Looking for a Fight (page 1)
Lucia Rijker sits on a chair at the Wild Card Boxing Club, leaning forward to watch two men spar. She's quiet and attentive, and though there are people all around her, she seems alone. Her face is striking: full lips, high cheekbones, wiry bronze hair only partly hidden by a black baseball cap. Her eyes, when met, prove warm and lively. Only the obvious strength of her torso, her almost palpable aura of solitude and apartness, suggest that she is the most feared female boxer in the world.
The Wild Card, which is owned by Lucia's trainer, Freddie Roach, is at the back of a rundown mini-mall near the corner of Santa Monica and Vine. A small sign pasted on the door reads "Better Daze" - a reference, perhaps, to the masochistic pleasures of being punched repeatedly in the head. When you open the door, the noise hits you: the metronomic tick of the jump ropes; the thunderous roar of the speed bags; the thud of the heavy bags; the equine panting and snorting of two heavyweights sparring in the ring; the electronic beeper loudly signaling the end of a round; the pulsing bass and drum of Power 106 FM; the man at the front desk picking up the phone and bellowing: "WILD CAARRD!"
And all this on a day when the gym is officially closed. Someone walks by, and it turns out to be Roberto Duran. Dripping with sweat, his mustache shaggy and unclipped, he looks like an old Panamanian peasant who just wandered into town on the back of a donkey. A boxer, naked but for the bright white towel wrapped around his chocolate-colored waist, is talking money into a white cell phone; cupped in his red boxing glove, it looks more like a Virginia Slim. Another boxer, Hector Lopez, is also strutting around in a towel when somebody asks him who his next fight's going to be with. "Some unfortunate person named Valdez," he replies. At the Wild Card, confidence is not a product that needs to be delivered. You either have it, or you become very good at pretending you have it.
Lucia Rijker has it. With a 36-0 record as a kickboxer (25 knockouts), and an 11-0 record as a boxer (10 knockouts), why not? Last year she was crowned the WIBF (Women's International Boxing Federation) junior welterweight champion, and, pound for pound, she is considered the world's best female boxer. The question is, can anyone challenge her? The obvious candidate is Christy Martin, the world's best-known female boxer. Two years ago Martin put women's boxing on the map when, nose spattered with blood, she stole the show fighting on the undercard of a Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno bout and wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But so far, although a purse of $1.5 million has been offered, Martin has refused to fight Lucia Rijker (pronounced Loo-see-uh Rye-ker). She has also wondered aloud as to whether the muscular Lucia is really a woman at all. Since Lucia is much better looking than Martin, most people don't take the innuendo too seriously.
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"Let me tell you something about boxing," says Macka Foley, a gravel-voiced trainer at the Wild Card. "You never know, it may come in useful." A former light heavyweight who took a bullet to the head in Vietnam, Foley wants to show me what it's like to fight someone who knows how to fight. Not someone who's angry or tense - just the opposite, in fact. Someone who's infuriatingly confident and calm.
It's the look in Macka's eyes that's scary. Suddenly, he starts to shuffle and bounce around behind the front desk as if his feet were on springs: "Yeah, you wanna fight?" he says, throwing me a look of withering skepticism. "Come on and get me." His hands drop loose to his sides, just as Ali's did, his eyes remain fixed on mine, and suddenly a left jab has gone whistling past my ear. Macka may be 47 years old, but his hands are still lightning fast. The next thing I know, one of them's gripping the side of my face. "If I hit you hard right here," he explains, breaking into a smile that suggests nothing would give him more pleasure, "I'd dislocate your jaw." Lesson over. "Boxing," Macka sums up, "is all about fear and how you deal with it. Some boxers forget to breathe and go rigid, which is like putting your foot on the accelerator when the car's in neutral. A boxer has to be relaxed when someone's trying to kill him. He has to breathe."
Lucia is relaxed. As far as Macka's concerned, she's number one, two, three and four in the world, with Christy Martin maybe coming in fifth. Lucia would destroy Christy Martin. And there are plenty of men out there she could beat, too. But first she has to take care of her next opponent. In a few weeks, she'll be fighting a former police officer named Lisa "The Heat" Ested.
