'Tidying Up with Marie Kondo' Is Inadvertently About Women's Invisible Labour
In the new Netflix show, couples learn how to tackle household tasks by 'tidying' together, a process that reveals just how gendered our domestic expectations are.
Photo via Netflix
I have always been good at organizing. I excessively purge and sort, immersing myself in organizational minutiae to the point of obsession. My bookshelves are alphabetized by subject, I use up all of my free makeup samples, and if you name a single item in my house I can tell you where it is. As a child I yearned for a label maker—a gift my parents wisely did not indulge—and spent hours borrowing my aunt’s every time we visited her. If it can be organized, chances are I have done it.
The more important part is that I found a way to bankroll it. In 2016, after months of unemployment, I decided to become a small time Marie Kondo. I whipped up a Nextdoor listing that included an unassuming picture of myself, a mention of “college educated,” and a snappy quip about loving “real life Tetris.” I set my fee to $13 an hour, close to the California average for housekeeping. No nibbles. I decided to get gutsy—I increased my rate to what felt like a goofy sum, $25 an hour, and added “consultant” to the job listing. Within two days, the requests began piling in.
What I found pretty effectively corroborated the stories seen in Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, Netflix’s eight episode series that follows organizational guru Kondo’s work as a tidying consultant. People were drowning in prisons of their own making, armed with so much clutter they couldn’t manage it on their own, struggling to find places to store it. I helped one client sort out ten years worth of mismatched socks. Another had never gone paperless, and had fifty years of paper files—bank slips, home mortgage documents, thank you cards, old PC manuals—that he insisted on sorting into dozens of tabs in a series of filing cabinets. As I worked, he refused to throw anything away.
Americans have long been taught to buy things, countless things, as a means to satisfaction and happiness. The impulse is as listless as it is absorbing, a bandaid to patch a problem that no material item can adequately satisfy. The process of accumulation eventually makes it hard to find or effectively store the things we already own. In 2012, UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) found that—in a systematic study of 32 middle-class, dual-income families in Los Angeles—only 25 percent of garages could actually store cars because there was too much other stuff in them.
It’s no wonder, then, that Marie Kondo’s “tidying” practices have spawned a tidy empire. The petite Japanese woman’s visibility skyrocketed after publishing the best-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Kondo actually wrote the book as a stopgap to appease the long waitlist for her tidying consultation services). It, along with its follow-up Spark Joy, have sold more than 7 million copies worldwide, and her work has been translated into 38 languages.
The truth is, while we’ve all been taught to buy things, few of us have really been taught how to own things, to manage them, nor the consequences for accumulating an excess of them, what we would kindly call “clutter.” Well, that’s somewhat simplistic; it’s not as much that we have not been taught how to own things as much as women in particular have been burdened with the expectation of managing the things we own. Things are the dominion of women, and the place where these things are stored are the dominion of women too. Women store things, organize things, clean things, order things, schedule things. We not only do these chores, we keep a mental bank of what, how, and when these chores need to be done.
It’s called the “mental load” or “third shift”—the shift following full-time employment and the actual completion of chores themselves. And, yes, the “mental load” is different from the act of doing the chores themselves. Think of it as a project management task in the household. Mononymous French comic artist Emma explained it succinctly in a viral comic for The Guardian, which begins with an overworked mom, preparing dinner for guests and for her children. When the pot boils over and spills onto the floor, her husband gets mad, telling her “you should’ve asked! I would’ve helped!”
It’s interesting to examine this fictional comic man’s assumptions—firstly, that he must be asked in order to participate, and secondly, the corollary that not having been asked absolves him of having to do the task. Having to ask implies a manager to subordinate relationship in the household. “When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores,” Emma writes. “So it’s up to her to know what needs to get done. The problem with that, is that planning and organizing things is already a full-time job...when we ask women to take on the task of organization, and at the same time execute a large portion, in the end it represents 75% of the work.”
So a woman is tasked with both the chore itself, and the project management role of orchestrating said chores, regardless of whether she has another job. In fact, Bright Horizons’—an onsite corporate childcare provider—2017 survey of 2,082 employed adults with at least one child found that 86 percent of working mothers say they handle the majority of family and household responsibilities, “not just making appointments, but also driving to them and mentally calendaring who needs to be where, and when.” As a highly related addendum, half of those women say they are burning out.
