Tidying Up With Marie Kondo Isn’t Really a Makeover Show

The organizational guru’s new Netflix series isn’t about judgment, decor, or the spectacle of mess. It’s about cultivating empathy for the things that surround us.

As published in The Atlantic on January 4, 2019

DENISE CREW / NETFLIX

DENISE CREW / NETFLIX

About halfway through “The Downsizers,” the third episode of the new Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, the 11-year-old Kayci Mersier and her 12-year-old brother, Nolan, are sorting through gigantic piles of clothing, piece by piece. They bid a grateful farewell to the things they no longer wear, and let others—the ones that “spark joy”—know they will be happily worn in the future. “You’ve done so much good for me; I thank you for that,” Nolan tells a jacket, giving it a little hug before setting it down. “You know ya girl isn’t going to get rid of you,” Kayci assures a colorful T-shirt. When Nolan encounters a neglected striped hoodie he’d forgotten about, he exclaims, “How have I not worn you before? You give me so much joy!”

The full episode reveals the Mersier siblings to be lovely and conscientious kids, but their enthusiasm and thoughtfulness in this moment have a guiding force: the world-renowned guru of home organization, Marie Kondo. Standing with the whole Mersier family in the kids’ bedroom, Kondo affirms the sentiment that’s at the heart of this ritual and of her “KonMari” method: “Gratitude is very important.” It’s not a concept that tends to loom large in American home- and personal-makeover shows, but its towering presence in this binge-worthy streaming series marks a welcome change of pace.

Kondo achieved worldwide fame in 2014 when her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, was translated into English and published in the United States, where it became a New York Times best seller and sold more than 1.5 million copies. With the 2016 publication of her follow-up, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, Kondo’s books have now sold more than 11 million copies in 40 countries. Which is to say, her “life-changing magic” is well known. Many of the families who welcome Kondo into their home on Tidying Up announce when they meet her that they can’t wait for her to work wonders on their clutter. When this happens, she is quick to let them know—in the nicest possible way—that they themselves will be working the magic.

If not exactly supernatural, Kondo’s effect on people is transformative, and that’s because her attitude is rooted in empathy rather than in judgment or in a prescriptive approach to outward appearances. Chatting with her interpreter, Marie Iida, on the walk from the car to the front door of her clients’ home at the beginning of each episode, Kondo finds something genuinely nice to say about every house before entering. She cuts a singular figure: Sporting a neat haircut with bangs and wearing pink lipstick, she dresses in a uniform of white tops, colorful skirts, black tights, and black ballet flats, which don’t seem to hinder her efforts even when she leaps onto a kitchen counter to tackle a tall cabinet.

A still from an episode of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo (Netflix)

A still from an episode of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo (Netflix)

Kondo notices what each family cares about right away. Within minutes of arriving at the Mersiers’ home, she inquires about their love of music, pointing out all the instruments in the apartment. She then formally introduces herself to each house, and in some episodes gathers the whole family with her to silently thank the house for sheltering them, and for its cooperation as they begin their KonMari endeavor. During this ritual, Kondo’s clients are silent and hold hands, some almost tearful, visibly moved by the experience.

When visiting a grieving widow in Episode 4, Kondo makes a beeline for an antique carousel horse, noting that the house seems to be full of fun. In doing so, she deftly acknowledges the thing that’s so hard for her client Margie to say: Her late husband was good-humored and whimsical, and the process of sorting through and giving away his possessions—for instance, the collection of Hawaiian shirts that anticipated a retirement full of adventure and travel—terrifies her like the prospect of a second death. Seeing Kondo’s joy at hopping on the horse (which she’s only permitted to do because she’s 4 foot 8), Margie visibly relaxes. Barely saying a word, Kondo communicates to her client that it’s okay to keep enjoying things while making way for a new future.

In the introduction to each episode, Kondo states her mission: to “spark joy in the world through cleaning.” Her method is deceptively simple. She has clients begin with clothing, move on to books, then paper documents, then komono, which means “miscellaneous” in Japanese and encompasses the kitchen, bathroom, garage, and other objects. Then they finish up with the final category, which is sentimental items. There’s something about the way in which Kondo explains the goals of her exercises that gets her clients to open up. This is the key difference between Tidying Up and most other reality shows: There’s no sense of competition, and the ostensible makeover at the heart of every episode simply involves regular people becoming happier and more at ease in their own home. Kondo doesn’t scold, shame, or criticize. Things spark joy or they don’t, and it’s fine either way.

