Tag Archives: femininity

Feminism is for Everybody: Come Closer (Part 1)

feminismisforeverybodycoffeeIt is scary that a book published almost 15 years ago can be still so relevant and yet so controversial, on a topic such as the status of feminism in today’s society.

When I posted this picture on Instagram, it collected a few defensive comments from ill-informed (coincidentally male) folks. The sight of a small, brightly-coloured book with a kind, deliberately inclusive and hardly hostile title was apparently too much to handle. The very word “feminism” had raised their hackles.

bellhooksNor did they realise the irony of their remarks. On the first page of her Introduction, hooks relates the reactions she receives when telling people who she is and what she does. When she mentions the words “feminist theorist,” she hears the same ill-informed opinions: “When I ask these same folks about the feminist books or magazines they read, when I ask them about the feminist talks they have heard, about the feminist activists they know, they respond by letting me know that everything they know about feminism has come into their lives thirdhand.”

The eternal problem we face. Everyone seems to have an opinion on feminism, its aims, its history, its mistakes, its faults and its evils, and yet so few have bothered to skim anything that will educate them properly. How do you expect to learn about feminism through a patriarchal mainstream media? The irony is bitter.

In writing Feminism is for Everybody, hooks has given us a primer, a starting point, a foundational text. It is straightforward, short and easy to read. It tells those who have only come to know the word “feminism” through a mainstream media that is essentially patriarchal, because it is not radical, what the word really means. Where feminism has come from and where it still needs to go.

She says, “I had to write it because I kept waiting for it to appear, and it did not. And without it there was no way to address the hordes of people in this nation who are daily bombarded with anti-feminist backlash, who are being told to hate and resist a movement that they know very little about. There should be so many little feminist primers, easy to read pamphlets and books, telling us all about feminism, that this book would be just another passionate voice speaking out on behalf of feminist politics.”

I think this book is also for those who have labelled themselves feminists in the wake of “successful” mainstream celebrities claiming the title. This book is straightforward and easy to read, but it is rigorous. It comes from a woman who has a background in feminist theory, history and activism. She knows it is not just about “equality,” whatever that means. She will have no watered-down feminism. Her feminism is radical and intersectional because she sees that we cannot have a feminist vision without the destruction of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Hardly something these celebrities, who have profited from such a system, will ascribe to. She reminds us that feminism should be unpalatable, because it wants to disrupt the status quo. But in this short book, she also reminds us that we need it.

Emma-Watson-HeForSheSo, fifteen years on, we still need this book. Anti-feminists and new feminists jumping on the bandwagon alike.

“As all advocates of feminist politics know, most people do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media. The feminism they hear about the most is portrayed by women who are primarily committed to gender equality – equal pay for equal work, and sometimes women and men sharing household chores and parenting. They see that these women are usually white and materially privileged.”

This is a kind of feminism that can fit into patriarchy. Economic power can become more “equal” so women can participate fully in capitalism without ever thinking deeply about gender, heteronormativity or race.

juliebishopRecently, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, when asked if she was a feminist, replied “I don’t find the need to self-describe in that way…It’s not a term that I find particularly useful these days.”

While there was an uproar, she’s right. She’s not a feminist. She is part of a government that, rather than ending sexist exploitation, is compounding it. She has benefited from a patriarchal system of domination and would rather uphold it than criticise. Why do we expect every woman in a position of power to identify as a feminist? Because the word has become virtually meaningless in mainstream culture. Hooks explains this:

Lifestyle feminism ushered in the notion that there could be as many versions of feminism as there were women. Suddenly the politics was being slowly removed from feminism.”

corporate feminismAnd Mary Barfoot, in The Coming of Black Genocide, puts it in a way that certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth: “There are white women, hurt and angry, who believed that the ‘70s women’s movement meant sisterhood, and who feel betrayed by escalatory women. By women who went back home to the patriarchy. But the women’s movement never left the father Dick’s side… There was no war. And there was no liberation. We got a share of genocide profits and we love it. We are Sisters of the Patriarchy, and true supporters of national and class oppression, Patriarchy in its highest form is Euro-imperialism on a world scale. If we’re Dick’s sister and want what he has gotten, then in the end we support that system that he got it all from.”

