that a win. All three were again nicely packaged and in excellent used condition.

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Deciding whether or not Blue Spider’s Attic is for you, it probably depends on your reading habits. Not even counting library stuff, I own several thousand books already, most of which I haven’t read. So, I don’t really see subscribing to a box like this because I really don’t need a random selection of books being added to that list every month. But, if I had the money and time to spend, I’d definitely say it’s worth it. Plus, if you don’t have a local used book store or if you’re not able to visit one for whatever reason, then this could be awesome for you!

Get more info or sign up here. Use code THINGSMATTER15 at checkout for a discount — doesn’t do anything for me, only does something for you!

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Queering the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge

Who else is doing the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder challenge? It’s super fun, 24 book categories to check off, and I’m actually halfway through as I should be. I thought about doing an update post on the books I’d read and still planned to read — and I can totes still do that if y’all want it — but instead I thought, “Hey, a lot of people are trying to diversify their reading. Why not do a list of queer books fitting each challenge?” So that’s what I’ve done. Links go to Goodreads because I tried to minimize chitchat for length. Leave your own recommendations in the comments!

Link to the challenge, checklist, and end-of-year discount reward info!

  1. Read a horror book – Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan, an openly trans lesbian author, because I wanted to stay far away from “queer people are terrifying” and or “cross-dressing crazy person” horror.
  2. Read a nonfiction book about science – NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America by Constance Penley. The first half is about public perception of NASA, particularly of female astronauts and their own perspectives on that. The second half is about gay Star Trek fanfiction, so there’s that. (Of course, you could always try something more straightforward like Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why by Simon LeVay. But keep in mind you could be reading about gay fanfic. Just saying.)
  3. Read a collection of essays – Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Humor.
  4. Read a book out loud to someone else – Great excuse for a picture book! I love Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah Hoffman or Donovan’s Big Day by Leslea Newman. (I read a book to my cat, but he didn’t enjoy it.)
  5. Read a middle grade novel – The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister by Charlotte Agell.
  6. Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography) – I loved Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleves, but really pick any LGBT person you wanna know more about and there’s probably a biography of some kind!
  7. Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel – Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. Reading this one for post-apocalyptic book myself.
  8. Read a book originally published in the decade you were born – This will vary, obviously. Try a “must-read” or “classics” list!
  9. Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award – Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming, which won two in 2015, for memoir and for narration by author. (I don’t know if it’s in the book, but he’s bi. CN for abuse.)
  10. Read a book over 500 pages long – The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities by John Loughery. If you only wanna read one history book, this one is totes suitable.
  11. Read a book under 100 pages – Either of the picture books above, or The Name of Love: Classic Gay Love Poems.
  12. Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender – I read Queer Pulp by Susan Stryker and it’s great if you want to know about queer pulp in the 60s or so. She also has a book of general trans history.
  13. Read a book that is set in the Middle East – If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, a YA set in Iran.
  14. Read a book by an author from Southeast Asia – So I came up completely blank on this one. Help! I did find The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia by Tom Boellstorff, which is at least about Southeast Asia.
  15. Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900 – Actually loads here to choose from. I’ll be reading The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles, an m/m romance in the Victorian era. To go back further, try something by Mary Renault in ancient times, they’re classics.
  16. Read the first book in a series by a person of color – Adaptation by Malindo Lo.
  17. Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years – The Wicked & The Divine Vol. 1 by Kieron Gillen.
  18. Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood and the movie starring Colin Firth. Is best movie, the movie is better!
  19. Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes – Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith. She was a presumably-lesbian Georgian writer, one of the few white folks to openly fight segregation as early as 1949, the original publication of this book. The book talks a lot about the power structures in the south and how they hurt women, as well as race issues.
  20. Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction) – Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire by Jennifer Wright Knust. Or for something less academic, you might like God Believes in Love by the world’s cuddliest bishop Gene Robinson, although I haven’t read it yet.
  21. Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction) – Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance by Jakobsen & Pellegrini. I reviewed it here. It’s actually all about structuring political arguments in the US.
  22. Read a food memoir – Cooking as Fast as I Can by Cat Cora.
  23. Read a play – Wit by Margaret Edson. She is openly lesbian, and a lot of the discourse around the play concerns whether or not lesbianism is a theme, but mostly it’s a really intense play about the process of dying. Of course you could also read anything by Oscar Wilde or Tennessee Williams that’s been on your list!
  24. Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness – A Note in the Margin by Isabelle Rowan, or so I’m told. It’s on my TBR list, although not for this.

Enjoy!

The Non-Binary Book Club Reads Swordspoint

I don’t always make it to Non-Binary Book Club, but when I do I’m glad. The books, and the discussions about them, are challenging and rewarding even on topics I feel comfortable with like the term “bisexuality” and what it “means.” (And a few posts ago when I was talking about Swordspoint, I’d been reading it for this.) I’m HG!