One afternoon I watch Lucia spar with Sammy "Toy" Stewart, a gaunt Liberian flyweight several inches shorter than Lucia and 30 pounds lighter, but with plenty of boxing smarts and fast hands. I'd seen them spar once before, and Sammy had given her trouble. Now Lucia's got her jab working and seems more in control. She boxes carefully, correctly, protecting herself at all times and picking her spots to attack. This is what differentiates her from most other women boxers, who are exciting - when they are not simply amateurish - precisely because they don't defend. They just attack, with a recklessness that can leave men slackjawed with amazement. Of course, the all-out attacking style is enjoyed by many precisely because it reinforces a cherished stereotype - namely, that women are hysterical. It's not foxy boxing, it's crazy boxing.
"The girl boxers, which is strange, are more aggressive than men," the trainer Emanuel Steward tells me, looking puzzled. "But Lucia doesn't fight like a girl. She doesn't come out and just go nuts. When the bell rings, she comes out and takes control. Naturally Christy Martin's never going to fight her. If she do, it'll be the end of Christy Martin. The problem is there's nobody around who can give her the challenge to really bring out her talent. It's just unfortunate that she's not able to fight as a man, because she would be the Sugar Ray Leonard of boxing right now in that weight division."
Steward, who's trained everyone from Tommy Hearns to Oscar De La Hoya, first saw Lucia box when he was wrapping Lennox Lewis' hands in the dressing room before a fight. "Emanuel," Lewis said to him, indicating a television set tuned to a women's boxing match, "turn around and look at that girl there. She is so smooth!" So Steward did. And at that moment, he says, Lucia "made a move and knocked a girl out with one left hook, and it was so professional - not for a woman, but for anybody. So here's the heavyweight champion of the world, and he just said, 'Whoa, I've never seen anybody fight that good!' And when they showed the rerun, the whole dressing room stopped to watch her."
At the Wild Card, not everyone stops to watch Lucia. In fact, she blends in to the point of invisibility. Whether she's shadowboxing, jumping rope, doing sit-ups, punching the heavy bag, negotiating the slip bag, rattling thunder out of a speed bag or sparring or training with the mitts, she simply melts into whatever she's doing. There's a humility about this, an existential loneliness, as if character were embodied wholly by action. There is no break between one action and another. As soon as she finishes one part of her training routine, she starts another. Her concentration is absolute.
This can make her seem - as one of the gym regulars told me - aloof, even unfriendly. The gym regular put it down to her being European (her background is Dutch-African), and left it at that. He liked her anyway. Still, I could see what he meant. What he saw as aloofness, of course, was really dedication, the elite athlete's "tunnel vision" in extreme form - and Lucia rarely leaves the tunnel for long. Over the years, it's a place she has grown quite comfortable in.
The fourth of four children, she was born in 1967 into a working-class family in Amsterdam. Her mother, a blond Dutchwoman, was a waitress; her father, a black immigrant from the former Dutch colony of Suriname, worked in a Heineken beer factory. The family apartment was small, and Lucia grew up playing in the street. She did well in school, protected her friends from bullies, and excelled in sports - not so much because she wanted to win, she says, but because she needed to be noticed.
There was a judo club in Lucia's neighborhood, and someone took her there when she was 6. At 13, she took up fencing, and went on to become the junior Dutch champion. At 14, she started kickboxing. At 15, she knocked out the reigning American kickboxing champion, Lily Rodriguez, with a ferocious combination of low kicks. (Ask Lucia today what her best punch is, and she will smile and say, "My right low-kick.") A year later she turned professional. By 1994, she held four different titles, with some of her victories coming in as little as 15 or 30 seconds. Eventually, seeing no challenges left in women's kickboxing, she decided to fight a man - a Muay Thai fighter named Somchai Jaidee - and was knocked out in the second round. Shortly afterward, she moved to Los Angeles and took up boxing.
Half an hour after their sparring session, Lucia and Sammy Stewart get together in a corner of the gym to go over their moves. Gloveless now, they spar with open hands, heads bobbing and weaving in silent conversation. Afterward, they hug: Sammy, shirtless and sweaty, wraps his arm around Lucia's waist while Lucia drapes her own (bigger) arm over his shoulder. Lucia smiles broadly, but it's "the little Sammy" (as she calls him) who, in an almost comical way, looks cute.