So, is feminism about women occupying more positions of power and privilege within a patriarchal capitalist system of oppression? Is this the idea of “equality” we want to embrace? Should we be happy with the small number of women CEOs and political representatives? Watering down feminism in this way has meant, as hooks says, that “in the ‘90s collusion with the existing social structure was the price of ‘women’s liberation.’”

Twenty years on this still seems to be the case. In making feminism palatable to the mainstream, dragging it against its will into an acceptance of feminism as “equality,” we are on the defensive. We start out by protesting, “No, it’s not anti-men!” In fact, that should be obvious to anyone who has bothered to look into the topic. But in an anti-feminist mass media, this must be the starting point.

Suddenly, these are the women who represent feminism. As hooks points out, “Radical white women tend not to be ‘represented,’ and, if represented at all, they are depicted as a fringe freak element. No wonder then that the ‘power feminism’ of the ‘90s offers wealthy white heterosexual women as the examples of feminist success.”Victoria Jackson, Kathy Freston And Dean Ornish Host Book Party For Arianna Huffington's "Thrive"Here we have feminism-lite. A feminism that slots nicely into the patriarchal status quo:

Mainstream mass media has always chosen a straight woman to represent what the feminist movement stands for – the straighter the better. The more glamourous she is, the more her image can be used to appeal to men. Woman-identified women, whether straight, bisexual, or lesbian rarely make garnering male approval a priority in our lives. This is why we threaten the patriarchy. Lesbian women who have a patriarchal mindset are far less threatening to men than feminist women, gay or straight, who have turned their gaze and their desire away from the patriarchy, away from sexist men.”

lauriepennyLaurie Penny puts it perfectly, echoing the same sentiments hooks had fifteen years ago: “The feminism that sells is the sort of feminism that can appeal to almost everybody while challenging nobody, feminism that soothes, that speaks for and to the middle class, aspirational feminism that speaks of shoes and shopping and sugar-free snacks and does not talk about poor women, queer women, ugly women, transsexual women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould.”

Feminism that actually challenges the status quo, that is intersectional, cannot, as hooks argues, “be appropriated by transnational capitalism as yet another luxury product from the West women in other cultures must fight to have the right to consume.”

This means feminism isn’t about having “the answers.” If it is global, intersectional, aware of class, race, religion, age, and so many more, it must be about listening. Hooks does a great job of explaining briefly and lucidly while feminism must be anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Rather than being about some vague notion of “equality,” this is an awareness of the historical and invasive formation of patriarchy. It is a complex, overwhelming, all-consuming collection of forces that is impossible to get our heads around.

Zillah Eisenstein also says: “Feminism(s) as transnational – imagined as the rejection of false race/gender borders and falsely constructed ‘other’ – is a major challenge to masculinist nationalism, the distortions of statist communism and ‘free’-market globalism. It is a feminism that recognises individual diversity, and freedom, and equality, defined through and beyond north/west and south/east dialogues.”

So, if capitalism and patriarchy are so intertwined that we can’t talk about feminism without talking about capitalism, we can’t water it down to a fight for equal pay. Hooks explains: “The truth remains that consumer capitalism was the force leading more women into the workforce. Given the depressed economy white middle-class families would be unable to sustain their class status and their lifestyles if women who had once dreamed solely of working as housewives had not chosen to work outside the home.”

