Oh, the messes we make: tidying up and sparking Joy with Marie Kondo in a time of crisis

I’m going to begin with a confession, I love Marie Kondo. As someone who cannot, will not, get over the beauty of the colour spectrum in pastel and who has been known to choose an ice-cream flavor that best matches her light purple cardigan (mint chocolate chip), Kondo is a style icon. She’s quietly, unapologetically funny too; it was an uproarious moment when, in her smash Netflix series Tidying up with Marie Kondo, she remarked to Marie Iida, her interpreter, as they shared an umbrella: ‘It looks like we’re best friends.’ I agree with Sarah Archer in The Atlantic: Marie Kondo is a quiet delight, a soothing television presence in what, presently, are some very stormy seas. But I love her more because she is not just an antidote to these times of crisis – she speaks to them, too. If you listen in this way, read her along this grain, you’ll find Kondo has a lot to say, particularly in regard to the unpaid work women do in the home, and the climate crisis.

In every episode of Tidying up with Marie Kondo, a woman cries. A white woman weeps because she is overwhelmed by the prospect of hanging on small baby hangers the hundreds of small baby clothes she has bought for her two small babies. ‘I don’t know why I’m getting emotional,’ she says to her husband, whose teeth remain gritted throughout the exchange, his eyes fixed firmly ahead. ‘I think he knows I don’t want things to be so stressful, but I don’t know how to fix it,’ she says, tears rolling down her face. In another episode, an African-American woman weeps because her family’s very cluttered house means she is failing as a mother. ‘Mum is supposed to make memories, Mum is supposed to make home, home. I feel like I’m failing in that area. That’s not okay with me.’

It would be easy if the male partners of these women were just dicks, and the husband in the first example is, at best, a borderline dick. Angry at his house groaning under piles of stuff he yells at his wife and kids: ‘There are seven pillows on this bed! And they aren’t even decorative pillows!’ But, decorative pillows aside, many of the men in the series are loving, fun, affable, affectionate partners. They offer empathic responses when their partners weep, massaging their shoulders and saying things like ‘we know you’re doing your best, Mom!’ But what they don’t do is cry along. They are not moved to tears, because keeping their houses tidy is not laced into what they are expected to be, as husbands, as fathers, as men. As the women in the series show, housework is still looped into what it means to be a successful, feminine woman, a wife, a girlfriend, a mother. As one participant reflects, ‘It’s my responsibility to do the laundry, to go to the grocery store, to wash the dishes, cook, I’ve gotta clean the kids’ room.’ This means that when our houses are messy, we feel messy, when our houses are out of control, we feel out of control to the point of crying on international television.

Since [at least?] the 1970s, feminists have interrogated housework, for the way it seemed to crack open and explain the place of women in society and the economy. Thinking through housework, feminists in the Wages for Housework collective first extended its meaning to incorporate more ephemeral but no less important labour like soothing children and partners, which, along with washing, tidying, cleaning are also considered an inherent expression of femininity.  They also suggested, profoundly, that the twinning of housework with the generosity and love thought to be inherent to women resulted in it being done for free. ‘They say it is love, we say it is unwaged work,’ wrote Silvia Federici in 1975.

While Wages for Housework collectives were active across the global north, agitation against women’s labour done for free in the home is a global phenomenon and must be treated as such. The posters below, one from the NGO Banchte Shekha of Jessore, Bangladesh, the other from See Red Women’s Workshop in London, are strikingly similar. They are darkly funny in the same way. Perhaps ‘my wife doesn’t work’ is a good example of an international feminist joke.

Banchte Shekha, Bangladesh
Banchte Shekha, Bangladesh
See Red Women’s Workshop, UK
See Red Women’s Workshop, UK

In this recent, contemporary upswing of feminist activism, the unpaid labour women do in the home is again on the agenda and subject to significant discussion and agitation. French comic artist Emma recently wrote an award winning graphic novel called The Mental Load. The title refers to the internal list of things that must be done to keep a household running. For example: buy baked beans, make child’s costume for school play, spice up the sex life. The responsibility for this lies overwhelmingly with women. Another provocation has been a viral article by Gemma Hartley for Harper’s Bazaar called ‘Women Aren’t Nags- we’re just fed up,’ where she describes the emotional impact of holding the mental load in her head. In both cases, as in Tidying Up … women have partners who say ‘you should have asked’ as pots boil over on stoves, as children scream from mouths sticky with food, as wet bathmats are stepped over for days. ‘I don’t want to micromanage housework. I want a partner with equal initiative,’ writes Hartley.

