Culture

The Not So Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up

As Marie Kondo and her 'KonMari' method cause another global phenomenon decluttering homes, Jamila Rizvi asks the tough question: It's the Netflix show everyone is talking about, but, does it 'spark joy'?

By Jamila Rizvi

Culture

As Marie Kondo and her 'KonMari' method cause another global phenomenon decluttering homes, Jamila Rizvi asks the tough question: It's the Netflix show everyone is talking about, but, does it 'spark joy'?

By Jamila Rizvi

To my deep horror, folding has become a socially acceptable topic of conversation. More than that, talking about folding is apparently now a compelling topic of conversation. Initially I’d hoped that these in-depth discussions of how to tidy up and store stuff would be brief. I’ve since been proven wrong. Two weeks into the new year, I’ve resigned myself to the fact I either have to get on board or invest in a bush cottage and live out my remaining years in solitude. I choose the former.

Marie Kondo is the author of several books, founder of the ‘KonMari’ method (more on this later) and a professional tidier. And if you didn’t realise that was an actual job, you are not alone. Kondo’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up has sold more than five million copies worldwide and saw her named as one of TIME’s most influential people in 2015. She now has a business empire worth $8 million built exclusively on a foundation of putting stuff away.

During 2015 I was in the latter stages of pregnancy and then making the utterly discombobulating adjustment to life with a newborn. That period was a haze of milk, poo and sleepless nights. Put another way, I missed the first global outing of the KonMari craze entirely. Luckily for me, the life changing magic is back in vogue. Delivered in the form of a Netflix reality series that dropped just in time to fulfil a bunch of new year’s resolutions, called ‘Tidying Up: With Marie Kondo’.

There’s a lot to like about Marie Kondo. She is quirky and playful; her warmth radiates through the screen. She is neatly, precisely and prettily dressed, with picture perfect shiny hair. However, Kondo isn’t precious. She’s unfussed sitting on the floor, playing with grotty children or being surrounded by piles of junk. Unlike most reality television judges and hosts, Kondo isn’t judgemental. Her questions are genuine and not designed to trap messy house owners into disclosing things they don’t want to. The show feels kinder, less exploitative than others of the same genre.

It’s exciting to see a program for western audiences whose presenter is not only a woman of colour but a woman of colour who doesn’t speak English. While Kondo speaks directly to camera with the aid of subtitles, she uses an interpreter for scenes where she is personally interacting with couples or families. There is a more profound sense of connection across cultures in these moments and it happens both on and off screen. As a viewer, I’m not consumed by reading the translation. Instead, I watch Kondo’s delicate mannerisms and listen to the lovely sounds of the Japanese spoken word.

Kondo is delightful and engaging but she doesn’t seem to… how do I put this… do much. She arrives at someone’s home and introduces herself to the house with a formal greeting that for some reason makes everyone teary. Kondo then has the family members dump all their clothes in a pile, consider whether the individual items ‘spark joy’ and if they don’t, the clothes are kissed and thanked for their service, before being chucked.

The remainder of the tidying process is less explicit. Kondo gives advice like “everything should have its place” and provides cute looking shoebox things (that retail for $89 for three, if you’re wondering) to store knick-knacks. At this point in the episode, Kondo bails on the family and leaves them to their mess. She returns moments before the end of the show, to exclaim joyously over the progress and makes adorable squeaky little noises of pleasure.

There’s nothing offensive or concerning about the program but I am left wondering what the big deal is. I feel like the only person at a party who didn’t understand a joke. There is a specific method of folding clothes, which basically amounts to making the item really, really, really, really small. And while I’m all for practising gratitude, that $5 t-shirt from a chain store didn’t really serve anyone particularly well and almost certainly didn’t spark joy for the underpaid, undervalued, garment factory worker who made it. I also doubt anyone is continuing with the kissing business after Kondo leaves the room.

Some of her suggestions are undoubtedly solid but also rather obvious. When you strip away the bells and whistles, the KonMari method amounts to chucking stuff out before reorganising the remainder, not keeping what you don’t need and creating a place for items to be returned to when not in use. Trying to wrap my mind around this phenomenon, I decide the allure is a combination of exoticism, dreaming of an easier no-mess existence and of course, Kondo herself. I go to switch off the television and decide against it. I don’t want to let her down.

 

“I hold her methods in my mind and ask if they spark joy in me? They do not.”

 

I do take issue with Kondo’s pronouncement that cleaning is enjoyable. “Folding clothes is so much fun!” she says earnestly to the camera in Japanese. But is it, Marie? Is it, really? I pause the program and study her gaze. She believes what she’s saying, there is genuine joy sparked for this woman when she is tidying and organising. It’s bizarre. For me, cleaning is necessary, procedural and occasionally useful for mindlessly switching off. Kondo also claims that her small children ‘just love tidying up’. On that, I straight out call bulls*it.

Other criticisms have been levelled at the newly rediscovered cult of tidying up. Arielle Bernstien in The Atlantic says this is simply a craze for rich people. “For affluent Americans who’ve never wanted for anything, Kondo sells an elegant fantasy of paring back and scaling down at a time when simplicity is a hot trend,” she explains. “It’s particularly ironic that the KonMari method has taken hold now, during a major refugee crisis, when the news constantly shows scenes of people fleeing their homes and everything they have”. People’s ‘stuff’ means more to them, when they cannot afford very much of it.

Here in Australia, the tidying up obsession has caused a throwing out obsession that has environmentalists worried. The Victorian Government issued a press release, calling on Kondo-inspired residents to add a seventh step to the method: Reflect on waste and take action to reduce, reuse, recycle and respect. “While we’re encouraged to hear households en masse are busy clearing out the clutter, the question remains where are we sending all those bags of joyless garments and items once we’re done with them? All that clutter doesn’t just disappear once you’ve given it a kiss and thanked it for its service,” says Sustainability Victoria Acting CEO, Stephanie Ziersch.

After three episodes, I give up on Marie Kondo. While the woman herself certainly lives up to the hype, I can’t help but think the rest of this joyful tidying business is basically a global sham. I hold her methods in my mind and ask if they spark joy in me? They do not. Could my house do with a bit of a clean? Sure. This cult-like approach isn’t quite what I have in mind though. I thank Marie Kondo for her service and kiss the KonMari method goodbye. Well, symbolically anyway. By turning off the television.