Marie Kondo’s road to a tidy (and examined) life

Marie Kondo demonstrates her method of creating domestic order on her Netflix show "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo."Marie Kondo demonstrates her method of creating domestic order on her Netflix show "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo."

Twenty years ago, American women watched the fictional Carrie Bradshaw traipse through New York in an ever-expanding collection of pricey stilettos on “Sex and the City.” Many aspired to buy (and walk as gracefully in) similarly chic outfits. Today, a similar demographic watches “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” starring the titular best-selling author and “tidying” guru.

In the show Kondo counsels real clients through a rigorous home organization process that involves going through every blessed item they own, discarding it if it fails to “spark joy” and putting it in its place if it does. Many fantasize about (and sometimes attempt to achieve) similarly ordered homes.

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Why do so many people today—particularly we urban and suburban women in our 20s and 30s, who in a previous generation would have been the “Sex and the City” target audience—watch this wholesome Netflix show about other people tidying their homes?

Reducing a wardrobe by half contributes toward a domestic order that radiates out to a broader order.

When I picked up Marie Kondo’s best-selling book from 2014, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and started watching her show this year,I was almost immediately a rather bored spectator as the KonMari method of tidying unfolded (pun intended). But I was a fascinated observer of what felt like the refreshing assumption behind that method. The assumption is that reducing a wardrobe by half or figuring out where to store spoons is no mere mindless endeavor. It is a rigorously pursued contribution toward a domestic order that radiates out to a broader order.

As Kondo spells it out in her best-selling book: “When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.” In this framework, tidying is something to be taken seriously—not just practically, but also intellectually and spiritually.

Equating household order with a deeper sense of order feels new and exciting to many of us who grew up while the economy boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s. That era provided sufficient catalyst for the sprawl of McMansions, the residential equivalent of Carrie Bradshaw’s supposed $40,000 worth of shoes. In 2007, before the recession hit and home sizes declined, the average size of a new American home was 2,277 square feet, up from 1,525 square feet in 1973. In the same 34-year period, the average family size declined from 3.48 people to 3.13.

Equating household order with a deeper sense of order feels new and exciting to those who grew up in the boom economies of the '90s and early 2000s

People had extra space to fill with stuff, and in many cases the funds with which to do it. Many consumer goods, including clothing and toys, had become far cheaper relative to people’s incomes than they had ever been before. It seems doubtful that people ever consciously decided to fill their space with unneeded, unwanted items. They just slid into clutter because, for the first time in history, ordinary people could often own a lot of mass-marketed material things.

Meanwhile, in the ’90s, women continued to enter the workforce in ever-higher numbers. Those who did stay at home began to call themselves not “home makers,” but “stay-at-home-moms.” Any conspicuous consumption glorified in the era’s television shows and movies ran toward clothes, shoes and purses, not domestic decor. Tidying, like domestic work more generally, seemed, at least in popular culture, to take a backseat in prestige and cultural focus to all other possible ambitions, whether a competitive career, nurturing motherhood or pleasure seeking self-actualization.

Today’s trend toward intentionality in domestic order may seem groundbreaking, but the equation of domestic order to moral order is not new. It is certainly not new in Japan, Kondo’s home country, and where she served for five years as a Shinto shrine maiden; nor is it new in the United States, where order was the prevailing assumption of 19th-century domesticity.

Kondo treats the home as a sacred space that requires seriousness of purpose to run correctly.

In 1869, Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe published The American Woman’s Home. The most widely read domestic handbook of the 19th century, the volume offers a dizzying number of minutely detailed home management tips on topics ranging from laundering clothes to gardening to cooking.

But undergirding the authors’ wide-ranging and largely outdated advice is one unifying principle: practical domestic work (in the 19th century, “women’s work”) is important for reasons that go beyond the practical. “Every woman,” write Beecher and Stowe, “should imbibe, from early youth, the impression that she is in training for the discharge of the most important, the most difficult, and the most sacred and interesting duties that can possibly employ the highest intellect.”

