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Have We Cleared the Intersection Yet?: Black Women in Comic Film Adaptations

By Chamara Moore

“Representation is a crucial location of struggle for any exploited and oppressed people asserting subjectivity and decolonization of the mind.” In this quote from bell hooks’ Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, she summarizes the complexities of the challenge of representation. While acknowledging how this challenge is undoubtedly more complicated for Black women, this paper seeks to specifically address the challenge of representation within the realm of comic book film adaptations. Considering the strong connection between American popular culture and the Superhero, it is easy to say that American consumers love watching Superheroes overcome impossible odds and conquer the “bad guys.” The question then becomes: Do consumers only like watching superheroic victors if they are white and male? Would consumers enjoy watching a Black female superhero like the butt-kicking Monica Rambeau a.k.a. Captain Marvel, or the awe-inspiring Queen and Goddess Ororo Munroe? If the portrayal of Black female superheroes in movies from the past 20 years are any indication, we may have many more years to wait for the full answer to that question. But this issue with the pervasive whiteness of superhero films is not limited to their glaring lack of diversity. Comic book movies deliberately shy away from Black heroines with fully realized identities, instead offering moviegoers de-ethnicized super women that function as hyper-sexualized spectacles and sidekicks for the central male superheroes. Furthermore, rather than incorporate more notable Black female superheroes from the comics, franchises have chosen to start racebending the love interests of their male superheroes.

Naturally, in conversations surrounding gender and race representation in superhero narratives, Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman and Marvel’s Black Panther are the first films to come to mind. This paper interrogates why these films have convinced audiences that the Superhero blockbuster diversity problem is solved. I argue that while these films suggest a step in a more inclusive direction, they still propagate many Eurocentric and patriarchal ideals deeply imbedded in the American Imagination, ultimately failing to center Black Superheroines in the way that comics have for years. This examination will reveal how studios can better bridge the gap of inclusive representation between film adaptations and their original comics source texts.

The Power of Audience

Before going in depth regarding the problematics of the representation of Black heroines like Storm and Vixen, I first want to briefly address the impact of the image of the American superhero and what it means for that hero to be embodied as Black and female. Comic book superheroes are loved for more than just their amazing abilities and impossible feats. Their stories capture essential truths about human nature. Readers can relate to their dilemmas and the problems that they face. They aspire to their noble impulses and heroic acts, while simultaneously identifying with them. Superheroes are models for the reader and at the same time modeled after the reader. Characters like Oscar from Junot Diaz’ novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao both relate to and deify comic characters. While young Black girls certainly deserve this relatability to representations of Black women in comics, the images of women of color are never just representation. Black female subjectivity, especially in the American context that comics reflect, means enduring intersectional oppression surrounding both race and gender. In Race, Gender, and Class, Angela Davis states that “Black women have had to develop a larger vision of our society than perhaps any other group…When Black women win victories, it is a boost for virtually every segment of society,” (63). This statement validates the point that images of empowered Black women have the potential to empower a range of demographics, a “universal” audience that studios often claim to cater to. By this logic, images of Black superheroines fighting bad guys and saving the world can be empowering on a higher level for a comic consumer. This alone may explain why characters like Marvel comics’ Storm and Misty Knight have had such a devoted following for decades.

Even while this devoted following is often assumed to be white and male, comics scholar Deborah Whaley explains in her work Black Women in Sequence that it has never been just that:

“Like many in the 1970s, I have fond memories of watching reruns of Batman on television, especially episodes with appearances by Batgirl and Eartha Kitt’s rendition of Catwoman. The visual images of superheroines (Batgirl) and antiheroes (Catwoman) provided contradictory yet powerful symbols of womanhood to aspire to: Batgirl was a girl-next-door type who sought social justice in a criminal world. Catwoman was a powerful, strong-minded, and sexy woman—a rare example of blackness on 1960s television that did not fit the proverbial stereotypes of Black womanhood in the dominant imagination. For me, the visual medium of sequential art was and is a matter of subjectivity and pleasure; it is also a matter of cultural production and consumption” (Whaley x).

She both exemplifies the role that Black women have played in comics audiences, while also explaining the potentiality of impact that these images and their adaptations can have on their heterogeneous consumers.

