When I first saw this image on Paypal’s front page I just assumed it was a homophobic depiction of a small child fleeing in terror from a gay couple out for a picnic in the park.
Nice one Paypal, I thought, That’ll set the cause of sexual diversity back a couple of decades.
But then I took a closer look, and suddenly it struck me that the two men were uncannily similar in appearance. So similar, in fact, that they could be the same person.
That’s when I realised the true depth of meaning behind this otherwise totally innocuous image.
Imagine there’s only one man, the man in the beige shorts, and what do you have? Just a father happily taking his daughter out for a picnic lunch in the park. He’s nicely and colourfully dressed. He has a fond and amiable expression on his face. He’s hoisting a picnic basket, a mat and other picnic paraphenalia in somewhat jaunty fashion, with another bag slung over his left shoulder but hidden from view.
What about the daughter? In one sense she’s the perfect image of a happy child playing on her obviously new and expensive scooter with a kind of stock photo abandon. Yet her eyes are fixed, uncaring, straight ahead, belying her otherwise excited expression. There’s a callous tone to her excitement. She’s happy to be riding, but in truth she’s riding away from her father. She knows he can’t keep up, and this points to a deeper tension in the entire scene, a tension embodied in the man in the red shorts.
Red-shorts-man is clearly an older version of the father. Like the ghost of picnics-future his hair is grayed and his whole appearance is faded and wan. Even his shoes have been drained of their colour.
His face is weary, pale, and full of apprehension. He watches his daughter through heavily-lidded eyes, his mouth open on the verge of an exhausted cry, his head tipped back as if he can hardly find the strength to keep it upright.
What is he? Is he a ghost? A photographic negative? Or is he an image of the subconscious mind, the hidden depths of the father’s soul in which lie all manner of anxieties and stress, in which the burden of keeping up the appearance of a picture-perfect picnicking parent is just too much to bear? To fully understand we must look to the symbols that attend the man in red shorts.
On his left hand he wears a watch, symbolising awareness of time and heightening our sense of urgency. Yet the watch dial is hidden from view, pressed against his shoulder by the burden he carries. Yes, time is a burden and the burdens we bear warp our perception of time. How long have they travelled? How soon must they return? These thoughts are both brought into being and simultaneously crushed by the increasing distance between father and daughter and his secret apprehension of what lies in wait further down the path.
Red-shorts-man is on the father’s left side, representing the introspective, introverted aspect of our psyche. While the father’s right hand (extroverted, conscious mind) is preoccupied with the picnic-materials, his ghostly companion clings desperately to the left. He expands the father’s hidden burden – the bag on the left shoulder. At the same time the father shrugs his shoulder against the ghostly presence, as if to deny its existence.
Red-shorts-man is in the midst of a powerful stride. He marches ahead, pulling the father forward, urging haste. And yet at the same time he is somehow insubstantial. Like a balloon about to take flight he threatens to hover, incorporeal, as fears and anxieties draw us away too from our enjoyment of the present moment.
Red-shorts-man’s shoulders are equally weighted with baggage, he is fully laden not only with life’s present burdens but with the accumulated cares and concerns of the past. Is he truly older? No, his age, like his faded appearance represent the toll these cares and worries take on us all.
Why then the red shorts?
Red is a primal colour, a colour of fear and of blood, the two elements that bind father and daughter. Blood is family, heredity, relation. The fear, the terror of separation and loss echo through the father’s subconscious mind. But why shorts? Shorts are metaphorically at “the bottom”. They tie into a deep history of biological allusions not only to reproduction (the father as father) but also to our rich vocabulary of intestinal profanities: Crap! S***!
“Shorts” are also short for “short trousers” or “short pants”, once worn exclusively by boys (or policemen in the tropics) until they were old enough for real trousers. Here they reveal the father’s own deep insecurities of masculinity and maturity. They call to mind the perils of perpetual boyhood, the puer aeternus whose exposed shins leave the vulnerable consumer feeling naked and alone, ill equipped for the tasks of parenthood that lie before him.
At the same time the red shorts draw our attention to the upper legs, the thighs, the powerful quadriceps muscles and the fight-or-flight response that has him set to run, to take off in pursuit of the daughter at the first sign of danger.
And what is this danger?
In a word: nature. Mother nature, human nature, the world beneath and beyond the limits of human civilisation.
The father, the man in red shorts, are safely on the path. The bold clear lines of concrete cut a swathe through the terrifying darkness of the wild. But it is into this wild that the daughter now careers headlong.
To the left of the image nature dominates. It is the unknown territory Paypal would have us ‘unleash’ and ‘explore’.
And yet…just where the trees should be at their thickest we see the edge of another path and even a glimmer of a fence or railing, more vestiges of civilisation.
In the end Paypal leaves us with a puzzle. It tells us “New Money takes you on new adventures” and extols a “sense of wonder”. But the world it offers us to explore is already bounded and fenced-in. It is safe. The only danger is an appearance of danger, the only fear is failing to have enough New Money to be happy.
At this final point the entire project is cast into doubt. What is there to fear if everything is mapped out, paved, and fenced-in?
The tantalising answer suggests itself: this very incongruity, the call to adventure in the midst of a fully bounded and stagnant landscape, is itself the instigator of an existential dread.
Yes, this is the true nature of the father’s subconscious fear. It is not fear for his daughter’s safety, but fear of the future she represents. The bulk of the red-shorts-man’s burdens are not on his right (extroversion, the real world), but on his left (introversion, the inner world). His anxiety is not for real-world incidents but an anxiety of meaning and purpose.
Westerners read from left to right and our interpretation of compositions is coloured by this influence. Yet the people in this composition are traversing from right to left across the screen. They are moving back into the past, to a place where the father at least has already been, where there is no adventure, no uncertainty, no possibilities. The daughter represents the future, but even she is returning to the past, and the circularity of the path suggests an endless loop of generations and of experience.
There is nothing new under the sun, Paypal cries, echoing Ecclesiastes. The father’s fond amiability, the daughter’s naive excitement, they spin together in a fixed orbit while red-shorts-man goes along, the only clue to something awry in this happy spectacle of endless and repetitive consumption. “Trip of a lifetime!” the caption mocks, as if to shock us from our complacence, its irony a stinging rebuke to the public perception of online shopping as the sine qua non of a brighter tomorrow.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com