Marie Kondo’s genius is the genius of euphemism. I say this as someone who, like Kondo, happens to be very good at throwing things away, but who, unlike her, has never been in any danger of becoming an international celebrity because of it. Throwing things away is at the heart of Kondo’s famous organizing process; according to her KonMari method, one pares away excess belongings by going through them to figure out what you genuinely need and use and love. Kondo, a diminutive 34-year-old Japanese woman who likes to wear white when she’s on the job (“It is part of my brand,” she explained to the New Yorker), most recently parlayed her charming approach into an eight-part Netflix reality series, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, in which she (with a translator in tow) visits various middle-class households in the Los Angeles area to save families from their own clutter.
Kondo, cannily, uses the term “tidying” for what she does. Anyone can suggest to other people that they consider getting rid of half the shit they have lying around their house (Just try it! They'll love it, I promise!). “Tidying” sounds so much softer and less threatening, something true of much of the pseudo-spiritual, animist-inspired system Kondo espouses, and which she teaches alongside practices like standing folded clothes upright in drawers for better visibility and using little boxes to keep things neat. She positions tasks that might otherwise seem emotionally painful or just hopelessly massive as a kind of tender ritual instead. (“Don’t force yourself to tidy,” Kondo told one of the clients she worked with for the Netflix show. “It’s an experience in itself.”) You aren’t getting rid of things; you’re parting ways with them after thanking them for their service.
It’s not magic, Kondo firmly tells another client in Tidying Up, and certainly the more humdrum stretches of the show are the parts when she’s not onscreen and the subjects of each episode are doing the actual work of clutching T-shirts to their chest in search of sparked joy. That said, the show absolutely imbues Kondo with an otherworldly air, alighting out of a minivan toward the start of each episode like an envoy from a more minimalist universe. That universe is, it’s understood, not just a cleaner one, but a happier one, which is why Kondo gets cast as not just a tidier of homes, but a tidier of lives as well.
Tidying Up is the latest and most obviously hastily made of what Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk has referred to as Netflix’s “joyful experts” shows, grouping it with the streaming service’s hugely successful Queer Eye reboot and the hit food series Salt Fat Acid Heat. But Tidying Up is also an aspirational show based around an argument that I don’t think it’s actually capable of making: the idea that if you could just get organized enough — empty out that junk drawer and clear out that garage — so many larger, more persistent personal problems could be taken care of in the process.
Each episode of Tidying Up finds Kondo stepping into a domestic situation awash with emotional tensions ranging from the minor (empty nesters clearing out several generations of stuff) to the major (a widow whose husband of decades died nine months ago, and who hasn’t been able to bring herself to go through his belongings yet). A few of the couples — aside from the widow, Margie, they are all couples, some with children — seem to have their lives relatively together, which means, by the rules of reality television, that their episodes are boring (sorry, happy-seeming lesbian newlyweds in Episode 8!).
The interesting episodes are the ones that offer glimpses of greater troubles, like the tips of icebergs cropping up in a dark sea. The producers of the show seem fully aware of this, since they opt to kick off with Kondo’s visit to the Friend family, headed up by Rachel and Kevin, who come across as having moved past the phase of their marriage where they actually like each other. The Friends could be an instructional video about millennial burnout; the couple are spread transparently thin between Kevin’s long hours on the job and Rachel’s paralyzing anxiety over how she’s supposed to keep a seemingly already tidy house while caring for their two children and working part-time.
And yet, after all the KonMari-ing has been completed, Rachel tears up gratefully and talks about how she’s not going to let herself get lazy anymore, which feels like such a gross misreading of the underlying reasons for her distress (I’m not overwhelmed, I just haven’t been trying hard enough!) that I had to shut the episode off when I first saw it. Katrina, the wife in the third installment whose family moved from a Michigan house to a two-bedroom LA apartment, also weeps over the ways she feels she’s been failing her family by not single-handedly accomplishing every household task the way she believes ought to — “I feel like I’m to blame, because I’m the mom,” she says.
