I may not have been alive at the height of Cabbage Patch mania, but I certainly heard horror stories about it from my parents. Obtaining one was virtually impossible. Not only that, in my youth, I used to own several of them. Thus, my interest in Tribeca doc Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids was easily piqued. In terms of tonal comparisons, HBO Max’s Beanie Mania comes to mind, which also explored a decades-old craze that peaked in popularity at a time ideal to causing an industry-wide domino effect. Cabbage Patch Kids put uniqueness and originality at the forefront of its messaging, and even allowed children of all ages to adopt their very own faux-baby. Narrated by Neil Patrick Harris, Billion Dollar Babies is an insightful and shocking deep-dive into the very first one-of-a-kind plastic-headed doll that took the world by storm.
Cabbage Patch Kids may have reached the height of their popularity in 1983, but their genesis came much earlier. Initially, we are told that Xavier Roberts is the brainchild of the brand. He wanted to be the next Walt Disney, so Roberts channeled his sculpting and quilting skills in the creation of Little People dolls. He created an intricate backstory and a hospital where one could go to sign adoption papers and secure their very own Little Person—soft sculpted heads on cushy, stuffed animal bodies. Curiously enough, Roberts created Babyland, where one could adopt these Little People, or watch them hatch from a giant dilating cabbage. Eventually, Roberts would make a massive deal with electronics company Coleco for worldwide distribution of his Little People, now dubbed the Cabbage Patch Kids.
Views on dolls were quite antiquated in the 80s, but with the shopping boom, it seemed they were willing to take a big gamble on Cabbage Patch Kids. Dozens of companies passed on the project in a puzzling case of clearly getting it wrong. Dolls were supposed to be a sexist instructional tool for young girls, not a multi-generational bonafide pop culture phenomenon. Exploring how these comforting dolls (but don’t call them dolls!) served as a precursor to the modern-day Black Friday era is eerie and unsettling. A shopping frenzy the likes of which the world had never seen was not yet born until these cabbage children came to be. Who could have possibly predicted insane resale values and a rabid consumer base willing to face serious injury to secure a cute doll?
But was this all predicated on a lie? About midway through, the doc takes on a shocking new hypothesis. Xavier Roberts actually stole the idea for his fast-selling babies from Martha Nelson Thomas, a folk artist who created “Doll Babies.” The story behind how Xavier managed to nab the entire concept—down to the adoptions and uniqueness—from Martha is a bit tragic, and rubbed me the wrong way. Embroiled in a four-year legal battle, Martha fought for the right to her property that she once sold through the craftstore Roberts owned. Roberts signed every one of the Cabbage Patch Kids on the “tush,” seeming to mark his work as his own creation when the very concept was derived off someone else’s hard work. I have to assume the only way they got away with this was due to the time period, as I honestly do not believe someone today could get away with the blatant plagiarism that appears on display.
Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids is a fantastic, well-made documentary that gets to the root of what made Cabbage Patch Kids so amazing in the first place. It served as a spark in the imagination of children everywhere, and began an undying obsession and a “gotta catch ‘em all” attitude towards collectibles. Peer pressures to own things cooler than one’s friends started here in the 80s, believe it or not. Billion Dollar Babies serves as concrete proof: even if someone tells you that your idea is a bad one (or that they’re too ugly!), there really is a baby-faced light at the end of the tunnel.
Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids screened at 2022’s Tribeca Film Festival.