CULTURE & ARTS

Ignore The Online Backlash Cycle: Marie Kondo's Netflix Show Is Good

"Tidying Up With Marie Kondo" bears little resemblance to the divisive, book-hating show described on social media.
Netlflix’s “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” had barely started getting buzz before there was a backlash a
Netlflix’s “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” had barely started getting buzz before there was a backlash and then a backlash to the backlash.

Marie Kondo is back, baby, and this time she’s coming for all your books Netflix’s voracious audience.

It seems a lifetime ago (about five years) that Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, hit American bookstores and drove hordes of untidy North Americans to cradle their old gym shoes and ask, “Does this spark joy?” Her KonMari system teaches readers to declutter by sorting through all their possessions in a specific order: clothes, books, papers, “komono” (miscellaneous) and sentimental items. Kondo’s eight-episode Netflix series, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” takes the diminutive organizer into L.A. households, where she guides them through this journey. 

In its day, Kondo’s book set off a minimalist craze, then a backlash and then a backlash to the backlash. The show prompted a replay of that cycle but in hyperdrive: The binge-watching craze had barely taken off before book lovers began to complain on Twitter that her system was tantamount to violence against their bookshelves. Fans quickly bristled, arguing that her guidelines are flexible and do not demand that anyone throw out books that bring them joy.

The dialogue escalated to interior-of-the-sun temperatures. Is her system anti-book? Rigid? Classist? Capitalist? A fantasy of narcissistic control? Or are the critiques America-centric, even racist?

Lost in all the pro- and anti-minimalist crossfire was the show itself. Many reacting on social media clearly hadn’t even watched an episode, let alone read the book. Should audiences ignore the overwrought backlash and check out Kondo’s series? Or is the show overhyped and problematic? HuffPost writer and reluctant KonMari groupie Claire Fallon sat down with writer Mallika Rao, who covered The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up while a HuffPost staffer in 2015, to give the show a close read.

Mallika: So what did you think of the show?

Claire: “Tidying Up” is what I would call extremely my shit. It’s so soothing, the tonal register is consistent, and I can just let it wash over me. It’s very cozy, perfect for January binge-watching. Did you like the show?

Mallika: Ha-ha. I see this for you. In my case, I have to admit that I was not expecting to like it. I had zero expectations, really. As you know from our days working together, I was so completely bowled over by the book. It actually did restructure my life, but it was such an intimate and strange reading experience that I couldn’t compute a translation of that into one of Netflix’s family-friendly and canny new spate of “joyful expert” shows, to quote Vulture’s Kathryn Von Arendonk.

Claire: Really! I’m surprised, because you did love the book so much (and wrote a brilliant essay about it). But I can’t deny that there’s something about the technique and vibe that doesn’t seem like a natural fit for TV. It’s somehow both very predictable and very flexible ― she walks people through the same basic steps every time, but because the goal is to spark joy for them, the result might still be less dramatic home makeover and more slight neatening.

In the second episode, I was mildly let down when the husband sorted through all his baseball cards and still ended up with what looked like 15 file boxes full of them ― not exactly a full declutter. What did you end up thinking, once you watched it?

Mallika: I should clarify that I had no expectations going in, but I ended up enjoying the show. I actually felt like I’d been through a round of therapy after the first episode. It’s a distinctly different creature than the book, of course. What I liked, though, was that it allows you to see Marie Kondo up close and repeatedly. (I have lots of thoughts on her.) And I appreciated the human drama. Standout: the Mersier family children, who are perhaps the loveliest potential adults we have going on as a country right now.

I later read an Atlantic article that articulated my perspective to a T as well as one by Alison Willmore on BuzzFeed that questioned it. Willmore saw some dark tones that I did pick up on. I suppose, to me, darkness feels part and parcel with human drama, but she elegantly articulates what she seems to see as a unique failure of the show: “Tidying Up places Kondo’s relentlessly cheery domestic advice against what sometimes feels like a roiling American backdrop of late capitalist panic and crushing internalized expectations. It’s hard to believe that organizing a house will be able to address the anxieties and old wounds that some of the clients, through polite smiles and grateful tears, lay bare onscreen.”