Like Beecher and Stowe, Kondo treats the home as a sacred space that requires seriousness of purpose to run correctly. The Shintoism that influences her tidying method also leads her to enter the home of each client with a display of the same reverence with which she would enter a Shinto shrine. (In the first episode, she begins her tidying by kneeling down on the carpet, greeting the house and thanking it for protecting the family that lives there.) In that space she deems sacred, Kondo demands of her clients the tools that create order: work ethic, discernment and self-examination.

“It wasn’t easy for him letting go of stuff, but now I feel like we’re both finally on the road to adulthood.”

The KonMari method of tidying is a strict program that requires significant work over several weeks. Upon finishing the tidying of their homes, multiple younger clients featured on Kondo’s Netflix show muse that Kondo has helped them become adults. One 20-something man says of his partner and himself: “It wasn’t easy for him letting go of stuff, but now I feel like we’re both finally on the road to adulthood.” A 30-something father of two preteens reflects upon completion of Kondo’s method: “We’re growing up.... I’m growing up.” This newly achieved feeling of adulthood is not just because their homes appear better kept (though they do). It is, more fundamentally, that they earned that tidy home through a systematized approach that brooked no allowance for indecision. Each item goes, or it stays in its selected place. No exceptions, no do-overs.

When clients in their 20s and 30s meet the high bar Kondo sets for them, they have something far more important and far harder to obtain than their newly tidy homes: new self-respect. Not because the space is now organized, but because they perceive themselves as having had to achieve adulthood in order to organize it. Orderly space is nice, and something enjoyed by clients of all ages. But it seems like tidiness is a mere byproduct of the self-actualized maturity that Kondo, 34, is really selling to her contemporaries.

There are fewer culturally sanctioned opportunities to believe in or accomplish something that requires definitive, irreversible choice.

Rehabilitated and updated by Kondo to include men as well as women, this very old belief—that adulthood is earned through the rigorous construction of domestic order—feels revolutionary. And for some people who grew up in a culture of material excess that reinforced the spiritual emptiness of a culture in which nothing is sacred, it is revolutionary.

Kondo’s systematic approach to order in physical space stands in stark contrast to the soft lack of resolution in discerning between goods—practically, personally, morally—that many young people today are carrying with them into adulthood. As organized religion, traditional religious belief and marriage rates all continue to decline, there are fewer and fewer culturally sanctioned opportunities to believe in or accomplish something that requires definitive, irreversible choice. Organizing a home by getting rid of every item that does not “spark joy” is one.

But that organization is not meant to stand alone. The absolutism that Kondo evinces about the proper way to tidy up, like the firmness of Beecher and Stowe in their domestic prescriptions, is rooted in the connection between her method and her faith. Kondo emphasizes how tidying can enhance other aspects of people’s lives. This demonstrates her belief that clearing clutter makes room in one’s home for actual people, not just their physical bodies, but their spiritual beings as well.

Kondo emphasizes how tidying can enhance other aspects of people’s lives.

In the absence of belief in any such spiritual being, tidying is just another materialistic end in itself. Without a prevailing belief system that makes “tidying” important, anyone could “KonMari” her home and wind up with nothing but today’s fashionably minimalist version of that spiritually vacuous, culturally insidious “Sex and the City” shoe collection: a statement of conspicuous (non)consumption indicating high status and revealing hollow ideals. In such a framework, a clutter-free home is more of a status symbol than a spiritual harbor.

Yet it seems unlikely that Kondo is now a cultural touchstone merely because of her method’s outcomes. The overwhelming response to her book and show seems to reveal how starved people are for any area of life in which to definitively decide or believe anything.

The queen of tidying is captivating audiences with this invitation to determine in a tangible way one of the most important questions available to anyone. It is a question that too few people have been encouraged to answer: What do you truly value?

Perhaps the excitement around Kondo’s method will give some occupants of newly tidy homes the courage to find meaningful answers.

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