Perhaps woman are taking on the lion’s share of household planning, because men are doing more of the chores themselves? Nope. A 2016 study done by the UK’s Office of National Statistics found that women do roughly 60 percent more unpaid labour, or 26 hours of unpaid labour a week to 16 hours of men’s unpaid labour. Tasks include child and adult care, cleaning and laundry, and cooking (the latter of which women did twice as much as men). According to the American Time Use Survey, in 2017 on an average day 49 percent of women did housework compared with 19 percent of men.
This kind of internal schedule keeping is usually completely cognitive, and therefore invisible. And instead offering help, or thanking women for the immense labour of household project management, women are perceived as nags for reminding others to get things done. Fed up women have written first person accounts attempting to live sans mental calendar, many of them titled something to the effect of “my week of refusing to take on the mental load.” For the most part, these narratives, however limited in sample size, end with men cobbling together a schedule that involves takeout, occasionally letting their children down by forgetting to sign field trip permission slips or ballet shoes for ballet class. The household unravels.
When I was “tidying,” the majority of the people I worked for were new moms, most of whom were still on maternity leave. The struggle was almost always the same—attempting to balance household tasks, while breastfeeding, while attempting to physically heal. As if gestating a human life, birthing it, mothering it alone—being alone, really—were not enough, there was also the task of acquiring, organizing, and maintaining every material item of consequence for yourself, your partner, and caring diligently for the tiny mammal your body just created.
Most of my clients enlisted me to tackle the material aspects of household management, which would leave them to give their full attention to their infant. There were always mountains of clothing, nearly all of it ill-fitting; maternity shifts that, after birth, were relegated back to being lifeless mumus; too-tight jeans that triggered decision anxiety over whether to throw them away or to lose weight; baby clothes of various sizes, some that were already too small, some that would be grown into. There were countless hospital appointments, always for the baby and never for the mother. Countless boxes of baby wipes and diapers that would eventually be used. During this process, I never once saw a spouse at home.
Watching Tidying Up With Marie Kondo finally renders these invisible imbalances visible by inviting us into the inner sanctum of the home in disarray. Each episode tells the tale of a single “tidy,” each for a different space and family, and each for a different—but ultimately similar—reason. Clutter has been dominating the space. It is time to get rid of it. And rather than obscure domestic disagreements, Tidying Up broadcasts a couple (with the exception of one episode which focuses on a widow) in the midst of completing a large domestic task, where they are forced to share the work.
When tasked with home organizing, men and women on Tidying Up treat it very differently. Piles of disorganized possessions provoke disproportionate dismay and shame in the women of the house, while men seem irritated but not personally ashamed. The third episode centers on a family that calls themself the “fantastic four” where the mother bears the entirety of the mental load and the majority of the chores themselves.
“We ask her to ‘look for a special shirt,’" husband Douglas Mercier tells Kondo, in the beginning of the episode, "I’ll say, ‘where is it’ and she’ll tell us.”
“You probably get asked all the time,” Kondo points out to Katrina Mercier.
Katrina exhaustedly confirms this, demonstrating her dresser drawer as the only organized one in the house. She looks, understandably, fed up. She is the only one to take on household management, and cannot possibly accomplish it all while also working full-time. Despite this, she also takes responsibility for the way the household mess affects her children: “I’m definitely not setting them up to win.” Her husband is aware he relies on her for household tasks, but does not actually know how to do them. This is also his reasoning for not doing them.
Marie Kondo proceeds to teach the Merciers how to organize their home. The KonMari method holds that tidying should be done in a concentrated period—not over the course of long extended time—and items should be sorted by category not by room. You start with clothing, then move to books, paper, komono (kitchen, bathroom, garage, miscellaneous), and finally sentimental. Items should be laid out in a pile in the space where they are to be sorted, so they can be viewed in their totality. Every episode goes over these rules, in case viewers have forgotten, so each episode can be viewed separate from the others.
Here’s the contentious part: Items should be kept only if they “spark joy.” Holding objects should elicit a “ching!” feeling, that Kondo demonstrates in Tidying Up. The process is actually much less militant in the show than some critics have painted it; Kondo never browbeats anyone into giving up something, and tends to encourage clients to keep or temporarily move past items they can’t decide on. By starting with the easier decisions you “hone” your sensitivity to joy, which allows you to revisit these difficult decisions with a greater sense of your own taste.
