Drama in Pinkville


JUST WHEN the comics page's eternally single Cathy decides to tie the knot, and the power chicks of "Sex and the City" settle down with their steadies, Toyland's top couple calls it quits. What gives?

After 43 years of official "will they, won't they," Mattel announced that Barbie and Ken won't, ever. As befits their status as world cultural symbol, the pseudo-event prompted press releases and stories in newspapers and on TV. Plenty of pundits, both professionals and the water-cooler crowd, are speculating on who will get the pink houses, pink cars and all those itty-bitty accessories. We're betting it's Barbie, since she's the one who's held all the jobs, from rock star to presidential candidate.

The bombshell announcement was canny marketing for a line whose U.S. sales dropped 25 percent in the last quarter of 2003 (though it's still a worldwide juggernaut). The news came on the eve of the giant American International Toy Fair in Manhattan, when retailers scope out toymakers' offerings and decide what to stock up on for the holiday season. Now all eyes are turned to the approach in the fall of a new hunk, Australian surfer Blaine.

On the surface, Blaine, a casual guy who favors surfer shorts, seems a better match for the newly free-spirited "Cali" Barbie -- who sports triple-pierced ears and midriff-baring tops -- than good old Ken. Yet Ken himself started out as a beach dude -- his first outfit was a pair of those oh-so-'60s red swim trunks. One has to hope the rift isn't purely sartorial -- after all, changing clothes is a big part of doll fun. And personalities are in the mind of the beholder.

Which prompts the question: Aren't we giving this a bit too much grown-up perspective?

Such news won't long matter to those who actually play with the denizens of Pink Partyland. And they are ever littler: Girls ages 4 to 7 now are the main consumers for these leggy, busty concoctions. They aren't so interested in a potential Mrs. Barbie, though they like to play out the intricacies of dating, relating and trying out scores of new roles and attitudes.

Part of the fun of playing with dolls is creating your own story lines -- many full of soap-opera-worthy convolutions that only a gaggle of girls putting their minds together on a rainy afternoon can come up with. Sure, Ken has been pitched as a pretend-boyfriend, but what sister hasn't also tried sending Barbie on dates (and far-flung adventures) with her brother's G.I. Joe or Green Lantern?

While their elders dissect the plastic rift -- the broken dreams, the breakdown of classic mores (except for the living-in-sin part), the what-ifs and what does this say about society -- their daughters will just add this detail to their continuing story line.

And for the quietly grieving oldsters, there is ready reinforcement for romantic dreams and the need for closure. Comic-strip Cathy is aging out of the dating system, as social workers might put it, and taking her next step in the traditional way. Cathy Guisewite, who started the strip in 1976, is in her 50s now, as are many of the fans who had written her asking for Cathy to move on to a new stage of life, as they had. At least Cathy didn't wait five decades, like Lois Lane and her Superman.

As for Carrie and her "Sex and the City" girl gang, their lives also are moving on, though the series ends tomorrow. Adults and the many teens who identify with the strong-willed foursome will have to engage their own imaginations over what will happen next.

Perhaps they should remind themselves how by asking their little sisters.

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