What was unusual about the show to me wasn’t 1) the dark underbelly, which all “real” shows seem to have, or even 2) an insinuation that this darkness can be solved with a quick fix. Both feel par for the course for the genre. But “Tidying Up” deviates from that formula, I think, due in large part to the grace and depth and honesty with which Kondo acknowledges the darkness, even despite not speaking much English.

Claire: The show reminded me of something the book really revealed to me: Humans are extremely loss-averse. It’s natural to imagine the moment you’ll lose a button on your shirt and tear at your hair, howling at the heavens, “Why did I throw out all my spare buttons???” This loss aversion can obscure the equally real psychic burden that can be incurred by surrounding ourselves with things we don’t want or need, things that get dusty or creased or lost in the backs of cabinets. Keeping everything can also be a way of avoiding processing; it really resonated with me when people on the show went through mementos from lost loved ones, because often it isn’t until you clean out a home that you really confront loss. Addressing the clutter may not fix everything (climate change, capitalism), but so what? It can still be medicinal in a certain way.

Mallika: That is a great point, Claire. I think about how, when my mom died, everything she touched suddenly attained this sheen of preciousness that actually became paralyzing. I found it hard to throw away small sheets of paper I found where she wrote a phone number or very old bottles of perfumes she might have touched once, if at all. That’s the animist impulse that Kondo acknowledges more than any tidying expert in America, I’d wager: how we imbue things with meaning. And as I argued back when I read the book, she uses that impulse cleverly, to create a rationalization for dispensing with things, out of kindness for the thing (which doesn’t want to be shoved in a cabinet or attached to feelings of sadness). Did you find yourself affected in your daily life from watching the show, in this medicinal regard?

Claire: Yes! It’s difficult to admit that a relic of your mom might actually just be “‘gomi,’ or trash,” as Kondo’s interpreter just said on the episode of “Tidying Up” I have playing in the background. But as long as they’re lying around in file boxes or in the back of a closet, you’re also not really using it as a relic; it’s just as absent as if you didn’t still have it at all. Tidying is when you actually hold it and emotionally connect.

Mallika: Side note: I found the episode that dealt with loss directly sort of staggering. How that woman was able to mount the purging process only nine months after her husband’s death — that was incomprehensible to me. I still struggle, and it’s been years. I wonder if Kondo has any sort of statute on how long to wait before loss-related tidying. She has an order more generally that has to do with how our minds get acclimated to the process, so I wouldn’t be surprised. But she didn’t seem to have any qualms about Margie doing things at her pace, which was another quality I liked. She wasn’t nearly as dogmatic as I thought she might be.

Marie Kondo (center), with interpreter Marie Iida (left), helps recently widowed Margie declutter her house and find a fresh
Marie Kondo (center), with interpreter Marie Iida (left), helps recently widowed Margie declutter her house and find a fresh start.

Claire: Margie was a hero. The episode put the lie to the social media narrative about Kondo that had started circulating after the Netflix show came out ― that she’s rigid, that her rules don’t allow for individual needs. When Margie, the widow, wanted to sort her late husband’s clothes first, Kondo initially insisted that Margie wait. (Sentimental items are supposed to come last.). But after Margie explained that it was making it difficult to focus on the rest of the process, Kondo agreed to switch the order and thanked Margie for allowing Kondo to understand her better. I loved how empathetic Kondo was in each episode. I felt cradled by her presence, emotionally.

Mallika: I love that phrase, Claire. That’s precisely how I felt.

Claire: And to answer your question ― I did start to feel bad for all the stuff in my closets. They’re suffering for my pack rat mentality. I’d love to talk a little more about her animism. Though we all imbue our things with meaning, Americans often see her framing as silly, fantastical or woo-woo. What do you think gets missed when people laugh about thanking your socks or finding joy in Tupperware?

Mallika: The reception to Kondo has made me realize how bright the line is between the animist and the — let’s call it concretist. The East and West, if you will. I grew up Hindu and learned early on that everything, even a chair, houses life. Certain items get major billing; if you touch a book with your foot by mistake, you ask forgiveness of it. Animism imprinted on me hard. In a practical sense, I think it’s made me an ecologically minded, sensitive person. I believe that everything is interconnected and matters. (Kondo gave me the tools to manage the other side of animism, which can lead to hoarding.) To answer your question, I think the danger of dismissing animism is a reality visible right now: environmental destruction, pathological consumerism. Eastern countries are equally inclined toward both behaviors, but I think a general loss of connection with our surroundings post–Industrial Revolution has led the planet here.