While the comic industry has been creating Black superheroines, and tackling the hard questions of their identities for years; the problem today is that representation in comics has much lower stakes than that of film and TV adaptations, particularly in our technological age. When kids go to see an Avengers movie, it matters that they are able to deify Captain America and wish they were like him. It also matters that these deified characters are just as diverse as their viewership. If the only superheroes people are able to see on the screen are white, then a subtle message is sent that only white men are capable of these amazing feats. Race and gender representation in Superhero movies is essential particularly because these texts have the propensity to reach such a wide audience, even though identity hasn’t been a central concern of these films until recently. These superhero blockbusters are instantly successful whether or not they adequately portray their central characters, making it difficult to hold studios accountable. Such films have become so popular that each film seems to function as a glorified advertisement for the next installment of their franchises rather than focusing on delivering a deeply satisfying experience for their audiences. Despite how these films like Catwoman, X-men The Last Stand, Avengers: Age of Ultron and others have strayed far away from the original comic book storylines that they are based on, we mustn’t forget that they are still comic book film adaptations. Comics functioned to create these characters and paint their identities, but so many of these character identities are lost in the translation from page to screen. It would seem that over time with the advancement of cameras, special effects, and other technologies, films could do even more to stay loyal to the comics. Despite this, only a minority of audiences have been pressuring production companies to do better i.e. Black Twitter and fandoms on Tumblr. There has been more of a focus on the superheroes’ abilities and what villains they defeat next than on the origin and identity of these heroes and what they stand for. This is particularly true in the Avengers franchise, which has been adding more and more heroes to each film, maxing out with 28 in Avengers: Infinity War, and an estimated 40 in Avengers: Endgame (Singer 2018).

This emphasis on spectacle does seem to be a purposeful one. While there is a portion of superhero audiences that is made up of adoring comic book fans ready to see their favorite heroes portrayed on the big screen, many moviegoers go to see these expensive movies primarily for their enormous scale. Warner Brothers’ 1978 Superman film, the first superhero blockbuster ever, emphasized taking small frames from the comics and blowing them up into a large-scale motion picture with new visual effects and other borrowed conventions from successful preceding franchises like Lucas’ Star Wars. This large scale enables these films to move as close or as far away from the stories of comics because the adoring audiences don’t change much either way. In the essay “When Gen-X Met The X-Men” Neil Rae and Jonathan Gray define film adaptation as “by its very nature, an intertextual outgrowth or extension of the comic book” so it seems more logical to expect “an audience’s predations to and interpretation of the film to be in part precoded and inflected, if not largely predetermined, by that audience’s reaction to and interpretation of the comic book” (87). But Rae and Gray’s original expectation failed to take into account that “although comic book readers are the most knowledgeable of audiences, they are very much a minority within the total number of viewers for comic book movies” (86). The wider viewing audiences for the comic movies are not bound by the original text and are therefore more easily wooed by the simple superhero films that Hollywood continues to put out that focus merely on spectacles of sex, violence, CGI explosions, and surface-level characters derived from comics. Nonetheless, said surface-level characters propagate eurocentric and male centric notions of heroism that wider viewing audiences are accustomed to, while fans of contemporary comics have already seen mainstream characters like DC’s Superman embodied as non-white like Kong Kenan [1]. While the films are moving further and further away from the influence of the comic books, comics and their readers are not holding films accountable for the portrayal of their favorite characters, making these studios seem invulnerable to critique. This lack of accountability exemplifies how the stakes are much higher for these films to please general audiences than for them to please comic book readers. Rae and Gray explain that in order to fear “symbolic violence being perpetrated on the beloved story and its characters by a botched ‘Hollywood-ized’ translation” you must first “have a sense of what the text should be and should look like before watching it, based largely on one’s experience of the original material” (87). This explains why accountability within the relationship between consumers and movie producers seems to have essentially broken down. Audiences can complain about problematic depictions like Tilda Swinton’s racebent character The Ancient One in Doctor Strange, but revenue trends for these films don’t necessarily change. Doctor Strange went on to gross $85 million domestically and $325 Million worldwide. Of course, this pales in comparison to the commercial success of Black Panther, which will be addressed shortly.

