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'Tidying Up with Marie Kondo' bridges minimalism and sentimentality

tv review

Marie Kondo's new Netflix series "Tidying Up" premiered Jan. 1.
Marie Kondo's new Netflix series "Tidying Up" premiered Jan. 1.

“My mission is to spark joy in the world through tidying,” Marie Kondo explains self-assuredly in the trailer for the eight-episode show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” released on Netflix Jan. 1, as many Americans, myself included, are in a spirit of New Year self-improvement. 

In each 35 to 45-minute episode, tidying expert Marie Kondo visits a different family who feels overwhelmed by the amount of stuff in their home and walks them through the KonMari method she invented and first introduced to the world through her bestselling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” in 2012. 

Kondo claps her hands with delight over the messiest rooms in a home, sometimes sincerely exclaiming, “I love mess!”

None of Kondo’s specific tidying advice is new to people familiar with her book, and the show settles into a steady, mild rhythm. The KonMari method is (almost) always the same: Take everything out of its storage place and put all together in a pile. Hold each item in your hands. Identify the things that spark joy. Discard the rest. Repeat with each of the five categories — clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous items, called komono, and sentimental items. Then, store according to her suggestions: fold things vertically, put items in easy-to-access boxes, group like things together.

“White people have too much stuff,” my best friend at Duke often tells me, half-joking but mostly serious, and I don’t disagree with her. But Kondo would never say this to us. She is generous with her clients, reassuring the families that she, too, has a messy house from time to time. As she walks up to one household, she remarks that “American apartments” are so cute. 

“American trash bags are amazing,” Kondo exclaims in the kitchen of another home, laughing at their scentedness. She proceeds through each home with a consistent broad smile, communicating kindly with each family through her translator. The show portrays families of different races, all with too much stuff, and so I might amend my friend’s statement to suggest the problem of too much stuff might be more one of Westerners and wealth than race.

The best criticisms of the KonMari method note that there’s privilege in being able to discard things, that it’s ultimately a luxury to be able to get rid of something knowing that you can afford to replace it if you ever need it again. It is true that the people for whom the KonMari method is most helpful will be those wealthy enough to not keep track of each individual clothing item, to have more stuff than they need, and to live in enough square footage to store all their extra stuff. 

However, many of the valid class-based critiques of minimalism and the philosophy of decluttering apply less to Kondo than to anti-consumerism in some of its other iterations. Kondo trusts her subjects to know themselves what they must keep and get rid of, as anyone following her method must. When a recently retired wife has a room filled with Christmas decorations in the second episode, Kondo asks gently if she needs so much of it. When the woman says yes, it all sparks joy for her, Kondo moves on and simply advises storing holiday decor in plastic bins rather than trash bags. 

“Tidying Up” doesn’t deliver the spectacle we have come to expect from reality TV. Two of the most popular current reality shows, “Survivor” and “The Bachelor,” demand that their participants uproot themselves for weeks at a time in the pursuit of some difficult-to-attain prize: $1 million, a husband. This show’s energy is much more in line with recent reality success stories — like “The Great British Baking Show” and “Queer Eye” — which embrace a gentler ethos. These shows, mostly binge-watched on Netflix rather than tuned into weekly, have far lower stakes for their participants: no cash prizes or dramatic twists. 

Ultimately, it’s the emotional landscape of each household that makes the show interesting to watch, even after you can recite the KonMari method from memory. Kondo, and by extension, the viewers, are granted a great deal of intimacy by the show’s subjects. Not only are we invited into their homes and allowed to peer into closets and underwear drawers, but we’re also permitted a glimpse into families, marriages and private shames.

In almost all of the families, it is the mothers who bear most of the burden of a disorganized life, and bear the shame for the family’s failure to stay organized. “I feel like I’m to blame, because I’m the mom,” mother-of-two Katrina explains in the show's third episode. 

Most of the women in the show follow a similar script, commenting that they feel ashamed of how many clothes they have when they see them all piled on their beds, and later confessing, sometimes tearfully, that they feel they’re failing their husbands and children by failing to keep a tidy home. Kondo eases the subjects’ shame primarily by maintaining an empathetic and cheerful persona, while reminding them that the tidying is a project which they will eventually finish, and that each member of the household must take responsibility for their own belongings. It’s not precisely feminist, but Kondo’s mandatory egalitarian tidying method seems to bring wives more peace, and husbands more empathy.

Although not much really happens in any episode, I find myself misty-eyed while watching, particularly at the points where Kondo introduces herself to the home by kneeling on the floor, closing her eyes, and silently communing with the structure itself, the most explicit allusion to Shinto animism in the series. As the house’s inhabitants look on, a little bemused, Kondo prompts them to thank the home for protecting them and to imagine the future they would like to have there together. It’s a ritual that, particularly as I watch the first episode of the series in my childhood home with my parents, moves me. Each household is struggling to adapt to a change — having children, growing older, the death of a partner, a move, retirement. I am also going through a transition in life, and though a devotee of Kondo’s method, I wonder if there are still things I might get rid of. 

Back in my bedroom in Durham, I discard the rainbow dolphin I won with an ex at the fair, which has been lurking under my bed since early November, and the plastic tiara from my 21st birthday last June. Donated are books from last semester’s classes, my dress from last year’s Chronicle formal, sneakers I no longer wear. I tell them thank you as I make space for the adult I would like to be. January is as good a time as any to clear the physical and emotional detritus of our lives. If you, like me, like to clean with a TV show on in the background, I recommend Kondo’s gentle series.

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