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In Pursuit of Dreams and a Rare Brown Ken

November 08, 1998|SANDY BANKS

The voice on the other end of the phone sounded teary, distraught, like a girl who had lost her best friend . . . or, in this case, her doll's best boyfriend.

"Mommy," she choked out. "It's Ken . . . the puppy chewed his legs off."

Another casualty in Barbie world . . . another mangled doll I'd have to replace.

"Don't worry," I soothed her. "We can get another Ken. I'll stop at the store on my way home from work."

But my daughter's voice cracked as she drove the magnitude of the tragedy home.

"You don't understand," she cried. "It's the brown Ken!"

The brown Ken . . . the man we could least afford to lose.

Because, in our neck of the suburban woods, a good brown Ken is hard to find.

At our house--with three girls, one mom and dozens upon dozens of Barbie dolls--Kens are always, it seems, in short supply.

There are only three male dolls in my daughters' Barbie entourage; outnumbered by Barbie 20 to 1. And the sole black man--the lone "brown Ken" among them--now has chewed stumps where his legs used to be.

It's a ratio that sometimes seems too real to be funny . . . and yet when my daughters arrange their play--the dates and romances, marriages and families--the Kens never seem to be too tired and the Barbies left manless never seem to complain.

And there's a multicultural ethos to my daughters' play that would have raised eyebrows in their grandparents' day.

Their romantic assignations are not ruled by race . . . so the brown Ken dates the blond Barbie, and the Latina called Teresa plans her wedding to the blond-haired Ken.

(Though I do notice that the brown-skinned Barbie--the one I think most resembles me--seems to be spending an awful lot of time alone, sprawled on her plastic Barbie couch watching TV. . . .)

It's hard to know whether my daughters' mixed tableau is wishful thinking or blissful ignorance . . . or a reflection of the reality they see today.

I think of all the families we know in which cultures mix and colors cross . . . the examples they see among their big sister's friends, where budding romances can cut across race . . . the variety of men their mother dates.

But, at least, in my daughters' world of Barbie, it's clear that brown Ken still carries the day.

When there's only one pair of men's pants to be found, he gets them. When there's a glamorous Barbie ready for a date, he gets her. And when their small, pink convertible takes off for the beach--packed with bikini-clad Barbies of various hues--it's hunky brown Ken behind the wheel.

It can't be his looks that ensure his reign. After all, he resembles his blond brother Ken in virtually every way--same strong jaw, sinewy muscles, goofy smile, flat feet--except that his skin is dark brown, not white, and his plastic, wavy hair is black.

Maybe it's art imitating life in their make-believe . . . and brown Ken is the daddy they love and miss, the one who once swept Mommy off her feet.

I'm searching my third store in the hunt for brown Ken when I spy him staring out at me. Same great body, same dumb smile. . . .

He's wearing baggy swim trunks--not the three-piece suit our now-crippled Ken wore--but I'm happy that at least he's the current model, not the old version that another store had, with the Afro-shaped pompadour that made him look so out of style I wouldn't have let Barbie be seen with him.

This one's not perfect--the last one left, he's missing shoes and sunglasses--but he's on sale today.

So I take him home to my delighted daughters, and watch their faces light up as they cart him off to introduce him around to the bevy of Barbies whose hearts he'll control.

"I knew if you looked long enough, Mommy, you'd find a brown Ken," my daughter said.

And I nod and wish real life were this easy . . . that my dream Ken didn't have to come with a job or a home, a suit of clothes or a sense of humor; that I could promise my daughters that if they searched hard enough, the brown Ken of their dreams could surely be found.

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