Marie Kondo’s new show doesn’t have to do more than ‘spark joy’

by Joyce Lee | 1/18/19 2:35am

When I returned home for the winter holidays this past November, my parents announced on the drive back from the airport that we were moving out of the home we had lived in for the last 14 years. I reacted as anyone might after an abrupt announcement that they were losing their childhood home: nervous laughter, and then an incredulous “What?”

As you might imagine, it’s not easy to get rid of 14 years of clutter and baggage — especially in the case of my parents, who had mounting collections of items that were presently useless but full of potential future use. I found myself repeating to them over and over again, “But do you like it? Does it make you happy?” 

In essence, I was asking them if their items sparked joy.

Toward the end of December — and the end of my exhausting break of sorting and packing and unpacking — Netflix released “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” featuring the Japanese cleaning guru who released two bestsellers about “the life changing magic of tidying up.” She’s also the originator of the term “spark joy,” a question she asks about each and every item that clutters our living spaces. Does it spark joy? Does it give you a feeling of immense happiness? If it doesn’t, it’s not worth keeping.

There has been think piece after think piece about Kondo and her desire to get rid of the things in peoples’ lives that don’t “spark joy.” Some have called her a pseudo-philosopher, someone just telling people to clean up but to also make it profound. Others have hailed her as a source of their peace, someone who has taken the tedious, joyless act of cleaning and made it something else to add to their self-care kit. There might not be much more for me to add, except I ended up having to move over the winterim, and I used the term “spark joy” unironically with my parents to tell them how to clean up their own lives, as if I was my family’s own Marie Kondo. 

Kondo’s TV venture feels only natural considering the success of other shows in the self-help genre such as “Queer Eye.” In a way, Kondo and the guys from “Queer Eye” share a distinct quality in emphasizing self-improvement, but on your own terms. You can keep or lose as many items as you’d like, as long as you end the day surrounded by things that give you complete happiness. 

It’s why “spark joy” has joined the millennial zeitgeist, alongside terms like self-care, wellness or mindfulness. The exploitation of these terms for an industry that has grown to be worth almost $4 trillion have made many people — myself included — skeptical about the authenticity of these terms. But without them, how can we also talk about the anxiety of constant consumption, of feeling overwhelmed by a generational expectation to achieve optimized happiness? 

In her show, Kondo visits a diverse group of families in the Los Angeles area, each with their own particular set of troubles that manifests in a messy household. The first family is young, with two toddlers and parents who are having trouble communicating about cleaning. The second family is empty-nesters who have decades worth of items in storage. The third family has had to downsize, having moved to L.A. from Michigan, and so forth. All of them are diverse in ethnicity, class, age and circumstance; all of them have reasons for why their lives and living spaces have become so cluttered. In concept, the show can get repetitive and a little dull; Kondo flits into each family’s lives dressed in an immaculate white blouse, her face perpetually smiling. She delights in messes and earnestly encourages the families with the help of her translator. Her persistent positivity would ring hollow if she didn’t also feel so genuine. 

I found myself watching the show, not because I was incredibly invested in it or because I was desperate to see how the homes would eventually turn out (not terribly different, because all they had done, really, was clean), but because there is a kind of serenity in seeing normal, ordinary people who don’t have particularly dramatic problems or stories attempt to be more mindful about their living spaces. It feels like all of those ASMR-oriented videos on YouTube, where some people cook or clean with the camera on, and people tune in because they just want to feel less alone, to put themselves at ease. 

Maybe that says something about our own voyeuristic tendencies, but it feels less harmful and fetishizing than reality TV shows like “Hoarders,” which takes people’s mental illnesses and puts them on display for viewers to speculate and judge. Kondo never tells anyone that they are wrong for having a messy house; there is a crucial element of empathy running beneath all of her interactions with the families. 

In the end, it’s hard to evaluate the TV show as pure entertainment, partially because it is so tied to Kondo’s branding and “spark joy” philosophy. Some might criticize the show for not bringing more complex issues to the forefront, such as how some people develop attachment to objects out of their instinct for survival and how complaining about the excess in our collection of items is a sign of remarkable privilege. Indeed, this is the criticism that’s followed Kondo through most of her stint in America. 

But using these examples of generational trauma and socioeconomic privilege might be giving Kondo more weight than she ever intended to give herself. Her method of cleaning can feel like it’s overemphasizing its own profundity, but in the end, it’s recommended for people who are sometimes a little overwhelmed by how much stuff they have — for people like me, people like my parents.