‘Billion Dollar Babies’ Strains To Trace Rise of Black Friday Madness, and Even Political Apathy, to ‘Cabbage Patch’ Dolls

The dolls, marketed as emerging from a cabbage patch, are presented as avatars of the consumerist ‘buy, buy, buy’ 1980s.

Courtesy of Abramorama
Cabbage Patch Kids collectors Joe and Pat Prosey. Courtesy of Abramorama

With “Black Friday” looming, a new documentary, “Billion Dollar Babies,” suggests that the spectacle of lines outside big-box stores, the pandemonium of aggressive shopping, the frustrations when checking out — all derive from the craze for Cabbage Patch Kids that began in 1983. Remember them? Those weird-looking dolls that came with adoption papers? 

Never mind that the phrase “Black Friday” reportedly originated in the 1950s with the Philadelphia police force who dealt with swarms of people flooding the city’s stores and streets the day after Thanksgiving in what has become notorious as the so-called “busiest shopping day of the year.”

Appropriately premiering on Black Friday at the LOOK Dine-In Cinemas on West 57th Street, the documentary aims to remind audiences of these dolls and the frenzy they inspired while also tracing the story of their creation and marketing. Focusing on a subject with limited appeal, the doc attempts at times to explore wider issues such as mass hysteria and the appropriation of creative ideas.

For the most part, though, it’s content to use grainy news footage and commercials to tell a glib story, narrated by Neil Patrick Harris, of consumerism and chaos.

The movie’s first section highlights how the dolls came to be: a budding artist from Georgia named Xavier Roberts began making “Little People” dolls in the late 1970s, later changing the name to Cabbage Patch Kids in the early 1980s and working with toy company Coleco to bring them to a wider audience. The modern moppets’ selling points were that they were primarily “soft sculptures,” — made out of cloth and other non-rigid materials — each individually unique, and sold with a name and adoption papers.

Mr. Roberts is presented as a sort of marketing genius as well as a talented craftsman. The problem with this account, though, is that it’s not entirely true. We later learn that he was taught the Appalachian folk art technique of doll sculpting by a Kentucky woman named Martha Nelson. Even more troubling, Nelson’s own earlier cloth creations called “Doll Babies” offered the concept of “doll adoption” already.

Interviews with Nelson’s children and friends — she died in 2013 — as well as Mr. Roberts himself, provide some background as to how a small-time doll maker ended up in a lawsuit with a major toymaker, though questions linger. These segments give the movie a David-and-Goliath, almost tragic undertone that remains with the viewer despite the doc’s swift editing and soundtrack of cheesy covers of popular 1980s songs. 

Speaking of that decade, director Andrew Jenks quickly sketches out how much of the era’s commercialism was a reaction against the austerity and economic anxiety of the 1970s. Footage of President Reagan giving a speech at the New York Stock Exchange and a shopper discussing how he relies on his credit card instead of cash visualize what one “toy scholar,” Jonathan Alexandratos, summarizes as the “buy, buy, buy” decade. The filmmakers even cue up the scene in which Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the movie “Wall Street” says, “Greed is good.” 

The history of dolls and toy advertising in America is also given an effective yet cursory look, starting with the teddy bear, continuing with Mickey Mouse and the Shirley Temple doll, and finally with Star Wars merchandising. Strangely, Barbie is not mentioned or pictured. Without a doubt, though, the doc’s most compelling moment arrives when veteran newscaster Connie Chung addresses a “Today Show” interview she conducted with a Coleco executive about Cabbage Patch Kids. 

The segment went on for close to five minutes, and Ms. Chung acknowledges that she and her morning television producers wouldn’t have devoted that many minutes to a Middle East leader despite 1983 being the year of the Beirut barracks bombings. A cabbage patch may have birthed the dolls themselves, as the brand’s promotional materials played up, yet the film suggests that press hype spawned not only the monster of Black Friday but apathy as well.

The New York Sun

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