Brow Beat

Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up Makes Self-Help Look Hard

Marie Kondo, tidying up.
Marie Kondo, tidying up. Denise Crew/Netflix

The first step of tidying up, Marie Kondo–style, could easily be mistaken for an act of emotional terrorism. Take every single item of clothing you own, the minimalism guru advises, and form an inevitably enormous pile. Over and over again on Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, 2019’s first pop culture sensation, Kondo’s aspiring disciples are awed and shamed by the fabric leviathan suddenly plunked on their beds. The point of this initial step is for participants of the KonMari method, as Kondo calls her five-step cleaning philosophy, to confront how much stuff they’ve accumulated—and that’s just in their bedroom. A couple of the reality show participants fret, not without reason, that their clothing mounds will reach the ceiling. I was sorting through 3-year-old mail as I watched Tidying Up on New Year’s Day. But even as I had evidence of my own terrible housekeeping habits in hand—and witnessed Kondo’s supposed “life-changing magic” for several hypnotized hours—I knew I’d never attempt the KonMari method. Like so many things that seem enchanted, it demands unrelenting toil.

As an extension of Kondo’s empire, Tidying Up exists to vindicate the KonMari method. But to its credit, the series never conceals the physical and emotional work that the deceptively sweet, elfin Kondo asks of her followers. Tidying Up’s candor made me wish for more makeover shows just like it: self-help ideas put to the test, with so-called experts forced to adapt their advice to real-life situations and non-ideal scenarios. Counseling a recent widow who hasn’t yet discarded her deceased husband’s Hawaiian shirts, even Kondo switches up her clothes-first policy to ensure that the grieving participant won’t get stuck at the opening hurdle. If the ascetic Whole30 diet is actually doable, I’d like to see its proselytizers guide someone through doughnut days at the office and past Girl Scout Cookie salespeople at the front door, especially if she’s dealing with tight budgets and grumpy, carb-starved children. Suze Orman doles out plenty of financial advice, but can her intervention actually get someone out of credit card debt over several months? And where might we be if the world had gotten to see even a relatively unvarnished edit of Donald Trump’s negotiating skills in action during the Apprentice years? The main knock against self-help is fully deserved: Self-appointed authorities proclaim one-size-fits-all edicts in a vacuum and blame readers for insufficient commitment if the promises they make don’t come true. These gurus should champ at the bit to show us they actually do know what they’re talking about.

It’s not that I want the self-help section to go away entirely, laid waste by exposure and hard-bitten reality. The world would of course be improved by a decrease in hucksters, but it seems to me that the ideal approach to self-help, at least from an entertainment perspective, is to be told how to fix my life, then just as quickly given a reason to never actually do it. Tidying Up is thus a small but comforting twist on the makeover reality genre, because, like Netflix’s incompetence-porn baking competition Nailed It!, it gives you a hall pass out of putting in any effort. Compare Tidying Up with a more typical makeover show like Queer Eye (also on Netflix), where the bulk of the labor —shopping, home redecorating, decision-making—is done by the hosts and their unseen team. Kondo can’t tell if any of the items in a participant’s home “sparks joy”—her ridiculously high standard for whether, say, a screwdriver should stay or go—so the work of organization can’t be farmed out to a squad of invisible crew members. We watch, in one episode, a Guatemalan American sneakerhead realize that his massive shoe collection, which at one point got him into $10,000 worth of debt, is an overcompensation for a materially deprived childhood. (My purse collection and I can relate.) His tear-stained reflections on his simultaneous pride and guilt at having achieved his version of the American dream are moving and unique, making for one of the most memorable installments of the season. But it’s also exactly the kind of therapeutic work I strive to avoid in my day-to-day existence. My reluctance to dwell on my own neuroses, even if they result in credit card offers from 2015 hanging around my apartment, makes me happy to keep the KonMari method at arm’s length.

Another piece of junk I’m loath to get rid of: the fiction of a magic key for self-improvement. Sure, the self-help industry is filled with nightmare people like pickup artists and Rhonda Byrne of The Secret. But it’s also nicer to believe, as I think Kondo wants me to, that there is a way to will yourself out of domestic entropy and endless, destructive consumption. I’m not convinced that all the participants of Tidying Up will stay tidy; just because you know why you hoard doesn’t mean you will stop doing so in the long run. Diagnosing a problem isn’t the same as solving it. And yet, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo is irresistible for selling me so effectively—through a variety of families and life phases and reality show edits—on the delusion that all I need to do to stop feeling bad about myself is throw out a bunch of my stuff. I want to believe.