The Lobster Dance

swordspoint [Image: Richard St. Vier, looking hella dramatic with flowing cape and sword, on the cover of Swordspoint.] This is very! late! But here it is!

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. 1987.

On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless–until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye. 

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Epic Feminist Faceoff: Joan Scott vs. Judith Butler

Joan Wallach Scott: Feminist historian and author of the discipline-transforming 1986 article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” Judith Butler: Philosopher and hardcore influencer in feminist, queer, and literary theories. TWO WOMEN ENTER, ONE WOMAN LEAVES!

Okay fine, they can both leave. But this summer, I’m having my first experience with a directed readings course — a one-on-one discussion series with a professor on a given topic, in this case Gender and Sexuality in the South — and we have eight readings lined up in opposing pairs. I have a lot of thoughts, and since we’re comparing and contrasting I thought it’d be fun to set these posts up that way rather than traditional reviews. Plus I hope you enjoy the look at our topics of Professional Interest.

Books read:

  • Gender and the Politics of History – Joan Wallach Scott, revised 1999
  • Undoing Gender – Judith Butler, 2004

Continue reading “Epic Feminist Faceoff: Joan Scott vs. Judith Butler”

Queer stories can’t have queer fandoms?

Once upon a time on the internet, probably five years ago, I read some kind of post about the novel Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, saying queer people wouldn’t ever be as invested in queer literature as they are in queering straight literature. Essentially that the motivation to create fanworks isn’t there, so the fan commitment will be less. The point, or what I took to be the point, was that stories about queer characters and relationships are less valuable because of that. Every so often, I get to thinking about that statement and what fan culture is like at that moment. I recently re-read Swordpoint, so I’ve been thinking about it again.

Johnlock at the movies
somachiou on DeviantArt

There’s certainly more enthusiasm about shipping Holmes and Watson than George and Jim, for instance, and I’m thinking of the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes movies all on their own to keep things fair. “Slash fandom” as a whole is associated with slashing characters who are by appearances straight, back to the fandom’s Kirk/Spock origins in the 60s. And fanfic is a powerful queer space, where symbols can be modified with literally no limit. I can see how losing a queer space with that level of freedom might be a negative thing, and I suppose I can understand that people are less likely to write a “gay headcanon” if the canon is actually gay.

To me, though, the central issue is genre and popularity. If you don’t like the drama or indie-drama genres, you just don’t have many couples to ship, so you make them. You imagine the representation you want. That’s true for all media types — there’s frequently a weird little queer indie niche, but it’s oppressively difficult to find those characters and stories in the mainstream. Not everyone has the time, energy, money, or locality to access those indie niches, even if you like indie stuff. It should be no surprise that the more popular any thing is, the more fans will create fanworks, queer and otherwise. Some pairings seem to inherently convey a lot of subtext, like various versions of Holmes and Watson, so certain magic combinations of popular media with subtext-heavy pairing create these massive fan followings.

On the other hand, I also see a lot of alienation in the queer community from those kinds of ships. They — we — are increasingly upset that creators use the ships to manipulate fans without actually including out characters. Frequently franchises will tease gay ships (and ONLY gay ships) to appeal to straight female audiences. Actual queer people see right through this, and are less and less willing to put up with it, fanfic or no fanfic. It’s not about entertaining ourselves with unintended possibilities at this point, it’s becoming more and more of an issue that all these content-producing industries are blatantly refusing to make stories about queer people, and if they do offer anything, it’s not for the queer community.

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, coverWhich brings me back to Swordspoint, its cultural bisexuality and the male-male couple at the center. It’s not subtext, it’s text, and that IS the reason people love it. The fandom has persisted for thirty years, and is even growing, due to new installments like Tremontaine that further diversify the world. If you’re queer and into fantasy, Swordspoint is the first book you’ll hear recommended, and there’s basically a secret society of internet denizens who recognize each other with the secret signal “OMG YOU LIKE SWORDSPOINT TOO SQUEEEEEE!!” because there are so few gay fantasy books, and it was one of the first.

And that, finally, is my opinion. A massive shipping community doesn’t mean a single thing when the emotions and attachments of actual queer people are concerned. You can’t measure that kind of personal significance by the number of posts on a message board — especially when the specific book came out before the internet, but also in general terms. We may get a kick out of a crazy shiptease, or we may not, but the point remains: We want queer characters. And we want them in public, not just queer online corners. Because safe spaces are important, but as long as we need them, it means everywhere else is unsafe. If it looks like we’d rather have subtext, it’s only because in public, in the mainstream, that’s all we’ve had to go on.

It might sound silly for me to engage a statement like “We shouldn’t bother making queer characters because the queers like subtext better anyway,” I don’t think many people in the community are saying that, but put in such a condensed form that’s really been the argument from outside. Appease the LGBT+ audience with a tease, but don’t go all the way. That’s not enough. Give us real queer characters, and we will love them!