For Lucia, training isn't always this much fun. When she arrived in L.A. four years ago, and trained at Joe Goossen's gym, she needed to prove herself. When she sparred, men would heckle her male sparring partners if she was beating them, which she usually was. It got worse when she knocked them down. "It was awful," Lucia recalls in her lightly accented English (she speaks four languages). "I remember I sparred with this kid, and there was blood all over the place. They were screaming at him, because I knocked him down three or four times in a round. 'Are you a chicken? Are you a man?' I hate that. It's a sport, it's not about that. But when I started, it was about that. 'A woman, kicking your butt?'"
At Joe Goossen's gym, the man Lucia was beating up was just a sparring partner. But at the Wild Card, in one case at least, the victim was her then-boyfriend, an actor and occasional boxer named Billy Kean. Or perhaps Kean was beating her up - it's not quite clear.
"It would go way too hard," Lucia says, referring to her sparring sessions with Kean. "He thought I was trying to prove something and I thought he was trying to hurt me - and then we would have a fight because he said I was trying to hurt him in front of his friends. It didn't work out."
"She's a phenomenal athlete," Kean tells me over the phone. "She makes all the right decisions in the ring instinctively, and she's a very good puncher. She knocked the wind out of me a couple of times." Nonetheless, Kean disputes the idea that Lucia is good enough to fight men. Behind the hard image, he says, Lucia "has a very sweet, soft side to her. She loves to get flowers, she loves being taken care of." As for their sparring sessions, Kean agrees that there were problems. "Around the gym, it caused friction because people thought I was too hard on her. Maybe so. You'd think, how can you hit your girlfriend? But the truth is, I found it extremely easy."
"What do you dislike most about boxing?" I ask Lucia one day, joining her for her post-workout meal. "The headaches," she replies, looking suddenly gloomy. "I get hit a lot in training. One night I came home and the blood was in my shoes. My towel was blood, my shirt was blood, and I thought, 'Wow, what am I doing?'"
"What are you doing?"
Lucia considers this. "Why am I boxing? Because you need to accomplish something to be heard. To be taken serious. I think that when you accomplish something yourself, when you're in the limelight, people respect you, especially if you do something that others don't do."
"How do you see a fight with Christy Martin going?"
"I imagine it being a tough fight, a good fight, a very challenging fight," Lucia replies, "but I'll win a knockout in the later rounds. That's my sense. But until I fight Christy, it's all words."
As for what Emanuel Steward told me - that Lucia could beat most of the men in her weight class - Lucia is unimpressed. "That's his opinion," she says.
"He told me he'd seen you spar with Vince Phillips, and that it was like life and death between you two."
"That's his opinion," she repeats.
"I'm very critical of myself and my performance. I try not to compare myself. I just try to improve. Sparring is not fighting. So until I fight a man my weight, I have no answer for you."
We're sitting outside a restaurant on Sunset Plaza, surrounded by lots of well-off people in expensive clothes, their voices drowned in the roar of the rush-hour traffic. The women sitting down or walking by are polished and fit, tanned and toned, in one or two cases even muscular, and they wear tank tops and sleeveless dresses to show it off. Lucia, on the other hand, is wearing yellow jeans and a yellow zippered jacket that leave nothing of her visible but her hands and face. Only rarely will she go outdoors with her arms bared. When she does, she says, she's pestered constantly by men who want to touch them or discuss them, or who feel honor-bound to express their opinion about them, pro or con. Clothes are something of a problem for Lucia anyway. The fashionable clothes she likes usually don't fit her. Her arms are too big, her back too broad. This bothers her. A while ago she stopped doing neck exercises, normal for boxers, because she felt her neck was becoming too thick. The clash between femininity and boxing bothers her too, she says. "Definitely."
On the other hand, there are plenty of people who aren't bothered by it. She dates frequently and has had a glut of marriage proposals. A couple of years ago she was offered $250,000 for a role as a supporting lead in the movie Deep Rising, but the offer was withdrawn when it was discovered that she would be fighting shortly before the film went into production. Now she is edging closer to Hollywood again. Alessandro Camon, senior V.P. of production at Pressman Films, is trying to put an independent project together that will be either the Lucia Rijker story or a fictional variation on it, with Lucia starring. Lucia, he says, is "one of a kind. She has such charisma, such tremendous confidence, and she embodies a kind of strength that women want to see onscreen. I think men want to see it, too. Her strength is sexy. It kind of transcends gender. She's a powerful individual who found her calling and went for it. There's something inspirational about that."