leanin2I have long thought that feminism must be inherently pacifist as well, but I wasn’t able to clarify my ideas until I read hooks’ chapter in this book: “Ending Violence.” She says, “I am among those rare feminist theorists who believe that it is crucial for feminist movement to have as an overriding agenda ending all forms of violence.” All patriarchal violence – that is, violence that is an effort to dominate, to make a person or a group of people feel inferior – must be targeted by feminism. That includes sexual assault, fightclubdomestic violence, child abuse, war, and bar fights. Patriarchy tells us violence is gendered masculine. It tells men that by being born male, they must imprint their superiority on the world. But patriarchy is complex. It positions men in a hierarchy even while telling them that by right of being male, they must assert their dominance. Hooks explains how violence, class and gender intersect in patriarchy: “Since masses of unemployed and working-class men do not feel powerful on their jobs within white supremacist patriarchy they are encouraged to feel that the one place where they will have absolute authority and respect is in the home.” NRL TITANS KNIGHTSIn patriarchy, violence is a way of asserting your dominance, and even your identity. Violence is used to regain power and control because in a patriarchal society it is associated with strength, even while it is often condemned.

So, even while the media reports on domestic violence, while politicians speak out against it and organisations aim to “educate” us, this won’t be effective. Because, as hooks sees, “even though representations of domestic violence abound in mass media and discussions take place on every front, rarely does the public link ending male violence to ending male domination, to eradicating patriarchy. Most citizens of this nation still do not understand the link between male domination and male violence in the home… In mass media everyone raises the question of why this violence is taking place without linking it to patriarchal thinking.”

realmendonthitIt is also true that “early on in feminist thinking activists often failed to liken male violence against women to imperialist militarism. This linkage was often not made because those who were against male violence were often accepting and even supportive of militarism. As long as sexist thinking socialises boys to be ‘killers,’ whether in imaginary good guy, bad guy fights or as soldiers in imperialism to maintain coercive power over nations, patriarchal violence against women and children will continue. In recent years as young males from diverse class backgrounds have committed horrendous acts of violence there has been national condemnation of these acts but few attempts to link this violence to sexist thinking.”larissa waters

I am reminded of a recent debate in Australia in which Greens senator Larissa Waters endorsed the campaign “No Gender December” which shows the harm of gendered toys. She stated that “outdated stereotypes…feed into very serious problems such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap.”

Predictably there was outrage over this “political correctness.” But if dolls are designated as “girls’ toys” what are you saying about the traits of caring and nurturing? If superheroes and toy guns are “boys’ toys” how can we deny no-gender-decemberthat physical strength and violence are gendered masculine in our culture? If boys cannot dress up in fairy outfits, what are you telling him about girls and femininity? That it’s “weak,” trivial, and that he best stay away from it at all costs or he will be “emasculated” (one of the most amusing words in the English language). Emotional intelligence, creativity, and interpersonal closeness are for girls, while physical strength, dominance and violence are for boys? Great.

dollsHooks provides an explanation that the general public, crying “political correctness,” may want to think about: “We do know that patriarchal masculinity encourages men to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent on the privileges (however relative) that they receive simply for having been male. Many men feel that their lives are being threatened if these privileges are taken away, as they have structured no meaningful core identity.”

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Come on. Do we want to keep sticking up for an outdated patriarchal masculinity when it makes men into people like this? What would we lose by slowly ungendering toys, so that children are seen as people rather than boys or girls?hug

Doesn’t hooks have a better solution? “Boys need healthy self-esteem. They need love. And a wise and loving feminist politics can provide the only foundation to save the lives of male children. Patriarchy will not heal them. If that were so they would all be well.”

I will delve into the second half of hooks’ book in the next couple of weeks.

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Fight Like a Girl: Constructing an Active Femininity

riotmirrorriotgirl

Why is fashion mocked but not sport, where the goal is, for example, to put a ball on the grass behind a line?

Why are girls at a pop concert thought of as stupid but not men screaming, crying and fighting at a football match?

Why are romance novels scoffed at but not ghostwritten crime thrillers?

Why do romantic comedies elicit eye rolls but not formulaic Bond films?

Why is pink a frivolous colour but not blue?

Why are girls allowed to play with trucks but boys aren’t allowed to play with dolls?

Why is it okay for girls to enjoy soccer but not okay for boys to enjoy ballet?

Why so much attention on about girls playing with pink toys but not boys playing with guns, swords, all kinds of military apparatus?

