Tidying Up with Marie Kondo


19 November 2019

In mid-January, my friend Leela Gupta decided that the only way her chronic depression would improve was if she were to make big changes to her life. To gather ideas about what these changes might be, Gupta solicited suggestions on Facebook. While responses ranged from new haircuts to travel, the thread was largely dominated by advice to “Marie Kondo” her life. One friend promised to mail her Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, while another offered to watch the new Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo with her.
It quickly became clear that Marie Kondo was no longer simply a person but had become a verb that stood for working towards a more together life.

Tidying consultant Marie Kondo launched her debut book The Life- Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing in 2011, with an English translation following in 2014. To date, it has sold more than 10m copies and has now been joined by an eight-part Netflix series: Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. In both the book and the series, Kondo advocates her eponymous KonMari Method – a form of tidying that involves removing useless objects from sight, paring down, and organising belongings according to discrete categories (clothes, paper, miscellaneous and sentimental). At the end, a space should only contain objects that “spark joy”, so that you can “appreciate everything [you] have and live comfortably”, explains Kondo. Moreover, Kondo’s appearance on camera seems to reinforce the mantra: her perfectly trimmed fringe, delicate pink lipstick and demure knee-length skirts suggest that tidiness need not be limited to the home.

Optimistic about the method’s potential, Gupta documented her progress on Instagram, sharing #tidyingup images with other Kondo fans who, in return, wished her #luck and #joy. Emotive captions such as #happywardrobes and #joyouspaces filled her feed. But, a few weeks later, something unexpected happened. Gupta reported feeling more depressed than ever. “I miss my mess,” read her Facebook status – a statement that was notably free of hashtags.

Offline, Gupta privately described experiencing a state of alienation; she felt “more lost and boxed up than before, even in [a] very organised house”. This disenchantment seemed to have little to do with being unable to pack away T-shirts the Kondo way (folding them into small rectangles that can stand up on their own, ideally in a box or drawer crate). Instead, as her home was “de-cluttered”, Gupta described feeling that her history and particularities were becoming flattened and buried beneath her (newly cleaned) carpet. It is a point picked up by Ron Charles, a writer for The Washington Post and a critic of the KonMari Method. “That great jumble of fond memories, intellectual challenges and future delights doesn’t just spark [ joy],” wrote Charles in his review of Tidying Up. “It warms the whole house.” To Charles and Gupta, the paring-down experiments revealed that joy is no a formulaic emotion that can be reliably triggered using a prescribed method.

In spite of this, Kondo’s approach has been a tremendous success, in part because of its simplicity and the scale of what it promises for those who follow its steps. “Marie Kondo helps clients clear out the clutter – and choose joy,” reads the Netflix show description. Who wouldn’t be tempted by such a straightforward exchange? This directness is most visible on Instagram, which features hundreds of before-and- after photographs of homes across the world, or, as one user @rosanisiert put it, “tsunami” versus “KonMari” photographs. The clarity and legibility of these comparison shots is mirrored in the structure of Tidying Up. Each 35-48-minute episode is crafted to target a different “type” of person, whose personalities are ostensibly mapped onto their homes. Margie is a middle-aged woman who has just lost her husband; Matt and Frank are a couple who want to prove their commitment to their families; Ron and Wendy are self-described empty nesters; and Suneeta and Alex are a racially diverse couple thinking of having a third child. Through this structure, diversity is simultaneously built up and erased: the cultural variation that the series presents is flattened by the method’s assumed universality. To quote Kondo: “Everyone around the world has the same struggles with tidying.”

Within the confines of the show everyone seems to benefit from KonMari, leaving those like Gupta for whom it has failed to ponder whether the fault lies with them. This sense of disconnect is troubling and seems to have its roots in the method’s relationship to consumption. In many senses, Tidying Up’s message is encouraging: it acknowledges that overconsumption produces messy homes, and Kondo’s emphasis on joy and appreciation is geared towards re-inscribing existing possessions with value such that participants may eventually consume less. “Keep only those things that speak to your heart,” writes Kondo in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. “Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle[...] People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.”

Nevertheless, consumption remains central to Kondo’s method. Participants are encouraged to adjust or re-think their levels of consumption, but there is little prompt for them to consider why they consumed so much in the first place. The process treats the symptoms of consumption, rather than its causes – an issue that becomes apparent within KonMari’s first steps. At the beginning of each episode, after she has said a prayer to “greet the house”, Kondo asks the subject to tackle her first category: clothing. Each member of the family puts every garment they own on a bed or on the floor, so that they are all visible at a single glance. Many participants describe their piles of clothes as “mountains” and most of the homes Kondo visits are drowning in excess, suggesting a capitalist drunkenness. “I can’t believe how many clothes I have!” becomes a repeated mantra throughout the series, with Kondo’s role being to dissipate whatever guilt her subjects (and, by proxy, her viewers) may feel about their excessive consumption. “In recent years, the United States has seen a rise in mass consumption and urbanization, leading to a ‘more is better’ mindset,” stated Kondo in an interview to mark Tidying Up’s launch on Netflix. “However, I believe that a shift toward mindfulness is occurring. We are beginning to give more attention to each item we own and determine the few things that truly matter. I think people’s interest in the KonMari Method coincides with these cultural changes in American society.”