Another person interested in doing the Lucia Rijker story or a dramatized version thereof is Ben Myron, who produced One False Move. "When I first met her in a social situation," he says, "I was very taken with her beauty and individuality as a person. The fact that she was a champion kickboxer at the time only made her more fascinating." Shortly after their first meeting, Myron watched Lucia's debut as a boxer (against Melinda Robinson) on Spanish television - and was stunned. "The transformation was chilling. She just about took Melinda Robinson's head off, and the TV station kept replaying the knockout over and over. She was an animal. There was just this amazing contradiction between the person I'd had dinner with and the person she became in the ring. I kept thinking, How can she hurt anybody? And how can anybody hurt her? She's a walking contradiction."
I run into Lucia's contradictions several times myself. She seems both to thirst after certain things - a movie career, chic restaurants, endorsement deals, money, beauty, fame - and to despise them a little. ("In Holland," she tells me, "women are much more naturally beautiful. Here I learned to do my nails. I wax my bikini line, I pluck my eyebrows, and I dye my hair. That's what I've learned here.") After her fight with Lisa Ested, she plans to take a workshop on the ego at a Buddhist retreat - a dedicated Buddhist, she spends at least two hours a day meditating and chanting - because, she says, she's apt to become big-headed after a fight. Also, she likes being around people who want to grow spiritually, as opposed to people who only talk about their nails or their hair or their latest movie.
"Do you spend a lot of time with the nails-and-hair crowd?" I ask.
"No," Lucia answers. "I'm alone most of the time. But certain things affect me." Then, glancing at the people around us, she adds darkly, "Like the place we're in right now."
At 1 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, Evander Holyfield, Roberto Duran, William Joppy, Henry Akinwande and a number of other boxers are gathered for a press conference at the House of Blues to promote the upcoming $2.5 million WBA title fight between Holyfield and Akinwande at Madison Square Garden. Duran, wearing a Roberto Duran baseball cap and shades, sits at a long table up on the podium, smirking and chewing gum. The spit-polished cranium next to him belongs to a hulking Holyfield, heavyweight champion of the world. Dressed in a colorful shirt of African design, Holyfield is also chewing gum, and his smirk is only slightly less extravagant than Duran's. At the table behind them, dressed in a natty checked suit that makes him look more like a model than a boxer, Akinwande gazes at the proceedings with alert, watchful eyes. A few days from now he will test positive for hepatitis B, making this press conference retrospectively meaningless for everybody involved.
Lucia has been invited to the press conference by Johnny McClain, a slim, good-looking cruiserweight who trains at the Wild Card. What Johnny slyly omitted to mention, however, is that Christy Martin, who is fighting on the same card, will be up on the dais as well. But as soon as the reporters outside the House of Blues spot Lucia ("There's the woman who can kick Christy Martin's ass!" one flat-bottomed press type says), they know what's coming. "Hey, Lucia!" one of them shouts out. "Guess who's here?" And now Lucia knows. Whether Christy Martin knows, however, is doubtful. Only after the boxers and promoters have gone through their statements, and Showtime's Jay Larkin has called for questions from the floor, does Martin suspect something might be amiss. Because down there on the floor is a woman in a bright-yellow zippered jacket speaking into a footlong microphone. "Hi, my name is Lucia Rijker," she begins. This is the first time she and Martin have been in the same room together, and the contrast between them is telling. Lucia, wearing workout clothes and sneakers, has obviously just come from the gym; Martin, wearing a cream pants suit and some gold jewelry, has obviously just come from the hairdresser.
"I want to say something," Lucia continues, facing Holyfield. "I'd like to say to Evander that you're the greatest, and the way you carry yourself you're really a role model for boxing, and I really appreciate that!" ("Thank you!" booms Holyfield to a polite round of applause.)
