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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Virgin Spring

I’ve already written about Bergman when we watched The Seventh Seal. Perhaps more to the point, I’m getting bored. Thus, I thought we’d try something a little different this week. I watched both The Virgin Spring and its unofficial 1972 remake, The Last House on the Left. Quite a double bill. First I’ll tell you about the Bergman film, then the Craven film for, you know, comparison. Lastly, I’ll close with some scattered musings on film violence and other stuff.

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Country: Sweden
Year: 1960

Synopsis

“Adapted from a 13th-century Ballad by ULLA ISAKSSON” we are informed by the opening credits.

Also gleaned from the opening credits?

EFFEKTER: Evald Andersson

INSPICIENT: Carl-Henry Cagarp

and:

SCRIPT-GIRL: Ulla Furas

(Because old-school sexism is the same in every language!)

It is early morning. A beautiful (but filthy) young woman lights a fire as the cock crows.

“Odin, come! Come to my aid!” she hisses at the sky. Not a Christian, I’m guessing.

Ming the Merciless (which is how I refer to any character played by Max von Sydow) and his wife pray before a cross.

The wife intentionally burns her wrist with a candle: “This is the day of our Lord’s agony,” she explains. Yup, definitely Christians.

Ingeri, the feral young woman, is some kind of maid, now being reprimanded by the senior maid, Frida. “You should thank God on his bare knees for his mercy!” she snarls at the younger woman.

So it’s to be THAT kind of a movie, eh? This is gonna be a long 89 minutes.

Frida is ordered to take the candles to church (for the Virgin Mary, don’t you know). Why not Karin, the Christian daughter? Because Karin has a fever, that’s why.

Ingeri sneers: “She certainly burned with fever at the dance last night.” Zing!

Christian Mom gives Feral Girl a piece of her mind: “I’m not afraid my daughter will walk in your filthy footsteps. You two have always been as different as the rose and the thorn.”

I just noticed: Ingeri is pregnant. I suspect copulation with the DEVIL!

Then it’s time for breakfast, with plenty of praying and plenty of opportunities to underline the fact that this is a FAMILY OF GOD-FEARING CHRISTIANS. Except for Ingeri, who is an Odin-worshipping slut with some fairly serious personal hygiene issues.

Ming the Merciless says sleepyhead Karin has to go to church, fever be damned. Ingeri is ordered to prepare a snack. Angrily, she hollows out a loaf of bread and fills it with a live toad. Look, don’t ask me. I have no idea what’s going on.

While combing Karin’s hair, Christian Mom delivers a stern sermon: “…the devil seduces the innocent and seeks to destroy goodness before it can blossom!” Booga Booga!

Karin (who – let’s be frank – is a spoiled little bitch) puts on her best dress and asks that Ingeri be allowed to join her on the long ride to the church.

There’s all sorts of weird business at the periphery of the story, like a defrocked priest (or something) who lives on the farm, and the implication that Frida might be getting jiggy with Father Erik, etc. I doubt any of it is important.

So Ingeri and Karin head off on their horses, to deliver the candles to the church.

Lots of talk about sex; how much Ingeri knows (she’s pregnant, after all), how much Karin doesn’t (VIRGIN).

At the edge of the forest, Ingeri has a meltdown: “Let’s turn back! The forest is so dark! I can’t go on!” etc. You know, because pagans are more in touch with nature, more intuitive, and so on. But Aryan Karin tells her to calm down. After all: “I’m not frightened. I’m going to church.” IRONY!

Karin goes ahead, but Ingeri stays behind with a crazy, toothless hermit/witch doctor. “I hear what men whisper in secret,” he tells her, “and see what they think no one sees.” Spooky. He then proceeds to either a) hit on her b) recognize her as a fellow Odin-worshipper, or c) offer her an abortion. I’m still not sure.

Karin is alone, stopping in a wooded glade with the sun glinting off her lustrous, golden hair.

Three greasy and hyperventilating Swedish hillbillies watch her from the bushes.

I swear to God; there’s even a twanging mouth harp on the soundtrack. Inexplicably, Karin offers to share her lunch with the gentle forest folk/rapists.

virgin_greasyrapist

Ingeri, having escaped from the crazy hermit, watches from afar.

