Since January 1, Netflix users across the world have been watching other people clean up their homes in the reality show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. A Japanese organising and tidying expert, Kondo has been a global figure since the success of her 2011 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The Netflix original has brought Kondo’s cleanliness mantras to a wider audience and has reportedly sparked off a cleaning frenzy well-timed with the dawn of the new year.
According to her website, Kondo was obsessed with tidying up since she was a child. She expanded her passion into a business when she was 19. Now 34, Kondo runs the KonMari Media Inc and is also a bestselling author and pop culture icon. In 2015, she found a spot in Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people. She has been profiled by several publications and was featured on the Rachel Ray Show and The Ellen Show.
Kondo’s organising principles are centred on her trademarked KonMari Method, a step-by-step process according to which belongings must be sorted by category rather than location. Clothes go first, followed by books and papers. The third and biggest category is “komono”, which includes the kitchen, garage and other miscellaneous items.
Things of sentimental value are to be tackled last. Boxes and storage organisers are the stars of Kondo’s method, along with her unique folding technique that involves reducing garments to a fraction of their size and stacking them vertically and separately instead of in piles.
Tidying Up With Marie Kondo joins a host of popular programmes that feature cleanliness experts swooping in on cluttered homes and seemingly changing the lives of their hapless residents, such as Hoarders, Clean House, Clean Sweep and How Clean is Your House. However, there are key differences.
In Kondo’s show, there are no snarky experts or shame-faced hoarders. Instead, the show can be accused of being a little too cutesy. An effervescent Kondo walks into the homes of her clients with an infectious smile and a high-pitched hello, exclaiming gleefully that she loves a mess because that means she gets to clean up.
Though the show follows many staples of Western reality programmes – dramatic back stories, manipulative music and regular tearing-up – the show also has distinct Japanese cultural influences. For Kondo, de-cluttering has a higher spiritual meaning. Belongings as well as homes should be spoken to and thanked for the value they have brought us. The petite expert starts each cleaning-up mission by sitting in quiet contemplation on the floor as she communicates with the house, sometimes to the befuddlement of her clients.
Most crucially, deciding what to keep and discard while cleaning out one’s home has more to do with the emotion an object inspires – whether it “sparks joy”, as she often says – than with its practical value.
The families profiled in each episode soon begin to treat the cleaning process as something more than a practical experiment. For one couple, it’s a way to ease marital tensions. For a middle-aged widow, it’s a method of reclaiming her life. For a young mother, it’s about learning to share the load of domestic responsibilities with family.
But the photos of clean closets and neatly folded t-shirts have been accompanied by controversy over some of Kondo’s cleanliness mantras. Apart from analytical pieces debating the efficacy of the KonMari method, there has been some criticism about the elitism of Kondo’s principles. The biggest backlash, however, has been about Kondo’s advice to families about excising their book collections along with their mounting clothes piles, which seem to have incensed bibliophiles everywhere.
The debate was sparked by the fifth episode of Tidying Up, in which Kondo guides a book lover as he filters his collection. She asks him to hold each book in his hand and see if it sparks joy for him. “With books you also want to ask yourself, ‘By having these books, will it be benefical to your life going forward’?” she asks. Kondo observes that books are a reflection of thoughts and values, and tidying them shows “what kind of information is important to you at this moment”.
Kondo’s remarks have led to a Twitter storm that is yet to die down and has been fuelled by claims that she had prescribed a 30-book limit to her clients.
Writing for The Guardian, novelist Anakana Schofield, whose tweet on the topic had earlier gone viral, said, “The metric of objects only ‘sparking joy’ is deeply problematic when applied to books...Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.”
However, many have criticised such responses as an overreaction or a misinterpretation of Kondo’s remarks. An article in The Daily Mail pointed out that Kondo had not set a limit on how many books one should own, but merely expressed that she does not want her own collection to exceed 30 books. In the show too, Kondo does not direct her client on which book to discard or keep, neither does she compel him to pare down his collection beyond what he is comfortable with.
The outrage seems to have racial undertones and reflects the cultural gap between East and West, some on social media have contended.
Young adult author Ellen Oh took particular objection to novellist Jennifer Wright’s now-deleted tweet calling Kondo a monster. Wright later apologised for the remark.