“Super” Plastic

After breaking down the unchecked success of these films, I want to focus on the prevalence of problematic depictions within them. Since there have been so few female heroines in these films, much less Black heroes, it is even more important that when we see films like X-Men, Catwoman, or Black Panther the films get these depictions of Black women right. While Black Panther inspired Black girls everywhere, many of its big screen predecessors committed hapless misogynoir, more notably the Warner Bros’ 2004 Catwoman film (a box-office bomb that wasted Oscar-winner Halle Berry’s talent just to objectify her in a barely-there catsuit rather than give her character any notable traits or heroic deeds). Berry was equally wasted in the X-Men Franchise with Storm’s limited screen time and minimal spoken lines. Her character throughout X-Men in 2000, X2 in 2003, X-Men: Last Stand in 2006, X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014, and X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016 is submissive, hyper-emotional, and like I said, barely speaks. In the first X-Men film, a minor and less powerful mutant threw her around before she climbed back up the elevator shaft to defeat him and deliver her one disappointing line in all the franchise, “Do you know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else,” (Singer 2000). The 2nd X-Men film gave her the most lines in the franchise only for her to function as an empathetic ear to Nightcrawler. In all these films, Stormfunctions as an ornamental figure for the main male heroes like Wolverine. This static character primarily defined by the male heroes she interacts with could not be any further from who Ororo Munroe is in the comics. She has numerous intersecting identities that make her character admirably complex.

Firstly, her ethnic identity is a pointed blending of African and American. As a girl born in Harlem to American photojournalist and a Kenyan princess, she has to navigate the line between her two ethnic ancestries. Her character is also incredibly confident and outspoken. She is worshipped as a Goddess in Africa before Professor X recruits her for the X-Men. She then goes onto to become one of the best leaders the X-Men ever had. Comics scholar Adilifu Nama remarks that Ororo’s leadership is crucial to the influence of her identity because she is “a leader of a white-male-dominated superhero organization,” symbolizing “many of the struggles that Black women and women of color in other nations face and resist” (102). Ororo’s leadership extends even further than the X-Men in 2006 when she marries the Black Panther T’Challa and becomes Queen of Wakanda. T’Challa and Ororo’s marriage is notable in the comics for being a union of two of the most powerful Black comic book characters. Ororo helps T’Challa lead Wakanda for over 6 years before the war between the Avengers and the X-men pulls their marriage apart. While it should be noted that Ororo and T’Challa are two characters that are unapologetically proud of their Blackness, the difference in how their identities have played out in films thus far says a lot about the engendered risks studios are ready to take. Black Panther has been a fan favorite of the Avengers ever since his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, whereas the films seem confused as to what to do with Ororo’s identity. She had an African accent for the first X-Men film that was then done away with for the rest of the movies until the latest iteration in X-Men: Apocalypse. Her name is also important since she’s named after her African grandmother with the last name from her American father. Sadly, the movies restrict her character to the use of the name “Storm” exclusively. Professor X introduces her to Logan with her full name, to which Wolverine replies by pointing at her and saying “Storm,” dubbing her to be addressed by that name for the rest of the franchise while the other important members of the team like Cyclops and Wolverine are called by their first names for the majority of the movies (Singer 2000). This is another stripping down of her identity to be defined mainly by her powers. In the comics, she frequently speaks on the challenges she has had to face embodied as both Black and female in America (Hudlin).

Knowing the complexity of Ororo’s identity, reveals the plasticity of her film representations. In “In the time of Plastic Representation” Kristen Warner defines plastic representation as “a combination of synthetic elements put together and shaped to look like meaningful imagery, but which can only approximate depth and substance because ultimately it is hollow and cannot survive close scrutiny” (34). She continues to explain that “plastic representation uses the wonder that comes from seeing characters on screen who serve as visual identifiers for specific demographics in order to flatten the expectation to desire anything more” (35). Storm’s role in the X-Men franchise is thusly incredibly plastic in its depiction by Warner’s standards because she appears as a quiet side character in plenty of scenes, but doesn’t actually possess any depth. We know little to nothing about her background