The families whom Kondo visits—all of whom live in the Los Angeles area—range from newlyweds and the parents of toddlers to empty nesters and retirees. They hail from an array of ethnic backgrounds; some are well heeled and others live modestly, but none are full-on hoarders, nor are any of them extremely rich or desperately poor. Kondo isn’t dealing with people who appear to need serious psychiatric help or whose homes are legitimately unsafe or unsanitary—a key difference between this show and the popular A&E series Hoarders, which aired from 2009 to 2013. Tidying Up also doesn’t address the topic of generational trauma and the way it can shape people’s relationships with their possessions, which Arielle Bernstein wrote about for The Atlantic in 2016. Kondo’s clients are merely (sometimes profoundly) stuck: Short on time or long in denial, they’re either frazzled parents trapped in a Sisyphean rut with laundry or older folks overwhelmed by decades’ worth of clutter.

The genius of Kondo’s approach is that she cares not at all about renovation or decor. Her clients’ homes might be stylish or drab, spacious or cramped, but she treats them all the same: Every newly tidied room gets the same gasp of delight that signals Kondo’s pride in the family’s accomplishments. The host never suggests adding an accent wall or some trendy shiplap to spruce things up. Instead, she shares her clients’ joy at finding space and reconnecting with meaningful heirlooms. In Episode 2, in which Kondo helps Wendy and Ron Akiyama sift through mountains of vintage baseball cards, Christmas decorations, and clothes, the couple unearth Ron’s father’s diary, which includes an entry from the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor and chronicles the family’s experience at an internment camp during World War II. In the garage, the couple finds a huge collection of beautiful antique kokeshi dolls, which are turned on a lathe and brightly painted, and which Wendy didn’t even realize they owned. Now in the cleared-out garage, the dolls have a place of honor, and a tangible piece of the Akiyama family’s history can be enjoyed.

Though she never comes out and says it, Kondo clearly believes that most people have way too much stuff. In this way, her ethos resembles that of the legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams, who is the subject of a new documentary by the Helvetica director Gary Hustwit. Rams doesn’t mince words about the threat consumerism poses to our planet: “The world 10 years from now will be a completely different place,” he says in the film’s trailer. “There is no future with so many redundant things.” The jam-packed closets, garages, and cabinets of Kondo’s clients perfectly illustrate Rams’s point: Americans’ collective denial about cheap goods, impulse purchases, and thoughtless accumulation is literally choking our homes and our world. That’s why Kondo begins by instructing her clients to put all of their clothes on the bed. When confronted with the enormity of the pile, they’re shocked, and then they become motivated to make careful decisions about what they really want to keep and what they can part with.

Feeding that internal motivation, rather than offering direct instruction, seems to work. In Episode 8, “When Two (Messes) Become One,” Kondo is working with a newlywed couple who just bought a condo, and one spouse, Alishia, finds herself at an impasse with a dress her late grandmother bought for her years ago. While sorting her clothing, Alishia notes that the dress no longer fits, but she’s torn because it connects her to a happy memory. Somehow, she feels that she should part with it. Kondo then throws Alishia a curveball: “The point of this process,” Kondo says through her interpreter, “isn’t to force yourself to eliminate things; it’s really to confirm how you feel about each and every item that you possess.” In other words, You do you. With the pressure eased, Alishia feels ready to say goodbye to the dress, which someone else will now be able to enjoy, knowing that she has room for other keepsakes to remind her of her grandmother—and a well-organized closet of clothes that fit.

The other essential point that pervades Tidying Up but mostly goes unarticulated is that home organization is historically women’s work. In many of the families featured on the series, the moms are the ones shown leading the charge to clean. Still, Kondo’s approach short-circuits this dynamic somewhat not by pointing out the gender disparity (the word feminism is never uttered), but rather by insisting that every member of the family take responsibility for their own stuff. Nolan Mersier, the preternaturally wise tween from Episode 3, sums it up this way: “I want to learn where I should put things, but at the same time, I kind of like my mom having to know where everything is, because I don’t have to think about it as much.” It’s as good a summary of “worry work” as any.

Kondo’s strategy isn’t explicitly tied to correcting gender imbalances, but this can be a beneficial outcome of a process that prompts clients to find empathy in unexpected places. The host worked as a shrine maiden in Japan during college, and there are elements of the KonMari technique that borrow from Shinto beliefs, specifically the notion that inanimate objects are bearers of kami, or divine essence—in the same way that plants, animals, and people are. That’s why Kondo taps piles of old books to “wake them up,” folds clothes so that they can rest more comfortably, and asks her clients to thank pieces of clothing for their service before setting them aside. Paradoxically, the exercise of cultivating empathy for the things that surround us, rather than encouraging materialism, seems to lead Kondo’s clients to also have empathy for one another, and for themselves.