Marie Kondo’s new show sparks dread

The Japanese lifestyle guru has a new show out on Netflix about the magic of tidying up. But what is she actually advocating for?

Every month, I’m struck by the urge to reorganize all of my worldly possessions, and purge my books, papers, and clothes. I’m not too much of a neat freak. I allow clutter to consolidate over time, before putting everything away in manic cleaning moods. Thus I assumed I was the target audience for the new Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, wherein the vastly popular Japanese organization consultant demonstrates how to fold clothes properly, how to put items where you can actually find them, and most notably, proselytizes the need for possessions to “spark joy” for semi-hapless American families seeking her guidance.

The KonMari method was brought to America back in 2014, when Kondo’s first book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing was translated into English to widespread acclaim. The tenets are deceptively simple. “Tidying is not just about cleaning,” Kondo instructs during the show. “It is creating a space that sparks joy,” and “a means to realize your ideal life.” The New Yorker has compared her to “a determined young heroine from a Miyazaki film, setting out daily to magically clean up the world,” and despite her insistence that she works no magic but determination, Kondo acts like a cheerful sprite in her crisp white cardigan and bright skirt.

Inanimate objects in the KonMari world are held in high regard; Kondo communes with people’s houses across all eight episodes of the Netflix series, asking her bewildered clients to join her in thanking their place of residence for its protection. Her tidying process inaugurates a quasi-spiritual relationship to objects, like how you should tap your books to “wake them up” when they’re finally out of storage, and thank your possessions for their service before throwing them out. Folding clothes properly is an act of respect, she intones, which prolongs their service. You will feel a tell-tale “ding” of joy when you focus on your favorite outfit or your favorite book, Kondo says, and you will learn to “cherish what you have … so that you can live comfortably.” Keep the things that give you joy, and for your other possessions, well: thank u, next.

As with all strategies designed to increase productivity, the KonMari tenets help you taxonomize and exert control over whatever fraction of your life that belongs solely to you. Her insistence on categories and adherence to process shines throughout the show, which makes for occasionally uninspiring reality show viewing: You begin with clothes, sorting through the ones that spark joy and thanking/throwing away those that don’t, then make your way through books, then assorted papers, then komono (miscellaneous objects like cookware and toys), and finally, sentimental items. This process is repeated in every single episode, and everyone in the surprisingly diverse cast, ranging from a black lesbian couple to a retired pair of Japanese empty-nesters, goes on the same emotional journey that results in their effusive gratitude for Marie Kondo’s eccentric ways. They learn that they don’t need the mountains of clothing and shoes to be truly happy with their living space, and they gain a newfound appreciation for what they actually do have, as they commune with their possessions.

It’s a tempting ideology. For years now I’ve made a sadistic practice out of donating books and dresses I’ve loved deeply to ward against potential loss; I gave away my once complete collection of Zadie Smith books just to prove to myself that I could survive without the objects I have strong attachments to. I’ve moved ten times in the last decade now, across cities and oceans and continents, and my preemptive purges were how I managed my unease at uprooting myself yet again.

If life is an accumulation of loss, clutter is the accretion of memory, and getting rid of things seemed a worthy attempt to meditate on the impermanence of life. Marie Kondo’s approach, I felt, appeared to be the more cheerful counterpart to my own relationship to stuff. I appreciated learning new ways of putting away clothing to maximise my own space, and began folding my clothes the KonMari way as I happily watched the Netflix show.

The KonMari method of folding clothes, as displayed here. This is actually 75% of my clothing.

The KonMari method of folding clothes, as displayed here. This is actually 75% of my clothing.

The KonMari method of folding clothes, as displayed here. This is actually 75% of my clothing.

But as the series progressed and Kondo hopped from one household to another, I found myself growing ever more horrified at the implications of the KonMari method. My blood ran cold when Marie Kondo delivered her edicts on books halfway through an episode about a gay couple, Matt and Frank, trying to tidy up their home in anticipation of a family visit. “Books,” Kondo begins, “are the reflection of our thoughts and values. So by tidying books, it will show you what kind of information is important to you at this moment.” She has the couple go through their books and holding each one to see if it sparks joy within their person. I watched in horror as the pile of books to be discarded grew even as I smirked at the authors they obviously did not find useful any longer — Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was thrown out, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me was kept.

Marie Kondo’s approach to books only makes sense if you think that the sole utility of a book is information, and that the purpose of a personal library is to curate the kinds of information that you want to access. I may purge my books every now and then in a weird self-destructive mood, but even then I do so out of the knowledge that my collection not only contains what “brings me joy,” but also the books that have shaped me. Book fetishism of all flavors is idiotic, but reducing books to their use-value is the type of queasy advice you encounter on LinkedIn blog posts written by serial startup entrepreneurs.

Then again, I’m a book person. I would think that. This is part of the KonMari method’s genius: It exposes the arbitrary ways we ascribe value to things, and asks us to reconsider. Marie Kondo and her converts are groping their way to a new orientation towards objects, their origins and their ends, in an era of global capitalism when the labor and time that goes into commodities has become increasingly obscured, and we struggle to ascribe value to our possessions beyond the sunk cost. It suddenly made sense that the KonMari method became extremely popular as people acquired a newfound love of crafting and the DIY aesthetic in the early 2010s. As brands attempt to monetize people’s alienation from their everyday goods and their home, as well as their disenchantment with capitalism, Marie Kondo has offered a quasi-spiritual way out. You don’t feel a connection to your things only because you haven’t properly attuned your sensitivity to joy — and joy can be acquired.

The KonMari method starts to crack even more under the gaze of Sehmita, a Pakistani-American who moved to the States when she was young, and points out over the course of her episode that things don’t necessarily inspire joy within us, that utility almost always isn’t the same thing as pleasure, and that clutter is also an attempt at preserving one’s family history. She argues with her white husband Aaron about keeping her saris even if she doesn’t wear them, to preserve an embodied connection to her culture. There is something traumatic in the episode, lurking behind the frames as Sehmita tearfully addresses the camera about her inability to “let go of things,” and her husband’s callousness over her attempts to preserve and extend history to her existing and unborn children. “I know I have a strong personality,” she says in yet another revealing moment. The KonMari method in her household is no longer just a way to clear up the garage, but a means of self-discipline and deprivation.

As you watch the show, you do get the sense that these folks have found Kondo’s help invaluable, and that through her method, they’ve renewed their relationship towards their home and to their partners, even if they don’t seem to have any greater reflection on the nature of living under capitalism. This is especially true of the men in long-term heteronormative relationships, who become more appreciative of the emotional and physical labor their women partners have exerted over keeping their home tidy. Kondo is shown consoling a distraught Katrina, hairdresser and mother of two, who has internalized her husband Douglas and her children’s lack of responsibility for their belongings as a personal failure to provide a “real” home for her family. At the end of the episode, Douglas is much more willing to clean and maintain a cozy space for their family, and the pre-teens stop bothering their mom at work about finding a particular item of clothing.

Even within Tidying Up, there are detractors who simply take Kondo’s word about letting go of things to heart, and have no illusions about the KonMari method. A major subtext of an episode about Matt and Frank, a young couple, revolves around Frank’s anxiety about his inability to conform to his parents’ expectations by being a comedy writer and, to put it in his words, being in “a gay relationship.” He throws himself into the KonMari world to prove to his parents that he is an adult capable of taking care of himself, but Matt clearly thinks that potential homophobia can’t be solved by KonMari-ing away your house. “I think Frank’s parents are not going to be worried about me being with him, because this place looks so nice, so,” he quips near the end of the episode. Perhaps the biggest lesson is just the simple fact that humans are the source of all messiness.