This crime of poorly representing the identities of Black superheroines is by no means limited to 20th Century Fox’s films. Admittedly television does seem to be doing slightly better by giving us a more diverse array of superheroines. Misty Knight had a role on Netflix’s Luke Cage, Hawk Girl and Vixen made brief appearances in the CW’s Arrow before having recurring roles on the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, and the CW’s Black Lightning has introduced heroines Thunder and Lightning. Black Lighting is definitely a testament to how far we’ve come, but it falls into a similar trap of Black Panther by limiting the heroines to side characters of the central male hero, while depictions on the other aforementioned shows are lackluster at best. Vixen and Hawk Girl spend more time functioning as the objects of desire for the white heroes on their teams than they do saving lives, making us question what it is about Black female identity that allows scriptwriters to define Black women by their desirability rather than their strength. The same problem is true of the recent racebending trend of characters like Iris West from The Flash, Liz Allen, and Mary Jane Watson from Marvel’s 2017 film Spider-man: Homecoming. These characters become images of women that seemingly cannot survive without male affection, particularly that of white men, seeming to relate to what Patricia Hill Collins refers to in her work Black Feminist Thought as “Black mistresses whose existence required that they retain the affection of their owners” (156). Despite the way in which these characters are depicted as objects to be desired and possessed by heroic white men, their comic source material does much more positive work.

Close, but no Cigar: Wonder Woman & Black Panther

In discussions regarding race and gender diversity in superhero films, it is often noted that studios are making a vested effort to improve their depictions of women. For a long while, Black Widow was the only woman in the Avengers, though she now has the company of Scarlet Witch, Okoye, Mantis, Gamora, Captain Marvel, The Wasp, and Valkyrie. While Marvel has certainly given audiences more interesting female characters, it’s still a wonder as to whether they can envision female narratives defined outside of a love-interest (specifically a heterosexual one). Even a strong character like Valkyrie seems to be centered only as a woman to be desired by more than one white hero and forced into heavy handed sexual tension with characters like Thor. Marvel additionally stumbled to figure out how to utilize Black Widow, waiting until 2020 to release a solo film fans have been calling for since 2012—presumably to capitalize on her death in Avengers: Endgame. Nonetheless, DC struck back with anew female-centered powerhouse.

Everything surrounding Warner Bros’ 2017 Wonder Woman film seemed to suggest that, because a female superhero was finally the center of her own narrative, audiences weren’t concerned about the gendered problematics. While Patty Jenkins broke all kinds of records and solidified herself as one of the most successful female directors of all time, her success seemed to eclipse critique of the film as a cinematic object. The film was a pop culture phenomenon in much the same way as Black Panther, discussed more for its all-women screenings, impact on little girls, and inspiration of trends like the #GodKillerChallenge[2] than for the film’s visual and narrative qualities. While Jenkins does a great job of rejecting the Male Gaze and instead portraying Diana as strong and powerful, her story isn’t necessarily transcendent for women. Her character is often nauseatingly naïve, and still very much defined by her love-interest, Steve Trevor, who is arguably much more complex and better developed. It is instead Jenkins’ depiction of Themyscira that is surely one of the most empowering depictions of women in all their strength and complexity that has ever been seen in a superhero film (though the Dora Milaje in Black Panther match up rather well with it). Jenkins depicting an army of Amazons defeating high-powered Nazis with mere swords and arrows certainly changed the precedent for how to adapt superheroine comics for the screen, but there remains much ground to cover in order for female-centered films to portray a fully realized super woman with the same interest and depth as Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark.

Unsurprisingly, the Wonder Woman film is just as pervasively white as other films in the DC Cinematic Universe, perhaps mirroring the white feminism[3] of the story’s inception in the 1940s. Adhering to the comic renderings of Themyscira as a racially diverse community, the film portrays Amazons of many different races, particularly notable Black Amazons like Philippus and Niobe. Nonetheless, once we leave Paradise Island both Blackness and Black femininity are left completely behind. Even the male characters of color we see in London do not allow the film to pass the “DuVernay test,” which New York Times writer Manohla Dargis coined in 2016 to monitor racial diversity in films. In order to pass the test, films must depict black characters that have “fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories” (Child 2). Aside from these characters, there was much discussion surrounding the race of Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot, which the movie seems to play into by emphasizing her “exotic” accent and striking looks, even though we know that Gadot is racially white and ethnically Israeli. The use of a white woman that many audiences perceived as “ethnically ambiguous” suggests that studios are still learning how to practice race and gender diversity, and hopefully learning that ethnic diversity and racial diversity are not synonymous (Brainerd).

