Old Navy: New Infantilism
by Norma Perfect and Sem-Anther
It is certain that the Old Navy store is full of clothes and accessories
for all shapes, sizes and genders. Its presupposition, however, is that
all shapes, sizes and genders will be of one primary inclination: that
of the infant. In front of me as I peruse the Old Navy is a pink purse
with metallic flecks infused into its plasticine construction. I find
this purse in the "Woman's" section, next to the display rack
full of puffy-sleeved t-shirts, whimsically cut blouses, flare pants
and lo-rider blue-jeans embroidered with alarmingly cute curlicues.
All this is, appropriately enough for a consumer juggernaut like Old
Navy, sized to fit the adult woman.
What is revealed in the Old Navy is an ideology, objectification of
the self-as-consumerist entity, indeed of the child-as-consumer to a
patriarchal Capitalism. Althusser asks it this way:
Why do [people] "need" this imaginary transposition
their real conditions of existence in order to
"represent to themselves" their real conditions of
In the case of Old Navy, the answer lies in the combined natures of
Capitalism and the infantilist regression it engenders.
Capitalist objectification of the self, the subjectification of Althusser,
begins with the Old Navy ad. Here, kindly old mother-figures or warm
and attractive young women assure us in their slightly lobotomized ways
that shopping at the Old Navy is "fun," that their cargo pants
are all the rage, that their carpenter jeans are the perfect thing.
The representation of the self as Platonic form in the person of the
model on the television screen recreates the self as consumer object:
[I]t is not their real condition of existence, their
real world that "men" "represent to themselves"
ideology, but above all it is their relation to those
conditions of existence which is represented to them
there. (Althusser 242)
Ideology is created by the double-movement of idealization and desire.
The model, the idealized Capitalist figure for the self, creates its
own ideological structure as a means to selfing, as an objectified desired
on the official apparatus of the communication and creation of Capitalist
ideology, the television screen:
[H]is ideas are his material actions inserted into
material rituals which are themselves defined by
material ideological apparatus from which derive the
ideas of that subject, (Althusser 243)
that subject of ideology, that objectified self. Thus the consumer
is removed from the self by the ideological system of the Old Navy ad.
The consumer is revealed as the subject of the ideology and internal
pain results. The internalized pain is then dealt with by a transference.
The great psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, in his classic Patterns of
Psychosexual Infantilism explains: "Basically, transfer is
an emanation of the ego vitality onto the things, large and small, of
the surrounding world" (159). The objects in the ad, the many puffy
shirts, pink purses and glittery pants of the Old Navy universe, become
objects of fetishization. The consumer has unconsciously acknowledged,
as she is drawn towards the store's open doors, that the infantilizing
process has begun.
It is present in the creation of the Capitalist subject and its subsequent
creation of internalized pain. Pacified, frustrated, the consumer-child
seeks a paradise into which comfort may be regained: "The 'Lost
Paradise' of happy childhood days represents a powerful temptation,
and many succumb to it, particularly when life confronts them with threats
and frustrations" (Stekel vii). The reaction-formation is classically
Freudian: escape means infantilism; infantilism means the subject/object
to which the self was assigned by the Capitalist ideology to begin with.
The same ideological system, the Fatherland/Motherland of consumption,
is exemplified by the Old Navy store, its products designed specifically
to deal with the newly-infantilized consumer by looking every bit the
childish fetish-object she desires. Shopping here is action on the part
of the consumer to overcome the pain--an almost inevitable attempt to
cope: "By means of turning his passive role into an active one,
the child and the neurotic seem to solve a specific emotional conflict
. . . . He transfers pain into play and consequently into joy"
(Stekel 25). The internalized message: "You are a child of the
great Capitalist father; go out and dress like a child."
The consumer, then, by the act of buying the infantile product, acknowledges
the childlike position the Capitalist ideology has made of her and accepts
her neoteny, buying as an act of regression. She is reborn into maturity
as soon as money changes hands, however, since buying itself, and control
over money as evidenced by capitalist Patriarchy, is an act of adulthood.
She is symbolized into the semiotics of adulthood within ideology, the
act mimicking the economically mature act of Capital investment. As
she uses or wears the product, by turns, she is reminded of its/her
infantile nature. She sees the pink purse on her arm, the glittery lip
gloss as she looks in the mirror:
In the grip of the spell they all become awkward,
silly-looking children, and when the trance-like state
is gone, when they wake up and become aware of the
foolishness of their behavior, they are bewildered,
horrified, deeply pained. (Stekel 189)
Her unconscious is thrown back into the consumerist/child state. The
initial euphoria of buying, of being adult and responsible by moving
money around, blinds the consumer/child to her actual infantilized state.
As the euphoria wears off, she begins to actually regress again, and
the pain and passivity of her subject/objectification again evince themselves.
Now she must revisit the 'Lost Paradise' of the Old Navy store, the
place where all her childlike whims are pandered to. She must again
enter into the fantasy world, to be reborn into mock maturity. The cyclical
nature of this process is revealing. First, it represents the cyclical
nature of wellness and relapse common to most neuroses and nearly all
psychoses. Second, it cycles just as surely as the process of reification,
since that is, literally, also what it is: the constant re-entering
into the consumerist role, the reinforcing of Capitalist hegemony, the
idealization into ideology. It reinforces the power relationship by
its constancy. Even while she buys, while she puts her money out in
a mockery of adulthood, she knows she will return, that she must return
and fulfill her role as consumer/child.
As object/subject of Capitalist patriarchy, the male Old Navy consumer
is rendered impotent. Impotence is often the precursor to regression
(Stekel 294). The impotence thrusts the male back to the Old Navy just
as surely as the woman: his regression engenders the need to play out
his role by purchasing and wearing the infantile attire, the ball caps
sporting the Old Navy logo, the cheap cargo pants, the sweatshirts bearing
the marquee of his favorite "team," Old Navy. Devoid of the
power to control his own sub/objectification in the materialistic State,
the male cannot do otherwise. He is "less than a man," expressing
his child-like state by the clothes on his back.
Fairweather tells us
[a]ccording to Ernst Cassirer, man is an animal
symbolicum, a symbolizing animal. From this assumption
it follows that symbolic representation is at once the
essential function of the consciousness and the object
of human knowledge. Symbolic representation
constitutes a totality that both transcends the
perceptual sign and provides a context. (8)
Once entered into the cycle, the consumer is trapped by
her very nature to continually repeat it. She must go back; she must
symbolize herself along the idealized/ideological lines or face an even
greater pain from being outside the only semiotics she knows. Through
the cycle of purchase and pseudo-maturity, unconscious regression and
infantilization, Old Navy reveals its own problematic, the revelation
of the infantilizing nature of Capitalism itself, binding it all in
pink purses, cargo pants, glittering gloss.
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses."
Critical Theory Since 1965. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle eds.
Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1986. 239-50.
Fairweather, Paul D. with Donovan Johnson. Symbolic Regression Psychology.
New York: Irvington, 1981.
Stekel, Wilhelm. Patterns of Psychosexual Infantilism. Emil
A. Gutheil ed. New York: Liveright, 1952.