Why is it shameful to enjoy Britney’s music but not AC/DC’s? (After all, the musical value is the same)

Why is knitting foolish but not playing pool at the pub?

Why is a love of handbags laughable but not a fixation on accessories for a car?

Why is celebrity gossip shallow but (male) sports gossip, which fills TV news, newspapers and programmes like “The Footy Show,” a worthy use of time?

Why does “man up” mean “stop being weak”?

Why do women read novels by men but very few men read novels by women?

These questions all have the same answer.

passivefemininityIt may seem that the easiest way to achieve gender equality is to do away with femininity, with the idea that women should reshape their bodies, decorate themselves, spend hours turning themselves into people that “look like women.”

But this privileges masculinity. This buys into the very idea that the patriarchy has propagated: masculinity means strength, rationality, aggression, and power. Femininity means passivity, emotion, artifice and frivolity.

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If we want to break down all patriarchal concepts of gender, that the category of man is synonymous with masculinity and the category of woman with femininity, and are mutually exclusive (that is, that you can’t be a “real man” and be feminine and vice versa), we have to rethink femininity all together. We have to construct it in a new way, make it powerful. I use the word construct deliberately. It needs to be conscious. We are still too deep in patriarchal concepts of femininity to use femininity without consequence. Everywhere objectification and sexualisation and women and girls bombards us. How can we reconstruct femininity in a way that isn’t patriarchal?

Red-Tape-Sexist-AdFirst of all I want to say that femininity should not be associated with women. But this is a complicated idea because of patriarchy’s centuries-old construction of femininity to assist its oppression of women. Those traits I mentioned earlier – passivity, emotion, artifice, frivolity (and you could name thousands more) – are negative. Masculine traits are positive. And here is the crux: they are only positive when men possess them. So we get the typical insults applied to women who are seen to transgress femininity (and how easy to overstep the mark): “shrill” for women who speak their mind and out of turn, “bitch” for the same thing, “bossy” for women who show leadership, “slut” for women who claim sexual agency rather than passivity, and how long could we go on for? Femininity is ultimately supposed to be about attracting men. That’s why feminists are called “man haters.” Because they fundamentally oppose the idea that their existence needs male validation. That’s the scariest idea patriarchy can hear.

antisuffragepropagandaBy the same token, insults applied to men police masculinity just as effectively. As Jessica Valenti writes:

“What’s the worst possible thing you can call a woman? Don’t hold back, now.
You’re probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank.
Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy. I’ve even heard the term “mangina.”
Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult. Now tell me that’s not royally fucked up.”

Policing masculinity works through denigrating femininity and therefore women. It works through misogyny.

““Femininity is depicted as weakness, the sapping of strength, yet masculinity is so fragile that apparently even the slightest brush with the feminine destroys it.” – Gwen Sharp

Our binary gender system means that men who express “feminine” traits, say by crying or enjoying “feminine” things such as arranging flowers, are not “real men.” You can’t be masculine and feminine at the same time. In fact, masculinity is defined by an avoidance of femininity. How about if we de-sexed and de-gendered femininity? This means that “feminine” wouldn’t be attached to genitals, chromosomes, even bodies – however we define gender. Basically the term “femininity” wouldn’t be suitable for the kind of body-performance I suggest but since I’m working in a patriarchal symbolic I will use the word. I also use the term because I recognise the denigration of femininity has been synonymous with the denigration of women, is the basis of misogyny, and reclaiming it is a way of freeing women from being the objects the patriarchy wants them to be, to become true subjects with human agency.

riotgrrrlMost essential to me is making femininity about subjectivity. Femininity under patriarchy is about making our bodies amenable to men. Is there a way to reclaim femininity for ourselves, as fluid and changeable, so that one day we can feel like curling our hair and wearing heels and the next wear trackpants and no bra, without feeling that we are abandoning our duty, without feeling that we aren’t “real women” today, without worrying we won’t be treated with respect, without feeling we are missing any advantages by not complying with patriarchy, without feeling guilty, without the world curling its lip or heaping slurs on us?

ilikeskirtsTraditionally femininity has been about objectification. Yes, turning ourselves into objects. Looking at ourselves as objects. Decorating our bodies by inhabiting the male gaze. The way women have internalised the male gaze is scary.