Marvel’s Black Panther film suggests a similarly challenging learning curve regarding race and gender diversity for Walt Disney studios. While the film functions as an impactful cultural moment, breaking records with its $1.3 Billion box office earnings since its release in February of2018, the film still offers a male-centric view of Blackness that attempts to move away from the comic’s racist origins. The Black Panther comics were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, creating the first Black Superhero with his own comic series. Even so, the comic upheld the dehumanizing racial dynamics of its time, evident in characters like M’Baku whose original name was “Man-Ape.” Ryan Coogler incorporated more of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ vision of Black Panther from his recent run of writing the comics, changing M’Baku’s name and giving the narrative many necessary contemporary updates, but the film remains just as male-centric as most of Coates’ writing. The patriarchal monarchy of Wakanda remains, giving audiences an emphasis on royal bloodlines in a tradition born from European monarchy and not that of Africa. Many African monarchies are actually matrilineal in their construction, but with an intellectual property born from two white men, Black Panther doesn’t recreate this (Levtzion). Beyond this male-centricity, many of the female characters seem static, seeming to exist only for the men they serve.

Coogler’s masterpiece undoubtedly offers us some of the most inspiring Black women to ever appear in superhero films, however the male characters like T’Challa, T’Chaka, Killmonger, M’Baku, and even Agent Ross are considerably developed, while most of the female characters aren’t developed enough to have the “fully realized lives” required for the DuVernay test. What does Okoye do outside of her job? What are her hobbies? How did Shuri come to realize she was interested in technology? How does one become a member of the Dora Milaje? What are Ramonda’s duties as queen, since it seems she can’t run the country in the absence of a king? These questions relating specifically to the female characters remain unanswered, seemingly deemed less important than the background of the film’s villains and male side-characters. While Cooglar’s incorporation of an urban Oakland setting into the film certainly made it more culturally salient, emphasizing the tension between Black and African identity in the context of American Blackness, it still remains centered on the experience of Black men in these settings. The audience never learns what happened to Killmonger’s mother, though Coogler has said in interviews that “she passed away in prison,” (Parker). It’s unfortunate that this was never explicitly stated in the movie, as it seems Coogler passed on the opportunity to shed light on the injustice of Black women’s imprisonment at twice the rate of white women and four times the rate of white people overall (Buchanan 2017). The film also failed to portray any depictions of queerness like that we see in the comics, particularly in Roxane Gay’s World of Wakanda. The faults in these films suggest progress along diverse lines, but not to the degree that we should be patting these studios on the back and failing to hold them accountable for progressing towards inclusion.

Solutions Both On and Beyond the Page

While I’ve argued that these representations of Black women in Superhero films have been barely adequate (if at all), I don’t think studios are only to blame nor do I think this impossible to solve. Comic film adaptations and blockbuster films must submit to the power of the consumer and often majority opinion for success, while the comic book medium has overtime become characterized by the expression of divergent opinions on social and political issues. Comics transformed from their overtly racist early history, to an incredible socially conscious contemporary era with heroes that are inclusive and varied across religion, sexuality, gender, race, and ability. This transformation is undoubtedly linked to the centering of more marginalized voices with recent authorship by Muslim women like G. Willow Wilson, and Black women like Nnedi Okorafor, Roxane Gay, and N.K. Jemisin writing some of the most dynamic superheroines of color to ever grace the world of comics. Changes such as these have been much slower to catch on in the film industry, but films like Black Panther and Wonder Woman suggest that the goal is achievable. It seems evident that revisiting more recent comic storylines and collaborating with current comic writers like Coogler did, can help break this cycle of problematic representation in Film Adaptations—though by no means am I suggesting that comic stories are generally flawless.

