What is clutter? If anything, it’s something Netflix really wants you to get rid of, what with shows like Queer Eye and its latest Tidying Up with Marie Kondo urging you to cleanse your life of stuff. Minimalism, as a lifestyle and an aesthetic, is something I’m sure many people want to achieve (myself included) - but it really is a luxury only provided to certain people. If you come from an immigrant family, and every single item is treasured because how could you dare get rid of the last remaining tangible remnant of your aging grandparents in your home country while you’re out alone in America trying to make money moves? If you’re anything under middle class, or perhaps also very broke, it can be crucial to hold onto things because you never know if you’ll need it in the future and not be able to afford said item once you get rid of it. And for some, clutter and hoarding can really be an examination of the emotional things you’re trying to avoid, because at the end of the day, it’s an examination of your relationship to money (which is bound to be distressful and revealing, just like anyone’s relationship to food).
Marie Kondo, the Japanese decluttering phenomenon who struck gold with her #1 New York Times best-selling novel The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing in recent years, has arrived to the small screen to change lives and homes via her new Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. In the show, which is set up like a wholesome version of Hoarders, Kondo visits different couples as a fleeting fairy figure to sprinkle some KonMari magic into their lives, teach them how to fold, and ultimately asks them to emotionally declutter their lives by examining their possessions. Her philosophy includes deciding what to keep based on five categories: Clothing, Books, Papers, Komono (miscellaneous items), and Mementos (sentimental items). It’s pretty unique - albeit a little repetitive - to see this very adorable lady help couples from all walks of life get rid of their literal and emotional baggage. Because that’s ultimately what the KonMari method is about. In Kondo’s eyes, the key to effective tidying is not simply tri-folding things, but creating an emotional connection to every item you own, and moving on from the items that no longer spark joy in you. This method has proven controversial to some, as social media has sparked a full-fledged conversation on whether, for example, it’s ethical to get rid of your books or the privilege of acquiring a minimalist lifestyle.
More interesting than that, to me, is actually the pattern I noticed in other home improvement shows like Tidying Up - that in the examination of these everyday people, the narrative of each episode tends to be that It’s The Woman’s Mess. Obviously Marie Kondo, who carries an extremely non-judgmental perspective to her clients (which I LOVE, and I love her), is not driving that narrative, but it’s a TV thing that I picked up right away in the first episode. We are met with a straight White couple with two children who aren’t actually hoarders, but are maybe just messy. They just have a lot of stuff. The man is the breadwinner, while the woman works part-time in addition to carrying nearly full responsibility of child-caring. He’s pissed at her for hiring outside help to do their laundry, because “they can do it themselves”, but offers absolutely zero help or comfort to his wife. And the end of the episode, the message becomes Look How Marie’s Method of Tidying Finally Made The Woman Do Laundry And The Man Is Now Proud of His Wife.
The second episode, albeit an extremely different client case, echoes a similar taste of this. We meet an elderly Japanese American couple, whose mess that needs tidying up actually includes three generations of family items that have been collecting in this multi-generational house. These are precious items! And seeing this Japanese American couple interact with Marie, who’s from Japan, is something I’ve never seen on screen ever (outside of last year’s Crazy Rich Asians) and would’ve loved to see a whole season on. But instead, the show’s attention gets re-directed to being about the woman’s crazy mess of clothes that she collects and how the man is merely putting up with the idea of tidying up (when he too has a whole room full of baseball cards). Obviously, this home improvement show format is relatively obligated to focus on just the decluttering aspect, but this kind of narrative is one I’ve seen too many times.
That being said, I do love the inclusivity aspect of this show. All too often, we are shown straight White couple after straight White couple (throw in one Black couple every once in a while) as the clientele for home-improvement shows. In the realm of representation, it’s honestly not a huge deal to me, but it’s really great seeing the range of clients on Tidying Up. We obviously met the elderly Japanese American couple in the second episode, but further down the line, we also meet a charming newlywed Black lesbian couple too! And Marie treats everyone exactly the same: with sparkly non-judgmental eyes asking them to approach “tidying up” with what makes the most sense to them. She doesn’t ask you to throw away, for example, your grandma’s old tea set you never use because it clearly fits within the category of sentimental Mementos that warrants keeping it. For Kondo, it’s clear that minimalism isn’t her end goal, it’s about the individual journey that goes into creating bonds with the things you own.