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As Simone de Beauvoir said back in 1949 “Woman…is even required by society to make herself an erotic object. The purpose of the fashions to which she is enslaved is not to reveal her as an independent individual, but rather to offer her as prey to male desires.” So skirts, heels, frills, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, decorative hats, unwieldy coloured fingernails are not designed for free bodily movement and in fact often hinder it. Men’s clothing needs to be practical: shirts without lace or frills, plain pants (it’s forbidden for men to wear skirts), flat shoes, and on special occasions suit and tie. It is not supposed to draw attention to men’s body but allow him to express himself, allow his personality and opinions to shine through. On the other hand, women in positions of power are constantly criticised or evaluated on their choice of clothing, hairstyles, bodily comportment. Women in movies and TV shows are shown fretting over what to wear – this would be unacceptable in a male character. Why? Because women’s bodies are viewed as objects, something to be adorned, and women in sexist pop culture view their own bodies as objects, to be adorned for the male gaze. To be shaped to be amenable to patriarchy.

nothingtowearTo reclaim femininity we have to understand these origins. Yes, it has been utilised for patriarchal purposes. Maybe we can say that femininity can be feminist, but it can be (and certainly has been for centuries) anti-feminist. To use Foucault’s analysis, femininity has been used to create docile bodies, though Foucault of course was bad with gender, so we have to apply his very good concept of (male) bodies being manipulated into soldiers, prisoners, students. If only he had picked up on the incredible differences in the ways female bodies are produced.

Sandra Lee Bartky’s analysis of the way female bodies are produced as objects is pretty much the best thing ever. She knows that “[t]he strategy of much beauty-related advertising is to suggest to women that their bodies are deficient” so that femininity is based on a “pervasive sense of bodily deficiency.” Shame is used to make us discipline our bodies in often crazy ways. You shouldn’t have hair there. You shouldn’t have fat there. You should have a gap there, and a curve there, and a visible bone there. This is because “[w]oman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other” as Bartky says. This is reinforced at every turn. On billboards. In “women’s” magazines (often working against women rather than for/with them). On the street when a man thinks he has a right to comment on her appearance. In her home when a relative calls her pretty.

eraseradThis is the message women get from everywhere: the most important thing is how you look. Then they are laughed at for accepting the message. Girls are told they should be pretty, they should like pop music, they should like pink, and then they are mocked for it. Girls are caught in a double-bind. Why can’t we stop telling them that being a girl is essentially weak, without giving them any alternatives?

girlsgetmockedThis is also why girls claim to be “not like other girls” or to take it as a compliment when someone (usually a boy) tells them they are “not like other girls.”

notlikeothergirlsWhen femininity is trivialised, women are trivialised. When masculinity goes unquestioned, patriarchy goes unquestioned.

So, do undo all this historical and cultural work we have to be aware of it. One way to do this is by acknowledging that all gender is artifice. Femininity has been intimately linked with artifice, superficiality, “faking it,” while masculinity has been linked with solidity, truth, natural, pragmatic, down-to-earth. “Feminine” gestures are unnecessary and foolish, such as the stereotypical hair flick, movement of the hips, limp wrist. Drag performances show up this “constructed” femininity clearly. We also get this idea through the common assumption that queer men who “act feminine” are “flamboyant” or somehow faking their speech patterns, body movements and gestures.

whitechicks_3Heterosexual masculinity is the only form of gender expression that is “stripped back” and “natural.” Surprise surprise.

But masculinity is just as much faked and performed. Do men really need to sit with their legs so far apart? Do they need to drape their arms over nearby pieces of furniture? Do they need to swig from a glass with their elbows at a ninety-degree angle? Do they need to clap each other on the back?

takinguptoomuchspaceNope. Artifice. Of course, we can’t avoid Judith Butler here: gender is “a stylised repetition of acts [so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.” Basically, gender is “real only to the extent that it is performed.”