As the Merciers navigate KonMari-ing their home, Douglas begins to participate more actively in housework, like sorting and folding the laundry. By the end he admits, “I didn’t realize the pressure of having to do everything until I actually did it. So now I do want to help with that a lot more.” In these moments, the KonMari method began to feel extremely, seductively useful. It was abundantly clear these men were not participating in homemaking tasks or taking responsibility for their children, because they never really had been expected to. In a single “tidy,” men and children were gaining insight into the emotional labor of housekeeping.
Incidentally, Marie Kondo doesn’t appear to be purposefully advocating for greater balance between men and women in household labour. If you check her website for certified KonMariTM consultants, nearly all of them are women. Despite its progressive and diverse casting that has become synonymous with Netflix’s brand— Tidying Up’s clients are a range of ages, ethnic backgrounds, and sexualities—Kondo always arbitrarily assigns women the kitchen and men the garage during the “komono” portion of the tidying. The show doesn’t give us any insight into whether these couples disagree on the division of labour, or if a conversation occurred before or after this decision was made. The one gay couple sorts their kitchen together, and does not clean out a garage.
Ultimately, each member of household is advised to tidy their own personal items—which is a change from women simply managing everyone’s possessions—before dividing up the organization of specific categories. As a result, the show repeatedly demonstrates the power of a communal “tidy” in revealing women’s undervalued emotional labour. But this feels mostly like a happy byproduct. Kondo offers no intentional subtext to the divide of domestic labour, beyond reminding mothers that children can be messy and that absolute perfection is more or less impossible. Not even she has it all.
This also doesn’t necessarily mean men pick up the mental load after the tidying process. Rachel and Kevin Friend—a stay at home mother and a husband working as a sales manager—sought Kondo’s methods to declutter their home as a way to help ease the tension in their relationship and resolve their housekeeping-related fights. Kevin chides Rachel for paying for a housekeeper to do dishes when “it’s something you could just do yourself.” The show smash cuts to children screaming chaotically, while Rachel explains the challenges of feeding and clothing them. Later Kevin gets mad because “there are seven pillows on this bed.”
Even after Kondo’s intervention, Rachel continues to use the language of self-judgment to describe her home: “I don't let myself get lazy, I want to do it because I want to keep this feeling going.” This implies she is still the primary proprietor of the task. And then there’s the episode where white husband, Aaron, chides his wife, Sehmita, for holding onto saris that she never wears—she explains to the camera that these saris represent a connection to her Pakistani culture because the city she lives in lacks a strong Pakistani community. Like everything in her closet, Kondo encourages her to keep them if they spark joy for her.
Through the television set, Marie Kondo seemed much more flexible than I had anticipated. She was willing to adapt to her client’s wishes—like the grieving woman who wished to sort through her deceased husband’s closet (sentimental items) earlier in the process. Kondo’s shirt folding—which has been written about extensively—wasn’t that earth shattering, just useful. She never forces anyone to throw away their books. After seeing it in action, assessing objects by “sparking joy” felt less like a harsh directive, and more like a shorthand that made sorting easier. So much spring cleaning is a process of identifying what you don’t want. It’s much more fun to identify what you do want.
At some point in my brief profession as a tidier, it became clear that my most frequent client was using me for companionship more than for my organizing skills. I had taken the job to be a fly on the wall, and was considering wrapping up the relationship with one client in particular. After working through three sessions, we’d tackled all of the rooms she’d hired me to sort, and I was making final touches to the spreadsheet of itemized deductions. As I meant to launch into our informal breakup, she suddenly decided she was going to quickly grab groceries, leaving the baby with me, “next to you on the blanket.”
“I’m not comfortable with that,” I told her. “I don’t know childcare, I don’t know CPR. I am here to help you organize.” But she was already out the door.
I kept sorting. At some point the baby reached out to my hand, curiously, grasping my index finger with surprising strength. I waited for some sort of biological, maternal instinct to kick in. Instead I felt overwhelmed with disgust, grief, fear. It all suddenly felt inevitable, the fatalistic promise of a third shift. I realized I’d never want to do that work unpaid, perhaps ever. Not unless I had someone who would be splitting it with me equally.
When she texted me the next morning to ask when I could come back, I told her I was no longer available.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.