In Jeffrey Brown’s article “Panthers and Vixens: Black superheroines, sexuality, and stereotypes in contemporary comic books,” he calls out the emphasis on masculinity in comics. He points out the fact that comic books “have always provided a clear and rudimentary example of gender ideals” by hyper-sexualizing women and having them rescued by heroes who are “paragons of masculinity” (134). He adds furthermore that Black superheroines are “often depicted in a manner that is more problematic than portrayals associated with either white superheroines or Black superheroes, in that ethnically diverse superheroines continue to traffic orientalist conceptions of exotic fetishism because their portrayal is dictated by the twin burdens of racial and sexual stereotyping” (137). Acknowledging the flaws that Brown points out, there are still great stories of Black super heroines waiting to be adapted to other mediums, including Marvel’s first Black female Avenger Monica Rambeau (also called Captain Marvel, or Spectrum), DC’s Bumblebee from Teen Titans, Rocket from the Justice League of America, and Dark Horse’s Martha Washington. There have also been other amazing representations of women of color in the comic medium such as Marvel’s America Chavez, Riri Williams, and Kamala Khan. The two-fold challenge of writing Black superheroines hasn’t kept comics from writing more Black female characters, and surely shouldn’t inhibit the production of great franchise films depicting their stories. Adilifu Nama whom I mentioned earlier, asserts in his book that Black superheroes are “not only fantastic representations of our dreams, desires, and idealized projections of ourselves, they are also a symbolic extension of America’s shifting political ethos and racial landscape,” (2). The space that they occupy in transmedia properties has the power to convey multiple meanings around a range of racialized and engendered ideas circulating in American culture.

Lastly, studios should learn from the precedent set by Coogler and Jenkins that diversifying creators and directors of these filmic narratives directly affects the authenticity of these stories. Coogler’s personal experience growing up in Oakland was an apparent influence on the cultural relevance that Black Panther communicated to audiences. If we ever get a film that stars Storm, perhaps Marvel will feel inclined to hire highly regarded Black women directors like Ava DuVernay or Dee Rees. That being said, audiences have to continue to hold these studios accountable for their decisions at every stage of these creative processes, from the writing of the script, to the hiring of screenwriters. Black Panther’s successes, after all, are in many ways connected to the diverse group of people working behind the camera on its production—like Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter, Oscar nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison, and a team of diverse writers.

As I’ve mentioned, bell hooks states that mass media is “a powerful vehicle for maintaining the kinds of systems of domination we live under, imperialism, racism, sexism, etc,” (48). Having outlined how superhero films and their propagation of stereotypes of white hyper masculinity have botched representations of complex identities, particularly that of Black women, there is still hope in returning to the contemporary source material. Having had a Latinx Spider-Man, queer Green Lantern, and a Muslim Pakistani Ms. Marvel—comics have long come to understand that there is no race, gender, or sexual identity requirement for defining the American superhero. It’s time blockbuster films understand this as well.

There is reason for optimism in this exciting media era in which diverse stories are increasingly taking center stage. Black Panther has already had its sequel greenlit and Wonder Woman 1984 is set to premiere next summer, so audiences are certainly responding positively to change. But Marvel’s decision to make a Captain Marvel film about the blonde Carol Danvers while relegating Monica Rambeau (the first female iteration of the character) to a small side plot, in addition to the harmful studio decisions of the past, certainly warrants skepticism. However, with the success of N.K. Jemisin’s new afro-futuristic Green Lantern comic Far Sector and Warner Bros’ hiring of Ava DuVernay to direct DC’s New Gods film, maybe we can look forward to a cinematic collaboration of Black female creators to give Black women the superheroes they deserve.

Notes

[1] Kong Kenan is the Superman of Chinese descent that premiered in 2016 in DC Comics’ New Super-Man.

[2] The Godkiller Challenge was a fashion trend in which women would wear dresses and tops with swords stuffed into the back, duplicating Diana’s tucking of the Godkiller into the back of her canonical blue dress in the film.

[3] White feminism is a fight for white women’s equality without taking into consideration how women of color experience sexism differently. Intersectional Feminism was created in response to this by Kimberl é Crenshaw in 1989.

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---, director. X-Men: First Class. 20th Century Fox, 2011.

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