If we recognise that gender is a performance, we can detach it from arbitrary markers of genitals and chromosomes. Why would we want to reclaim femininity? It has been used to objectify us, distract us, trivialise us. All that time we spend putting on makeup could be spent reading good books. All that time spent criticising a woman politician’s outfit could be spent examining her policies. But femininity isn’t inherently any worse than masculinity. And there are some things typified as “feminine” that we need a whole lot more of: emotion, affection, kindness, carefulness, even frivolous fun. I think we can reclaim femininity by dissociating it from objectification and shame.

Shame is really hard to get through. As women we feel obligated to shave our legs, our armpits, shape our eyebrows. We are obligated to make ourselves objects. If we can come to a different, more liberating understanding of our bodies we can spend hours looking for a nice dress or putting on makeup if we feel like it, but if we would rather sleep in or read a book we won’t think anything of it. Above all there should be no requirement for women to shape their bodies and faces as if they were deficient, just as there is no requirement for men. If a woman never shaves, plucks, dyes, whatever other regimes that get thrown at women as compulsory, why should we care? Her body isn’t there for us to look at. Rather than looking at our bodies we can experience them, how they move fast, sweat, beat, let us feel pleasure, let us feel pain, the thrill and exhaustion of running or scoring a goal or lifting weights, how they show what we’re feeling, tears or embarrassment or laughter. If we feel all this, if we know our bodies in this way, shame takes up less space. This is body positivity – knowing all the things our bodies can do rather than all the ways that they don’t look. Let’s not leave Riot Grrrl in the 90s. Femininity can be feminist – if we don’t view our bodies with the male gaze, but experience them as our own, as our connection with the world and all its sensations and joys and tragedies.

zooeydeschanel45 years ago Germaine Greer wrote: “Whenever we treat women’s bodies as aesthetic objects without function we deform them and their owners. Whether the curves imposed are the ebullient arabesques of the tit-queen or the attenuated coils of art-nouveau they are deformations of the dynamic, individual body, and limitations of the possibilities of being female.

The definition of strength that suits patriarchy is aggression, competition, denial of emotion and self-reliance. But when you have all this, who would suggest that tanks, guns, brawls on footy fields, hacking a path through jungle, speeding around in a loud and decorated car, swallowing back tears, looking at women’s bodies as if they had no heart, soul or mind and shuddering at the idea of drinking a “chick drink” are examples of strength? Until men stop viewing “feminine traits” as weak and seeking to avoid them at all costs, we won’t be rid of our stupid notions of gender and the damage patriarchy has wrought on women, men and the world.

riotgrrrlmanifestoWe need to detach “being a woman” from objectification. A femininity that is not about attracting men. We need a feminist patriarchy-smashing femininity.

ididitformyselfI am an I, not a she, not a her, not “my girlfriend” or “my daughter” or “my wife” or sweetheart, baby, darling. My lipstick is the colour of blood, the lifeforce. I know that flowers grow from nothing, everywhere. My hair is long and not ornamental, it catches the light and gives out its own light, it whips and warms me and drips with sweat. I cry when I feel beautiful music and I feel the beauty and spirit of the wide mountains like a kick in the guts. When I cry it is salt and water and heat and intensity. I eat pizza, read philosophy and keep my nails sharp enough to cut skin. I don’t smile in deference, I smile because I am strong enough to show kindness. I am not scared of my emotions. I don’t need to beat nature or prove my survival skills because I know I am part of it. I don’t leave a room that is filled with sadness. I touch without violence. I am not an empty space, I am filled with strength. My body moves fast, sweats, heats up. I am not pretty. I wear skirts and occupy my own space and don’t apologise for it. If you undermine me I can protect myself. I lift weights with my brothers and box with my sisters. I’m wear heels and I haven’t shaved my armpits. I wear a thousand bracelets and I am quick to anger. I cry when I see somebody crying and I shout at those who take me for decoration. I see no contradiction. My makeup is warpaint.

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