The toad hidden in the bread emerges, which is an evil omen (or… look, hell if I know). One of the men rapes Karin while another holds her down. Afterward, they club her to death. Ingeri watches all of this, paralyzed with horror. The three men hastily gather their belongings (and Karin’s clothes, for reasons unexplained) and flee.

In the next scene, the three men (actually two men and one boy, perhaps twelve years old) arrive at the home of Karin’s parents. They ask to be put up for the night, and, despite his anxiety about his missing daughter, Ming the Merciless allows the three strangers to sleep in the house.

Time for dinner, with more foreboding prayers delivered by Ming and plenty of nervous looks between the three visitors. The young boy is a nervous wreck and looks like he’s about the spill the beans.

“People… worry and tremble like leaves in a storm because of what they know,” intones the defrocked priest (or whatever).

Ming tries to comfort his wife: “If Karin doesn’t return tonight, surely she’ll return tomorrow. She has spent the night in the village without permission before.”

A scream is heard; the boy has been struck by his older brother. When Mom goes to investigate, she finds the boy unconscious with a bloody mouth. While she tries to decide what to do next, the men offer her a gift: Karin’s dress (which they claim belonged to their own deceased sister). The jig, as they say, is up. Mom, who is no dummy, plays it cool, leaves their sleeping quarters… and then locks them in!

She informs Ming, who straps on his sword and heads out to the manor hall. On the way out, he finds Ingeri hiding under the stairs. “I willed it to happen!” she cries, and tells him everything.

After a quick break for a sauna-slash-penance-by-birch-whipping (?)…

…Ming is ready for action: “Bring me the butcher’s knife.”

Ming and wife creep into the manor hall, where the three visitors are sleeping. After going through the duffel bags and finding even more incriminating evidence, he wakes the men for their trial; a trial in which Ming the Merciless will be judge, jury, and executioner! One is quickly dispatched with a knife to the heart, and the second is held in the fire to burn alive. Only the young boy remains, but not for long. Ming’s (understandable) rage will not be quenched until all three of the visitors are unquestionably dead.

And then, predictably, comes the guilt: “God forgive me for what I’ve done,” Ming whispers, looking at his death-dealing hands.

Family and servants trek into the forest to retrieve Karin’s body, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth: “It is me God meant to punish by this!” cries Mom. “God alone knows where the guilt lies,” Ming replies tersely, his face blackened by fury and grief (and also soot, from burning the guy alive).

Karin’s body is found. Mom weeps inconsolably, while Ming has an angry conversation with God: “You saw it. The death of an innocent child and my vengeance. You allowed it to happen.”

The End.

Not really. Although this is where the movie SHOULD, by all rights, end… it stubbornly refuses to do so.

Ming promises to build a church on the spot, as penance for his violent revenge.

Ming and Mom gather up Karin’s body, and… a spring magically flows forth from the earth, signaling God’s acceptance of Ming’s penance.

Everyone kneels to pray as a holy choir raises its voice in praise of the Prince of Peace!

The End.

What I Liked

Max von Sydow was excellent. His warm, teasing banter with his wife and daughter was just as believable as his fiery-eyed Chuck Bronson revenge spree later in the film. His was the only character that I believed in or cared about. Despite my irritation at the final scenes of the film (see below), von Sydow’s grief was palpably real.

I have to admit to a (possibly unhealthy) feeling of satisfaction when von Sydow came in and killed all three of the psychos. In my real life I, of course, don’t condone violent revenge. But it can certainly be satisfying to the lizard brain when it’s depicted on film.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

So the rich blonde Christians are the good guys, and the illiterate and filthy shepherds are the crazy sociopaths? The Virgin Spring, despite being made by one of the acknowledged masters of Twentieth Century European Cinema, despite being obscured by years of impenetrable psycho-babble proclaiming it an “inquiry into the nature of Evil” (etc.) is just as reductively classist as Deliverance.

Bergman’s ascetic directorial style made it nigh-impossible for me to care emotionally about anything that happened. If the philosophical/theological issues raised in the film were particularly interesting, I might overlook that disconnect. As it is… meh. Remember when they used to spoof pretentious Swedish art films on SCTV or Monty Python? The thing is, Bergman’s films are actually LIKE THAT. They make me feel suffocated.

