When I was six years old, I visited Babyland General Hospital.
Babyland General Hospital is a tourist attraction dreamed up by the makers of Cabbage Patch Dolls. It’s housed in a clinic building from the early twentieth century in Cleveland, Georgia, and many of the original hallways and examination rooms are still in place. The spaces that were once filled with real patients are now filled with tableaux of posed cloth-faced dolls with yellow yarn hair, with ticket counters and gift shops, with smiling mothers and daughters winding through velvet ropes, guided through the life cycle of your typical Cabbage Patch doll from birth through elementary school. Apparently once a Cabbage Patch Doll hits about second grade, its development stalls and its life is a cycle of simple mathematics, fake peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and recess.
This is not a factory tour but instead an elaborate means to perpetuate childhood illusion. No doll limbs waiting to be sewn, no bins of tiny pinafores, no factory line. Dolls, in the world of Babyland General, emerge from amid the intense green leaves of plastic cabbage heads situated around a magic tree. Their births are announced over a loudspeaker so an audience of doll enthusiasts can rush to the garden.
I went to Babyland General with my mom and my grandma during the Cabbage Patch boom in the eighties. We were probably traveling in Georgia for some business function of my dad’s. He was still working for Kraft Foods at the time, and once in a while we traveled as a family throughout the southeast, staying in hotels with ugly floral bedspreads, wake-up calls, and sample-sized shampoos and shower caps in small, flimsy cardboard boxes. My mom, my brothers, and I would spend the afternoons at local tourist attractions while my dad talked cheese in some hotel ballroom. Hence, Babyland General.
As a six-year-old, I was so excited about Babyland General that my entire body was in tremors with the idea of touring the nursery, of witnessing a live Cabbage Patch birth, of owning my own preemie, smelling of baby powder and new plastic, with a genuine Xavier Roberts signature across its bare bottom.
There is definitely something campy and creepy about Babyland General. The impending births of new dolls, for example, are anticipated with a series of updates about how far the lucky cabbage has “dilated,” and the leering, oversized animatronic “Colonel Casey” stork looms over the newborn dolls in the nursery. A swarm of “bunnybees” hover over the cabbage patch, waiting to help the doctor “decide” whether the new arrival is a boy or a girl. Babyland General is a cultural studies dissertation waiting to happen (if it hasn’t already) — the center of an examination of something like heteronormativity and the enculturation of young girls to motherhood before they’re out of the toddler department. Maybe even a chapter on the ethical stakes of prematurely determining the gender of intersex babies.
In a way, I wish I hadn’t looked at the Babyland General website. I Googled it out of curiosity to see if it was still around and all that I remembered. The pictures don’t align with my memory. Things in Cleveland, Georgia seem shabbier and tackier. The Cabbage Patch displays have aged twenty years since I was there last and their popularity has waned, so I’m sure things are a little down at the heel since my visit.
But I think I’ll delete the site from the history of my browser, anyway.