You were someone who found the socks love hard to take. Have your views changed at all?

Claire: Yes, they have completely changed. Selfishly, because it works: Thanking your items and remembering the good times you had together does, in my experience, make it easier to let it go. I just said goodbye to the dress I wore on my first date with my husband, which I haven’t worn in four years, and instead of clinging to it and sticking it back in the dark recesses of the closet, I let myself remember that date for a few moments, and then I put the dress on the donate pile.

It’s helped me understand that there’s no real advantage to adamantly believing that things have no feelings. Clothes that you fold nicely are fresher and more appealing to wear; kitchen goods neatly sorted into boxes are easier to use. Abusing the material world doesn’t make human lives richer or happier. Instead, as you note, it helps us remember to preserve a habitat that is livable.

Mallika: On a more immediate plane, I think what Kondo stressed is gratitude for all things in the home. Gratitude can feel like a cult philosophy. You seem to have to buy into it wholesale for it to enact neurological changes. I think in cherry-picking Kondo’s philosophy and removing all the woo-woo, you risk missing out on a potential foundational change.

Claire: That’s completely true. One reaction I noticed on social media was the idea that KonMari is just a minimalist regimen or that it’s about throwing out perfectly good stuff so you can buy things you like better. In one episode, one of the parents has to remind the kids that the tidying process will be about being happy with what they have, not buying more toys. It’s very hard to stop thinking of stuff as something to keep accumulating and filling space with.

Mallika: Do you know any other people who changed their opinion on the animism front? I find this line of the Kondo phenomenon so rich and interesting.

Claire: I don’t know if I recall speaking to anyone who has. For me, I suspect that reading the whole book was necessary. Her whole philosophy sort of clicks into place as you read and enact it. A lot of people have still experienced her only through news write-ups or tweets. The Twitter conversation has felt very divorced, for me, from what she actually teaches.

Mallika: I know I shouldn’t be surprised by how insistently social media platforms flatten things, but I really was in this case. (Although even I felt a stirring for a backlash in me just in regards to Kondo. She can’t be this evolved and kind and humane and funny and sweet and put together and raw too, I kept telling myself. But then, over the course of the show, she consistently was.) One danger, I suppose, of her going so mainstream is that people will be less inclined to engage with the nuts and bolts of her philosophy, which, as you say, is an act that seems necessary if the goal is to understand it. Do you think she’s going to go on some sort of franchise, watered-down path and lose herself or her work?

Also, do you think her clients engaged fully with the method?

Claire: If anyone was scared off by the vision of a smiling lady swooping in and throwing out all their books, I hope they watch the show! They’ll find a much more individualized, humane approach. (I’ve seen people react less intensely to minimalist rules like “Keep only 100 possessions.”)

And she’s already a huge franchise. So it was heartening to me that she kept the spirit of her book in the show, almost to the detriment of reality TV sizzle. As I mentioned above, the made-over apartments and houses often don’t look that flashy. She teaches the clients to put their things in old shoeboxes. It’s no “Queer Eye,” where Bobby Berk basically reconstructs a home with Jonathan Adler pillows and leather ottomans. I’m keeping my faith in Kondo.

I didn’t think every client bought in equally ― and some entered into it prepared to resist ― but I did think they mostly ended up being changed by it. Like they say about grad school, KonMari-ing breaks you down to build you back up. When all your stuff is in piles on the floor, at a certain point, the only way out is with the lifeline you’ve been thrown by an unflappable lady with stunning eyelashes. What did you think?

And also, what did you think about how Kondo’s approach handled the question of domestic work, like tidying, as women’s work? That’s something that particularly fascinated me.

Mallika: Yep, it seemed to me, just as in school, everyone got out what they put in. I felt like I could see a difference from the start in the people who gave in to the process, just in the way they thanked the house. The ones with high EQ and tolerance for woo-woo tended to benefit the most, it always seemed. (In the opposite camp was Samira, the woman who kept calling it Kondo’s magic and passing the buck of responsibility.)