Most of all, there’s that ridiculous ending! The whole movie seems to be building to this one question: If there really is a Christian god, why would he allow such horrible things to be done to (or by) his faithful servants? Good question, I say, but then Bergman chickens out with a bit of cinematic misdirection: Hey, look over there! God just made a spring burst forth from the ground! Which I think must give the average viewer a feeling of relief: Yes! There is some sort of cosmic justice! God does care about what happens to us! But the magical appearance of a spring tells us nothing about the existence of evil. For me, it only makes the question more pressing: If you can make a fucking spring gush forth from the fucking ground… why can’t you expend a little of that miracle dust preventing the rape and murder of my teenage daughter?

Should You See It?

The Virgin Spring is artfully made, with beautiful cinematography and sets, it definitely sustains a portentous mood, and it has some interesting questions to ask (though I would argue that it drops the ball at the end). If you liked The Seventh Seal, chances are good that you will find The Virgin Spring worthwhile, as well.

Personally, I was able to admire Bergman’s artistic vision and craftsmanship, but I came close to actually hating the film.

Next up…

The Last House on the Left

Director: Wes Craven
Country: United States of America
Year: 1972

Synopsis

“The events you are about to witness are true…” claim the opening credits. Yeah, right; just like Fargo.

Well, we start right off with titties (young woman in the shower), so that’s different from The Virgin Spring, and some Zombies-esque music on the soundtrack.

The sexy but virginal daughter, Mari, is going out to see a shock-rock act named – wait for it – Bloodlust. “Aren’t they the guys that dismember a live chicken during their act?” asks Dad. Mari is going with her (also sexy, natch) troublemaker friend, Phyllis. Mari is a sheltered girl from the suburbs, but Phyllis is from the Big City.

Mari and Phyllis get drunk in the woods, to some awful faux James Taylor on the soundtrack. Driving to the concert, they hear a news announcement about the escape of three “murderers, drug fiends and rapists.” Also, there’s an “animal-like woman” accompanying them.

The killers are holed up in a hotel, fondling their knives and looking crazy. “If I was a frog…” one muses, and then croaks for a while. His older brother kicks him out on the street, where… the two girls just happen to be walking past. As they are captured, Mari’s parents are decorating their suburban home for her birthday. If you weren’t clear about the ironic counterpoint, Wes Craven layers on the “happy” music just to hammer the point home for ya.

The girls are beaten and raped, though the camera (thankfully) pans away to spare us most of the details.

The next morning, Mari’s parents are frantic. The quartet of killers loads the girls in the trunk (not dead yet, apparently) and hits the road, accompanied by a zany kazoo-and-banjo theme song. Yes, really. In an amazing coincidence, the car breaks down right in front of Mari’s parents’ house. The girls are dragged into the woods, humiliated further (if you’re really curious, you can watch the movie yourself), and killed horribly.

It goes on for a long time, it was more gruesome and sadistic than I expected, and this was the moment that I began to regret watching the film.

Every once in a while, we cut over to the idiotic sheriff and his dunderheaded deputy, playing checkers, running out of gas on their way to a crime scene, or making bestiality jokes. Get it? They’re dumb hicks!

The killers clean up in the lake water and make their way to… guess where? Mari’s parents’ house, of course. Which makes just as little sense in this movie as it did in the previous one.

In this movie, the role of the semi-innocent little boy is replaced by a semi-retarded junkie. While he’s vomiting and shaking with the DT’s, Mom notices that he’s wearing Mari’s peace symbol necklace. A little amateur sleuthing reveals Mari’s clothes in the visitor’s suitcase, and Mari’s body in the nearby lake.

While Mom leads one of the killers outside with the lure of potential mature-woman-nookie, Dad sets an elaborate trap, stringing electrical wires on forks, pouring unspecified liquids on the carpet, and spreading shaving cream on the hardwood floor. Outside, the killer brags that he could make Mom happy (if you know what I mean) even with his hands tied behind his back. Mom expresses doubt, so he offers to prove it. “Go ahead, tie my hands behind my back! I can literally do that!” She ties him up, gets him hard, and chews off his penis. Yes, really.

Interesting side note: The actor who gets his penis chewed off went on to act in and direct a multitude of porn films.