Her solution, like that of many rich women, is to outsource this problem, hiring cleaners to do what her partner won’t. In her new history of wages for housework, Louise Toupin suggests that this exploitation of women by other women is ‘something new.’ Certainly, this has accelerated as a result of globalisation, with thousands upon thousands of women moving across the world to take domestic service jobs in the Global North. But – as Black and Aboriginal scholars, activists and feminists convincingly attest – it is not new. The exploitation of poorer women of colour by richer, white women in domestic service roles has a long history, linked to slavery in the US context, as Patricia Hill Collins notes. In Australia, Aileen Moreton-Robinson has shown in her now classic Talkin’ up to the white woman: Indigenous women and feminism that a key part of Australian colonisation was the exploitation of Aboriginal women as domestic servants by white women. Aboriginal women and girls were indentured, abducted from their communities as children, before being placed in girls’ homes, where, as Corrinne Sullivan writes, inmates were subject to routine abuse and taught domestic service skills in lieu of education. As the 2006 Senate report ‘Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages’ attests, young Aboriginal women were then indentured in white families as domestic servants, and their artificially low wages were often withheld in full knowledge of government. Many Aboriginal domestic service workers, along with those engaged in other forms of employment – including pastoral work – have still not seen any wages due. As those who testified to the enquiry into stolen wages make clear, this, too, was slavery.

Gemma Hartley could do with heeding this very recent history when she suggests that the hiring of cleaning services has become a part of the extensive ‘emotional labour’ women do. For her birthday, Hartley wanted to be relieved of this burden. She wanted her husband to hire cleaning staff because this process, she says, is ‘exhausting.’ It is very difficult to argue with someone’s emotional state, but really, isn’t cleaning someone else’s toilet bowl on your hands and knees way more ‘exhausting’ than booking someone else to do it? Marie Kondo agrees, though she is way too classy to put it like that. Rather, she writes in Spark Joy, each family member should take responsibility for their own stuff. This will become easy through the KonMari method of only keeping things that ‘spark joy’ and discarding the rest. As a result, each family member has fewer things and each thing has its own special place, so tidying up becomes everyone’s domain.

But before we place Marie Kondo on the happily crowded shrine of anti-capitalist feminists, let us dwell and unpack (unfold) the KonMari method a little. Let’s apply a critical side-eye, considering it in relation to another crisis: the climate. Konmari minimalism is so popular, I want to suggest, because it offers an appealing response to the climate crisis. It allows us to wash our hands of the problem and declare: ‘I have hardly any stuff, I’ve given it all away, so I’m not responsible.’ But the KonMari method begins with a mass cull. Those taking up the challenge must consider every single belonging they own, holding it in their hands and asking whether it ‘sparks joy.’ If it does not, discard it, after thanking it for its service, a practice that Margaret Dilloway suggests may be linked to Shinto. Accordingly, in the television series as in real life, where Kondo fever has taken hold, people are donating their goods to charity shops like never before. Staff say it’s obvious that the spike in donations are due to Marie Kondo, because they are receiving clothes that have been neatly Kondo-folded. Shops and donation centres report being so overwhelmed by mountains of clothes, towers of toys and millions of copies of Elena Ferrante novels (all donated by me) that they have had to restrict or cut off donations. This means that more of our old stuff than ever before is being shipped to the global south to be sold, or simply dumped in landfills. ‘Landfill’ itself is a telling euphemism: our clutter, our rubbish, does not just fill, it spills into oceans, leaks toxins into soils and changes life forms.

Ultimately, as climate activists remind us, the melting and heating Earth has little to do with whether you have six striped t-shirts or two and what you individually do in your own clutter-free home. Instead, we must fearlessly apply Konmari principles to the world around us, not outsourcing this mess, this planetary crisis, but dealing with it. This means looking hard at who makes the mess, and who is forced to clean it up, now and historically. And it means working to change the way that both stuff and joy are unevenly distributed all across our beautiful, sold world.


With thanks to Alice Robson.

Rosa Campbell

Rosa Campbell is a writer and historian. She is currently completing her PhD on Australian women's liberation at the University of Cambridge. She also writes fiction, get in touch @rrrosavalerie

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