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Deep Stuff: A Sociologist Sorts Through the Marie Kondo Phenomenon

What can a show about cleaning your house tell us about the state of society? A lot.

  • March 15, 2019
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  • Feature
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  • By Michelle Janning

This winter, millions of viewers in nearly 200 countries watched the Netflix series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Kondo, a Japanese organizing expert, guides people in home makeover projects that require families to declutter and remove objects that do not, in her words, “spark joy.” As Kondo’s website states, the method is not just about doing the work of tidying up—it is about mindfulness and introspection. In other words, tidying up is not just a home project; it is a project of the self.

Kondo is on to something: the objects in our home each tell a personal story, one with a unique set of characters, plot twists, and emotional undertones. They might be saved love letters or childhood baseball gloves. They might be threadbare linens from a grandparent who immigrated with only one suitcase. They might be antique silverware that has been saved for a son or daughter, but involve a fear that the child may not want them. These objects feed into our sense of self, which can in turn tell us important things about society as a whole.

As a sociologist, I gather these stories and notice larger patterns, collecting and curating what are called home object stories in order to tell the story of our larger society. People are more united than they might think in their seemingly lonely quests for figuring out what to do with home possessions, and “Tidying Up” provides a surprisingly detailed window into our shared concerns about clutter.

So what do the possessions of ten American families say about contemporary families and society?

First, we are witnessing a large shift in what is considered a healthy lifestyle, particularly when it comes to consumption and self-control. In the middle of the 20th century, material goods were seen as a crucial part of fulfilling the American Dream for those families who could afford it, from TV trays to new cars parked in the driveways of new suburbs. But later decades brought recessions, recognition of environmental degradation, and a fear that we were all buying too much stuff and ending up miserable anyway. Now, to deal with all our stuff, we are encouraged to boost our self-control (or perhaps the illusion of it). If, by changing how we manage our personal struggles, we can become healthier, it’s no accident that the improvement of self includes managing our home objects. The recurring theme is that our individual happiness is intimately tied to our acquisition and management of possessions. In the past century, we’ve swung from “buying brings happiness” to “curating and purging certain bought items brings happiness.”

Throughout “Tidying Up,” viewers are guided through households with voiceovers and confessional moments that highlight the very thin line between what happens to objects and what happens to people. People thank their T-shirts before tossing them in the donation pile; they thank their family members for their willingness to work on their own stuff. People confess that they want to change their stuff because they want to change themselves. Not unusual were references to “taking control of one’s things” as an integral part of the project of “taking control of one’s life.” If a pair of shoes “sparks joy,” keep them and maybe joy will be sparked in your intimate family relationships, too.

In the past century, we’ve swung from “buying brings happiness” to “curating and purging certain bought items brings happiness.”

Second, the social group you identify with impacts the likelihood you’ll participate in the decluttering movement. Our home spaces and stuff, and televised renditions of decluttering practices, are not just about dividing those whose personalities lead them to minimalism and those whose personalities lead them to hoarding. Projects surrounding home stuff are also about group differences and inequalities. For example, there are real and troubling racial and socioeconomic inequalities between those who can afford to own a home in a desirable neighborhood (and maybe a storage unit to house extra stuff) and those who cannot. Within homes, we still see a division of household labor such that women disproportionately bear the burden of household tidiness and management of the entire tidying project. We know that what objects matter in a family depend on that family’s geographic location, racial-ethnic identity, immigrant status, and social class.

In the show, Kondo assists a family that moves to Los Angeles and downsizes into a small apartment. The mother in the family experiences the emotional toll of being held responsible for the organization and tidying of all family members’ objects. By the end of the episode, not only have family members taken a larger role in their own tidying, but the narrative explicitly notes the likelihood of this burden falling too much on women, who perform a “second shift” of unpaid domestic labor even if they still work outside the home. In my research on love letters and photo albums, I found that women were more likely than men to feel responsible for organizing, storing, and saving kinship mementos. And they were more likely than men to curate these items in decorated boxes and in places where they would be kept safe. In other words, the project of “tidying up” is still a gendered project, whether it’s about laundry or love letters.

Finally, family life is changing in the U.S., both in terms of what families look like and in terms of what families do. The definition of “family” is increasingly diverse: gay marriage is legal, couples are having children later, aging populations are staying healthier longer, and the proportion of American families headed by a married couple has declined to less than 50%. In other words, it is safe to say there is no longer a “typical” American family. As all of these shifts happen, the role of home objects necessarily shifts, too.

While the show was criticized for showing relatively affluent families from a similar geographic area, and for espousing ideals of minimalism that are more likely to be held by those who can afford to get rid of stuff, “Tidying Up” does portray a more diverse set of family forms than televised families from even a decade ago did. One cohabiting couple, for example, seeks the help of Kondo to tidy up in order to show one partner’s parents that they have more concretely moved into an “adult” stage. The pair aligns the “adultification” of their home décor and organization with their goal of displaying their relationship as more permanent and committed. This matters in particular for this couple because, as gay men, they feel the need to demonstrate relationship seriousness in the absence of marriage, and in a social context where the legitimacy of gay relationships may still be questioned. Having a tidy linen closet, then, not only contains a blending of the partners’ mismatched towel collection as a symbol of their commitment to each other, it also signifies to parents that they are no longer children.

If you’ve ever felt like you’re the only person who’s had a hard time figuring out what to do with your stuff, and that if you were only able to get rid of more things you’d feel so much happier, you are not alone. We have come to culturally define home curation as an individual project. But the project does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs amidst a set of cultural shifts that include: changing family diversity (who counts as “family” when we decide who gets Grandma’s table?), geographic mobility (how do we transport Grandma’s table across five states?), family roles (who is in charge of the labor of figuring out what to do with the table?), changing ideals about the role of consumption in our lives (Grandma’s table does not fit with my minimalist aesthetic), and even a reinforcement of the value that we are supposed to tackle this stuff on our own (I need to figure out what to do with Grandma’s table on my own).

Our individual stories matter, but we are richer for understanding how these personal stories are part of a larger story. So, the next time you winnow a shoe collection or sift through a deceased relative’s power tools, remember that shoes and tools bear the stories of their individual possessors, but they also bear the stories of the social world in which they were bought, worn, used, stored, lost, held dear, and thrown away. It is that social world, in fact, that shapes how we come to view shoes and tools as desirable, cherishable, or disposable in the first place.

Michelle Janning is a professor of sociology at Whitman College and author of The Stuff of Family Life: How Our Homes Reflect Our Lives. She is currently presenting her free Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau talk, “What Your Home Says About the World,” around the state. Find an event here.