Inside, Dad isn’t faring so well; Main Bad Guy has him on the ropes. Semi-Retarded Junkie comes in with a gun, but just shoots himself. Dad has a chainsaw! Main Bad Guy falls for the trick and electrocutes himself on the doorknob! Lady Bad Guy rumbles with Mom on the lawn! Chain saw battle continues!

The cops arrive just in time to see Dad disembowel Main Bad Guy and Mom slash Lady Bad Guy’s throat.

The house is a mess.

Freeze frame on blood-spattered parents, and cue the crazy banjo music!

What I Liked

The acting isn’t bad for the era/genre; there are a few scenes in which the terror of the two girls and their sad attempts to comfort each other during their ordeal, is particularly well-played and even (dare I say it) moving.

I liked that – rather than start shrieking upon the discovery of the crime – Mom coolly began plotting the violent demise of the Bad Guys.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Ugh. The lengthy and sadistic murder scenes made me feel sick and depressed. I think Wes Craven would say that was exactly the point, but it was still an unpleasant experience. There is a line past which the depiction of barbarism becomes barbarous itself, when it appears that the filmmakers are actually reveling in the sadism rather than “showing you an unpleasant truth.” My gut feeling was that Last House was a straight-up exploitation film, and – despite Wes Craven’s denials – that I was being lured with the titillation of female nudity and misogynist violence.

Strangely, the cinema-verite aesthetic of the film actually left me feeling more offended. Craven has said that he was hoping to capture the look of battlefield news footage, that the film was a response to some of the images he was seeing from Vietnam. But that very artlessness felt like a contrivance, a way to fool me into thinking that the film’s intent was somehow more serious than a straight slasher film.

The music (provided by David Hess, who plays the Main Bad Guy, Krug Stillo) is just awful in every imaginable way. It comes in two flavors: 1) shitty faux James Taylor folk noodling for the (supposedly) tension-building “calm before the storm” scenes, and 2) goofball kazoo-and-banjo music-hall malarkey during the horror sequences. Just unbelievably ill-advised and poorly executed. Egads.

Should You See It?

Last House is certainly compelling and effective, and it delivers an emotional gut-punch that you won’t get from the Bergman film, but there’s just no way that I can recommend it.

FURTHER RUMINATIONS…

Last House is one of those grimy “Video Nasty” grindhouse pictures from the 1970’s that derive an undeniable frisson from their very artlessness. These are films that fill you with a queasy feeling of unease, a feeling that the filmmakers might actually be unbalanced, a feeling that horrible things may happen to any and all characters, that some of what you’re seeing might actually be real. These are films that have an unclean, unhealthy feeling that gets under your skin in a way almost impossible to duplicate today.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not claiming these are “good” films, or that they are some kind of savant art or valid political statement. They are decidedly not that. At the same time, I have to admit that the adolescent boy in me feels a strong pull toward the horror movies of this period, probably in large part because I was told over and over about how evil they were at the time, but was not allowed to see them (and rightfully so, I might add). These are the Films You Should Not See! So I want to see them!

Having said that, The Last House on the Left was actually bleaker and more horrifying (as opposed to terrifying; I didn’t find it particularly frightening, except as a sort of existential terror at the depravity of my fellow man) than I expected. Several times, I considered turning it off, but found it difficult to do so.

I’ve given my thoughts on the film itself above, but I find myself continuing to mull this question of whether Last House, or other films like it, are “valid” in any way. As I mentioned above, Craven has claimed that he was partially channeling the images America was seeing from Vietnam. He also claims that the film was a repudiation of the simplistic glorification of violence he saw in Westerns and other mainstream films. In his film (his justification goes), he dared to depict the actual, horrifying consequences of violence.

It’s true that the murders are depicted in grisly detail, and are clearly intended to leave the audience feeling sickened, and yet… what about the revenge killings at the end? As much as my mind rejected it intellectually, I have to admit to feeling deep satisfaction when the killers were castrated and disemboweled. It’s possible that some viewers might walk away from Last House examining their own code of ethics, but I’m guessing the vast majority walked out of the theater muttering, “…those fuckers got what they deserved!”

So I’m not entirely sure I buy Craven’s justification.

Question: Which is more unethical (or immoral, though I don’t like that word) – glib and glamorous depictions of violence, or cold, brutal and ugly depictions?