Ron, the retiree husband in the second episode, at one point talks about being “an old-school, macho kind of guy, and this isn’t something that I normally would do,” and you wish he would go into more detail about what “this” is — taking care of his own stuff? Cleaning, in general? His wife, Wendy, has an equally old-school moment when she jokes about going shopping after fights to “hit Ron where it hurts, in his pocketbook.” And it’s not just lingering gendered baggage about housekeeping that Kondo runs up against (and sometimes gently engages with). When one half of the gay couple in the fifth episode talks about feeling like he hasn’t made his parents proud, he confesses in a casually brutal aside that he’s sometimes wondered whether he’s justified the expense of his parents having him, as if his life were an investment he wasn’t sure he was giving a return on.
Tidying Up places Kondo’s relentlessly cheery domestic advice against what sometimes feels like a roiling American backdrop of late capitalist panic and crushing internalized expectations. It’s hard to believe that organizing a house will be able to address the anxieties and old wounds that some of the clients, through polite smiles and grateful tears, lay bare onscreen. Still, every episode ends with the carefully edited conclusion that it might, and that they won’t know until they try.
“Any sane viewer knows that it’s too good to be true,” writes Rachel Syme — but it’s not clear if the people on the show know it, too. Can a pared-down closet address the sense of cultural disconnect the Pakistani American wife in the sixth episode suddenly wonders if she has from her white husband? Probably not, but the episode cuts from there to a few days later, when she’s come around, KonMari-ing completed, and everything appears to be fine. Whether or not everyone actually will be fine is a question that remains unanswered as the credits roll.
I am someone who has slowly congealed into a neat person as an adult, and whose hands sometimes twitch with an unasked-for urge to declutter whenever I’m in an overstuffed home. I would love to find a source of smug affirmation in Tidying Up, a reality show argument for the overall virtue of having just the right amount of stuff, and having all of it arranged just so. As a home improvement show, it’s perfectly watchable and occasionally inspiring, especially in the sequences in which Kondo offers useful tidbits of advice directly to the camera (even if I have a fundamental disagreement with her approach to fitted sheets). Lots of people have found practical motivation in watching to toss junk or refold their own clothing.
But as a life advice show, especially next to its warmer, fuzzier Netflix sibling Queer Eye, Tidying Up is discordant in a way that takes a while to pin down. So many of these snapshots of family lives burble with a quiet but persistent distress over what it means to make, have, and share a home these days, and to feel secure in it. At the core of the show is a wistful promise that if you could just get things in your house right, for once, then so many weightier and seemingly intractable stresses would surely just melt away, shed alongside all those clothes that no longer fit. It’s a reminder that keeping things highly organized can be just as much about maintaining control as never throwing things away.
I’ve always instinctively felt this, as someone who’s self-soothed by settling in for a complete reorganization of a bookshelf or combing through my wardrobe to make sure everything hanging in there was going to get worn. But I never understood the satisfaction I was getting out of these habits until, a few years ago, I watched my mother — exhausted and whittled down by rounds of chemo for the cancer she’s now in remission from — haul herself off the couch after a particularly bad afternoon. She knelt on the kitchen floor and started sorting through and rearranging her Tupperware cabinet — putting that small sliver of her life back in order, because she could.
The aura of moral righteousness that has over time become attached to minimizing and to minimalism has always seemed unearned to me. Not that there’s anything bad about Kondo’s gospel of keeping only what you love and need, but it’s not actually about abstaining from things. When one of the Tidying Up episodes starts with parents telling their child that they’re not going to take him to Toys ‘R’ Us because they’re all going to learn about “being happy with how much [they] already have,” that’s their projection — Kondo, who of course peddles a few products of her own, does not actually go so far as to advise against consumerist impulses. She instead keeps to the more easygoing territory of having the right kind of stuff in the right place, which isn’t the same thing as making do with less, though it sounds close enough that it’s absorbed some of the halo.
Having just the right kind of stuff means being able to buy more or new things when you need (or want) them, so long as you make space. It’s about scaling down instead of doing without. It’s about having everything you really need to pursue what Kondo refers to several times as “your ideal life.” And that term really highlights the limits of tidying up, because it doesn’t make room for the idea that a mess can be a symptom of the greater issues affecting someone’s life, rather than just the cause of them. Having an organized home can be a wonderful thing, but neatness is rarely the only thing holding someone back from their life’s full potential. ●