The issue of women’s work is real outside the show and was majorly real inside it. I actually had tears in my eyes over it in the Mersier family episode: The mom felt she was failing her family, and they were all so aware about the unfair burden of responsibility they placed on her. I felt like the show acknowledged a global reality, centered it really, whether explicitly or not. There’s no pat solution, but I think some approaches were novel and went some way toward resolution — Kondo’s insistence that each family member learn to care for his or her own stuff, her elevation of empathy to both a high art and daily discipline. In the case of the Mersiers, I think real learning happened, and I hope the family shares labor in a way they didn’t before. What about this line of analysis fascinated you?

Claire: I was gripped by how indirectly it was handled and yet how effectively. The Mersier episode (which is truly a standout; those kids are gems) gave particular attention to it, as you point out. The situation had devolved to the point that Katrina, the mom, was the only person who knows where anything is. It reminded me rather painfully of my own childhood. My mom ran the house, and after she died, my dad came to realize how much stress he had allowed her to absorb. She was the one who put cereal bowls in the dishwasher, made sure the common spaces were picked up, put the towels away. (I know this because he then had to be the one to nag the kids about it, just as she used to nag the whole rest of the family. It took me longer to realize how much stress I was creating, unfortunately.)

The KonMari method is, low key, about each member taking ownership of his or her own things and over the shared home. The first, much-maligned episode with the passive-aggressive Friend family started with the husband wishing his wife would do the laundry instead of hiring someone but ended with the whole family folding laundry together. Empathy as a high art and daily discipline is such a perfect way to put it. I still believe in feminist agitating, but there was a quiet radicalism to it that I loved just as much.

My last question is big picture: You say that KonMari gave you the tools to handle the hoarding aspect of animism. Do you think concretist Americans can’t really get as much out of the method? Or do we all need to get into animism in order to manage our material lives in a more healthy way? Could KonMari be the thing to save our crumbling, warming, trash-ridden planet?

Mallika: That’s a provocative line of questioning. I think probably there’s more of a learning curve for KonMari students who never thought to animate belongings than for people inducted into that instinct early. But as to the other angles of your question ― whether that upfront handicap precludes Americans from full understanding or whether they should even aim for full understanding ― I kind of defer to Kondo. In the book, she describes how when she was a kid, she tidied for everyone else in her house because she believed she knew best. This approach, understandably, upset the peace. Over time, she embraced a humbler one that also turned out to be more effective. Essentially, you do you, to your highest abilities. If your results are ones others want for themselves, then share your process, once they ask. No one changes unless they need to. Homeostasis feels good for a reason.

In other words, whether Americans should embrace animism isn’t for me to say. That’s a question for each person or even government to decide. I’d imagine a non-animist would enter into a paradigm shift only if the outcomes of those who practice animism look desirable enough. So it’s really on the practicing animists to produce results, at the human and government level.

Claire: That’s beautiful and very much in the spirit of my guiding light, Marie Kondo. Is there anything else you’d like to discuss before we wrap up?

Mallika: I’m feeling satisfied. 🙂

Claire: Ahh, the sweet taste of homeostasis. Final thing to tidy up: Do you recommend that people watch the show? And if so, do you recommend that they read the book first?

Mallika: I recommend that people start the book and, if they find it intriguing, read it through, maybe even twice. (Second time was the charm for me.) As for the show, I think it’s more a companion piece than a fire starter, useful if you’re itching to see Kondo IRL or basically meet the Mersiers. Or, as you say, if you want some solid January binge material. I don’t know that it can alter a life the way I believe the book has potential to, which may explain the change in title from book to show. No one can accuse Kondo of deceptive advertising.

Claire: One of her best qualities. I completely agree ― and I encourage people to ignore the social media memes and give her actual work a chance. Mallika, thank you so much for talking KonMari with me again. It feels like 2015 again, in the best way.

Mallika: Ditto, Claire. But let us not forget to give thanks for the present. What is past is past, and we say goodbye with thanks.

Mallika Rao is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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