". . . And I have a question for Christy Martin . . ." At this point, the audience starts laughing, knowing what's coming. "Christy," Lucia continues, speaking softly, almost hesitantly. "I am Lucia Rijker. This is the first time we met, right here, so I want to take this opportunity to ask you to stand up and be a woman, and be a tough woman as you really are, because I know you are, and I want an answer from you. I've talked to your promoter. He's willing to put up the fight, but he's told me that you don't want to, so now I'm here to talk to you, so now I'm asking you . . ." Someone in the crowd starts laughing with delight, and immediately the whole place bursts into cheers and catcalls and laughter as Holyfield and Duran, forgotten now, continue to chew gum. a
Martin, who's been looking pained and crestfallen and embarrassed until this moment, her bog-Irish skin turning increasingly red, hears the laughter and decides she's had enough. Rising up from her chair, she cuts through the crowd noise with a voice like a blue-collar chain saw.
"I'M NOT AFRAID TO STAND UP AND BE A WOMAN, BECAUSE I AM A WOMAN, AND WE DON'T HAVE TO DOUBT THAT IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM!" she begins, wagging her finger as if Lucia were a badly behaved student. "And if my promoter said I didn't want to fight, then my promoter is giving out misinformation. Mr. Larkin is here representing Showtime, and if he wants to make the fight, the fight can be made. I'm ready for it." (Applause from the crowd - Martin may be reluctant to fight Lucia in the ring, but she's not afraid to fight her at a microphone.) "I think I'm the best woman fighter in the world, and I will prove that when given the opportunity. But as you maybe don't know, this is a business, and with business there are a lot of other people involved besides the two of us. So if Don King will give up my promotional rights, or sell my promotional rights, whatever it takes for the fight to be made, I will be very happy for the fight to be made. But you have six months, because I am going to be a mother after that."
"All right!" someone in the crowd yells, and Martin gets a good round of applause. Motherhood is always popular.
"I accept the offer," Lucia says, her voice as quiet as ever despite Martin's barrage. "We will have the fight within six months. That's a deal."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Larkin concludes, "Lucia Rijker!"
As a piece of verbal jousting, the bout is a draw. But as it turns out, the "conversation" isn't quite at an end. A few minutes later, when the fighters and their handlers have left the stage, Lucia goes up to Martin and taps her on the shoulder. "I just want to say hello and shake your hand," she tells her. "DON'T TOUCH ME!" Martin snaps. So of course Lucia taps her on the shoulder again. "TOUCH ME ONE MORE TIME AND WE'RE GOING TO FIGHT RIGHT NOW!" Martin says. Lucia touches her again. But before anything further can happen, a member of Martin's entourage steps between them. Within seconds, there's a crowd around Martin and she's whisked out of the building.
"God! I wanted to fight her so bad!" Lucia says to Johnny, throwing a pent-up flurry of mock-punches at his stomach as Johnny howls with laughter. Lucia laughs too, but her frustration is real. She knows this may be as close to fighting Martin as she'll ever come.
"Do you think she was ready to go for you, or was she just pretending?" I ask.
"I don't care!" Lucia replies, so excited she looks like she's ready to take on five boxers simultaneously. "If she's telling me that, I take it as real. When people talk I take it as real. So then I want to touch her again and see. 'Really? Really? Hey, I touched you again! You're going to hit me now? Hit me!' And then we'll see. And if a she hits me we'll have a problem, because then we'll fight. Or I might just take it and say: 'Is that all you have?'"
There are so many old people milling around the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut, that at times you feel as if you're walking through cloud systems of gray hair. Vegas it isn't: no strip shows, no neon, no cane-toting gangsters strutting around in turquoise suits - just bingo and boxing, and no liquor after 1 a.m. Lucia, as expected, is shut away in her hotel room, meditating and chanting. I make the mistake of telephoning her, thinking she might feel like a walk or a chat. Nothing doing. Her voice sounds sleepy-gruff, as if she were in the midst of a hypnotherapy session. In the background I hear funereal chant music. I imagine it snaking up the walls of her hotel room, enveloping her in a deep, brooding trance. The vibes are so powerful I suddenly feel very sorry for Lisa Ested.
"Lucia's prepared," says Freddie Roach, sitting back in what he calls his "office" - the changing room at the Great Cedar Hotel spa. "You can't take anyone lightly in this sport. You never know. One punch can change things. You gotta be prepared, that's all - and she is."
Does Ested (recently touted in International Boxing Digest as one of 12 women who could beat Martin) pose any kind of threat?
