Tidying Up With Marie Kondo Offers Gentle Self-Help, For Better and Worse

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Tidying Up With Marie Kondo was released on January 1, in a calculated attempt to activate the great American tradition of overhauling one’s life when the new year hits. It is mesmerizing in its sameness, much like The Great British Bakeoff or Queer Eye soothes the brain. Marie Kondo, Japanese tidying expert, and her translator, Marie Iida, lead the subjects gently towards their own conclusions that yes, they have too much stuff, and some, if not most, of it should be tidied away. I watched four episodes over two days, unable to really tell when one began and the other ended and felt, for one small moment, the desire to upend my dresser drawers onto my bed in order to purge my life of everything undesirable.

The driving principle behind the KonMari method is the notion of sparking joy—each item that lives in your home should bring you some small amount of happiness. Everyone everywhere is living with too much stuff—drowning under piles of unworn clothing, crushed to death by a stockpile of Christmas Nutcracker dolls. The objects we surround ourselves with was likely purchased out of necessity or desire. Toilet paper doesn’t spark joy, but it is necessary. A new dress, when you’re feeling down, sparks joy in the moment, but can often lead to distress and agita in the future, when standing in front of an overstuffed closet, looking for a sweater. Determining what sparks joy is supposed to be an organic process. You hold the item in your hand, reflect upon how it makes you feel, and then do what that feeling dictates.

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Applying this principle to one’s own life, in private, and behind closed doors, is a deeply personal process. No one needs to watch another person sort through a box of tax returns and discarded planners from 2013 and decide whether or not to keep them, but Tidying Up is banking on voyeurism to sell the KonMari method. Watching empty nesters Ron and Wendy Akiyama bond over the act of cleaning in Episode 2 doesn’t feel invasive, but my garbage reality television brain is poisoned to want more drama. Hoarders this is not. Rather it feels like Netflix’s first real attempt at getting a slice of the market HGTV has cornered, but in a way that isn’t nearly as addictive as the other network’s fare.

Stylistically, Tidying Up is gentle. Marie Kondo is a soothing presence—never soporific, somehow, but always engaging. She is twee, almost unbearably so, which is an affect not really seen in American television personalities. About 15 minutes into every episode, Kondo takes a moment to commune with the house, selecting a spot in the residence and kneeling in silent reverence. This goes on for longer than feels comfortable; sometimes the subjects join her, and sometimes they seem like they’re enjoying it. Conflict, when it happens, feels softer than it would on House Hunters, where couples routinely argue with increasing venom over the necessity of a mudroom in the home of their dreams.

The beauty of Marie Kondo’s world is that tidying is not punishment. She subverts the chore of cleaning by imbuing it with a radical sense of self-improvement. Unlike the underlying economic status anxiety that colors all of HGTV’s offerings, Tidying Up is more self-help than self-defeat. The home improvements, and by extension, life improvements, come not from buying a McMansion in Indiana, but from clearing life’s detritus out of your home to make way for something else.

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