Yet the absurd accumulation of clothes that Kondo deals with never opens into discussion of mental or emotional health, even when participants on the show provide obvious cues. For example, when Wendy states that “retail therapy is something I am guilty of; shopping is a diversion,” her hint is ignored and Kondo quickly resumes her step-by-step method, failing to address the causes of the speaker’s self-observed tendencies towards excessive accumulation. That Wendy describes shopping as a way to “hit [her husband] Ron where it hurts” passes without remark.

With no trace of irony, the show presents the end of Wendy’s journey as being a wardrobe that looks remarkably similar to a retail display in a high-end store – an image that uniformly invokes happiness for the show’s participants. Wendy equates this to a divine experience of “seeing the light”. Similarly, participants are regularly rewarded with pats on the back when they discard things and typically end up getting rid of about 75 per cent of their possessions. In spite of this, there is often no deeper interrogation of the source of their compulsion to hoard. When Kondo observes how many bags Matt and Frank are ready to “let go of”, she congratulates them on a job “very well done”. By contrast, Frank’s admission that he has “never actually made [his] parents proud” is left unexamined. Even when Frank makes the link between these two aspects of his life, Kondo quickly proceeds to greeting the house.

Tidying Up treats tidy homes as catalysts for a better life. As Kondo writes, “a dramatic reorganisation of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective. It is life transforming.” Moreover, dramatic reorganisation – from which life transformation ostensibly begins – is linked to how Kondo assigns value to objects. “Even if we remain unaware of it, our belongings really work hard for us, carrying out their respective roles each day to support our lives,” she writes. It is this process that she believes gives objects a “spirit” (a spirit that, famously, she asks her participants to thank if they choose to discard an item). One critique of the show, however, has come from bibliophiles, who have pointed out problems with the way in which KonMari imagines its subjects’ futures and the narrowness of Kondo’s presentation of utility. In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo writes that “by tidying books, it will show what kind of information is important to you at this moment”. However, Guardian writer Anakana Schofield has suggested that by treating books as objects to be tidied, Kondo’s method proves itself to be reflective of the “frantic, goal-obsessed and myopic” time that we live in because of the way it functionalises literature and other sentimental objects.

In episode four, 'Sparking Joy after Loss', Kondo encourages Margie Hodges to donate her late husband's clothes to charity. IMAGE courtesy of Netflix.

This issue, however, is one to which Kondo seems alive. When Margie worries about erasing her ex-husband’s history by tidying his closet, Kondo reframes the debate by asking her to reflect on whether these objects are “something to take to the future”. While this dialectical move from joy to perceived future value may answer some of Kondo’s critics, it runs into other issues: the recalibrated formulation leaves little room for occasions on which someone may not possess the foresight to gauge something’s worth in years to come. Suneeta, for example, has trouble throwing out her collection of kids’ books that have lost their “function” because her potential third child may need them. “We are on very different pages,” she says when forced to apply the method. For Kondo, however, a better life is primarily predicated upon organising things, rather than feelings. “No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past,” she says when speaking to Margie about the grief she is experiencing. “The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important.” This leads her to do what she does best: encourage Margie to make space by letting tidiness and the reduction of stuff take over. In so doing, KonMari retains consumption, rather than emotions, at the centre of the discourse.

Kondo’s representation of joy is also troubling, insofar as it is tied to several assumptions, chiefly the idea that consumers are performing their own labour. In the case of folding T-shirts, for instance, joy is supposed to be derived from giving the object “the affection that comes out of your own hands”, and there are dozens of Instagram accounts such as @housefavor that feature videos of smiling women with perfectly manicured nails folding their newly laundered clothes the Kondo way. Interestingly, most of these videos are edited with fast-forward filters that allow audiences to consume another consumer’s “joyful” labour within seconds. However, in many countries domestic tasks (especially laundry) are outsourced to staff. In more modest homes, housework may be divided among family members as chores – activities that it seems disingenuous to describe as a joyful. In Kondo’s show, however, tidying up is presented as something that everyone has time to take pleasure in. “Fold clothes with your heart,” she explains in a YouTube instructional video that, at the time of writing, has nearly 4.7m views.

The popularity of the KonMari Method continues to grow, but it is worth remembering real-life users such as Gupta, whose depression it did little to lift. Given its broadly advertised simplicity, a failure to spark joy with it can feel puzzling. A closer look, however, reveals that as long as emotions themselves are left unexamined – leading to the symptoms rather than the causes of excessive consumption being addressed – tidying up is likely to enjoy a tenuous relationship to happiness.