When a film of necessity portrays a heinous act, how do you determine whether the depiction is unnecessarily reveling in the gruesome details? Is there any objective way to determine this?

Then there’s the question of saturation. At the time Last House came out, it was undoubtedly shocking. It’s probably impossible to ascertain what the psychological effect was on contemporary audiences, because we’re so far beyond that now. Grisly murders depicted in clinical detail are a dime a dozen, and I can only believe that we’ve become desensitized.

And there’s the issue of subjectivity. Salo, commonly referred to as the most reprehensible film ever committed to celluloid was, ostensibly, a depiction of the banality of evil; a dissection of the human cruelty inherent in a fascist state. Fair enough. But reviews on Amazon and Netflix frequently praise it for being “the craziest movie I’ve ever seen, dude!” (I’m paraphrasing.)

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Next: Viridiana

One Comment

  1. There is such a thing called a “Date Movie.” It’s the type of fluff entertainment you would take a date to. It’s a movie that doesn’t tax the brain, gives you a bit of a laugh, allows the endorphins to wander about into all the right places and settles you in for an enjoyable conversation afterwards. Something usually begins with the sentence: “I think this Sandra Bullock film is much better than her last…” or “When Meg Ryan fell down the stairs I don’t think I could stop laughing…” – in short: “Latest Romantic Comedy” = “Date Movie” – “The Virgin Spring” does NOT equal “Date Movie.” Nor does Paul Verhoven’s film “The Fourth Man” which I took my wife to go see early in our relationship. Though it certainly made for interesting conversation afterwards but…I digress.

    The movie this week is “The Virgin Spring” and we’re back in the wacky world of Ingmar Bergman. This film tells a much simpler story than the last film with Death playing chess and witches and wild women seducing traveling performers and the plague, etc. But this film is another one of those “BIG QUESTION” films like: “Why are we here? Is there a God? If so, why do bad things happen to good people?” Not like big questions like: “Is Will Farrell ever going to make another decent film?”

    In this story we follow Karin. Karin’s a virgin. How do we know this? First, she’s got that sweeter than sweeter attitude about her. She’s as pure as the driven snow and Bergman lights her as such. Though she lives on a dirty farm and everyone looks like they haven’t showered since the 13th Century – she’s stupendously beautiful and sweet. I almost expected birds and animals to come up to her and chirp in her ear. Second, they tell us. Family members talk about how the “Virgin” (and they say it glowing terms…not like how Steve Carrel was referred to) has to deliver candles to the church. And, since she’s the virgin and they’ve got the candles – best she take them. But she wants to wear her finest silk. Though she’s a virgin, she’s also a little spoiled, see, and she puts demands on her parents.

    With the virgin is the whore…okay, she’s not actually a whore (I don’t think) but she is pregnant and she doesn’t look like she has showered since the 13th Century. She, too, works on the farm and she’s Karin’s hand-maiden (or something). Running the farm are Max Von Sydow as her dad with a Nordic beard (one of those beards that goes up and around the chin (see photo above) and his wife. They’ve got a couple dirtied up assistants on the farm, too.

    And we’re off on a journey. Virgin and Preggers to go to the church to drop off some candles. Songs are sung (why, Ingmar, do you feel the need to insert songs?) and stories are told and – God, where IS this church(???) the conversation comes around to the Virgin’s, uh, virginity. Seems that Preggers is a bit jealous of all the attention (and even spiked the Virgin’s bread with a live frog – don’t ask) and asks her about it. Karin explains that she’ll keep it until she finds the right guy. But (foreshadow alert) Preggers asks her: “What if you get overpowered.” Karin explains (if I remember right) that she’ll fight back or it won’t happen to her or something.

    Now, word of warning here, because Karin is so GAWDAWFUL perfect you just know that something bad is going to happen to her. And it does.

    Distracted by an old guy in a cabin, Preggers hangs out with him leaving Karin to journey alone. Next thing you know, three guys (one being a boy) who could have stepped out of “Deliverance” come across Karin and brutally rape her and kill her. Preggers sees the act, goes to defend her, but jealous as she is…lets it happen.

    The two older guys strip off the fine silk and run off into the woods leaving young boy to hang back (for some reason I never actually figured out). Eventually the boy freaks out in the falling snow and throws some dirt on Karin and runs off.