"She's 6 and 1. She's here to win," Roach says, not looking very worried. Roach has seen plenty of boxers enter the ring with Lucia who were there to win. None has come close.
After talking to Roach, I make my way over to the Two Trees Hotel. Compared to the gargantuan structures elsewhere at Foxwoods, it's more like a rooming house than a hotel. This is where Ested is staying. Her trainer, Earl "Poncho" Melton, a black man with a rough country face and sour breath, meets me in the lobby. "Lisa be down in a minute," he tells me. While we're waiting, I ask him how the trip over from Richmond, Virginia, was. "Well," Melton says, looking at me significantly. "Our plane got delayed, so we had to sleep at the airport. Now I wonder why that was?"
"You think Lucia's team did something to make that happen?" I ask.
"Yes, I do," Melton replies.
"What about Lucia?" I ask. "How good do you think she is?"
"They say she's the best woman boxer in the world, but who's to say?" Melton answers, as if Lucia's reputation might also be part of a conspiracy.
Lisa Ested enters the lobby wearing a striped blue-and-white short-sleeved top, jeans, a crucifix, headphones and wraparound plastic shades. Her mood seems sullen, her face closed off. Though she's the same height as Lucia, and four pounds heavier, she's not as imposing. We talk for a few minutes on a sofa in the lobby, with Melton and two other members of her entourage standing by, listening to every word - whether for her protection or their own, however, I'm not sure. I sense a slight edginess in the Ested camp, a sliver of mutual distrust. In any case, nothing much is said. It turns out that Lisa is not a police officer, as her promotional literature has it. "I was a correctional officer," she informs me, her words clipped, almost angry. "I resigned from that particular line of work. That line of work was a bit rough for me. I'm not that kind of person. Now I work as an order selector at a warehouse in Virginia."
Behind her made-in-Taiwan shades, Ested's eyes look as if they're at the bottom of a deep, muddy pool. She seems robotic, almost zombielike - just as Lucia must be in her hotel room - though Ested listens to gospel music rather than Buddhist chants. I ask her how much she's making on the fight, and she says $4,000. "You know how much Lucia's making?" Melton demands suddenly, a greedy look on his face. "I don't know," I say, which is almost true, since I only just found out. (She's making $35,000.) Lucia refused to tell me, as did Stan Hoffman, her manager. I finally got the information from WIBF chairman Dennis Diaz.
"Yeah, you don't know," Melton says, giving me a look of disgust. Now I too am part of the conspiracy.
Shortly after 9 o'clock in the evening, Lucia enters the ring for the fourth fight on a card that will end with Lou Savarese's two-minute destruction of James "Buster" Douglas. The fight takes place in a giant bingo hall that, until yesterday, was filled with retirees. Now, with a ring at the center of it, bleachers along the sides, an American flag or two, "TVKO" banners and a fight crowd bused in from New York, it's got everything needed for a boxing match save genuine atmosphere. But then, as so often at contemporary sporting events, the live viewer is apt to feel like a second-class citizen. The important part of the audience is watching at home on pay-per-view.
Except for a brief glimpse of her at the weigh-in the day before, this is the first time I've seen Lucia in over a week. Then she was polite, charming and pleasant to be with. The Lucia Rijker who walks out of her dressing room in a strikingly sinister hooded black velvet robe is a different person altogether. Greased and impassive, her face looks flattened out, broadened into an assassin's mask. Inside her head, you feel, are nothing but voices, chants, instructions, orders, commands. In what is perhaps a bit of image-building gimmickry, a TVKO reporter tries to talk to her, but Lucia stares right past him. Roach answers the questions for her.
Ested is already in the ring, looking suddenly slight next to Lucia, who has now taken off her robe and is strutting around in front of Ested, staring her down, psyching her out, taking control of the ring before the fight's even started. Her mood is so powerfully somber it's almost religious, and given the amount of meditation she's been doing, it probably is. She casts a spell of astonishing gloom. Next to Ested's, her arms look swollen and massive; with her mouthpiece in, her upper lip protrudes like an ape's. This is Lucia the fighter, Lucia the stalker, Lucia the killer, and it's not a pretty sight. Joyce Carol Oates once described boxing as the negation of the feminine in man; what the audience is confronted with now is the negation of the feminine in woman. continue
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