    Later that day, back at the farm, the three show up at Max’s farm house and ask for a bite to eat. They are welcomed in, you see, because Max is a God-fearing man who believes in helping others. In fact, he even offers the three a job. At dinner, though, the young boy drinking his milk spits it all up and makes a bit of a spectacle of himself. He can’t handle the guilt and it’s starting to show. Do the three know they’re in the house of the girl they killed? No.

    Now the tone of the film shifts from a candle delivering road movie to a: “When’s Max going to find out and what’s he going to do?”

    Figuring that Karin is still okay, they head to bed. But a weird Monk senses the boy’s guilt and tries to get it out of him. But he ain’t talkin’ and after a bit of a beat-down by his older brothers he knows his place in this scheme.

    But Karin’s mother senses more than Max and goes to talk to the men. When one of them, stupidly, offers to sell the very silk dress to her! And, as they say, it’s ON!

    The mother locks them in their barn, tells Max and Max goes to kick some Swedish Hillbilly ASS! But first he has to deal with Preggers who has returned heartbroken and full of guilt. She admits that she saw it all and did nothing about it and that she secretly wanted it to happen, she is distraught. Her punishment? She better start making up a hot bath and quick ‘cause Max has got some birch branches that need to be cut.

    Max goes and cuts down (well, actually, he pushes down a tree) and then whips his naked body (with Preggers watching) with the birch branches. To purify himself? To gird himself? Likes the smell? I have no idea – but you know that when he’s done – some killin’ is gonna happen.

    With wife with him, he enters the locked barn where they’re all still asleep. He confirms his suspicions by going through their belongings and promptly kills each one – brutally. Even the boy. It is revenge done at its most primal, it’s most evil, it’s most, uh, brutal.

    The revenge satisfied, they must find Karin’s body. So off they go. The farm hands, Preggers, Max and wife (who ALSO blames herself for Karin’s death). Though they go by foot they seem to make very good time and Preggers leads them right to the dirt splattered body.

    At this point Max goes through some standard Religious questions: “How could you let this happen? You did nothing?!” Cursing God (side note: The priest at my church says that you’ve never really had a conversation with God until you call him a sonofbitch.), and praising God, Max realizes his futility in all of this and finally decides that he’s going to build God a church on this very spot (I don’t know who owns the land and they might have an issue with that). But when they go to move Karin…suddenly a spring of water shoots forth which, I guess, is a miracle – but it’s going to also really screw up the church building…what with water/drainage issues.

    WHAT I LIKED:

    I liked this film more than the previous Bergman film as this film kept the symbolism to the fringes until, obviously, the end.

    Both the rape and the revenge were brutal in their honesty. These scenes were as in-your-face and terrifying as anything I have ever seen on film. This wasn’t some “mamby-pamby cut away to flowers growing” or something – it was what it was and Bergman showed it. There are images I’m still trying to shake.

    The acting was very good, all around, though Karin (more the fault of the character than the actor) was so perfectly perfect that she was annoying.

    I applaud Bergman for the continual pushing of the questioning religion envelope.

    WHAT I DISLIKED:

    I didn’t care for the “spring” at the end. It was cheesy and stupid and lessened what came before it.

    OVERALL?

    Wow. 89 minutes of brutal and brilliant film-making. If you can stomach it…you should watch it.

    ADDENDUM TO JASON’S COMMENTS ABOUT VIOLENCE IN FILMS:

    I have not watched “Last House” but have recently purchased a number of grindhouse films released by “Something Weird Video” – I think this is a great area of discussion but one that should not be tacked on after a review. My hope would be that you would start a separate thread (such as the atheist thread) and post it on facebook because I would like to get a lot of people involved.

    Also note: I have not watched any of the SAW films, no “torture porn” (Hostel and the like) so my take on the violent and horrific films of the past few years so my take is decidely bent. I don’t care for films that are scary or violent mainly because I don’t see the point. It’s not that I don’t want to get scared but I’ve had my moments of not being able to sleep (after seeing “Jaws” when I was a kid) to know that I don’t care for them. I also find the continual violence towards women to be another sickening aspect of most of these films. Though, supposedly, women make up more the ticket buyers for the SAW, Hostel, etc. films (what does that say about women and society).

    I look forward to what you come up with and look forward to adding to the discussion.

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