Marie Kondo’s Netflix series: Some observations, by Stephanie Wescott

It’s the summer holidays. The days are lavishly long and we become more open to exploring things we would normally dismiss during our time-poor stretches of work. This, I suppose, is how I came to spend a few hours on a 41 degree Friday afternoon watching ‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo’ on Netflix. The series is an extension of Kondo’s numerous books that aim to support people to take control of their unwieldy possessions. I haven’t read them, but I’m on the pulse just enough to know that her process recommends followers throw out any material items that fail to ‘spark joy’.

Look, I’m a cynic. The phrase ‘spark joy’ worries me almost as much as the post-capitalist minimalist movement, popularised by two white, charismatic American guys known as ‘The Minimalists’, that encourages people to damn a heap of their shit to landfill in the hope it will bring them happiness.

In the interests of disclosure, my own home is a tribute to the minimalist aesthetic. Not because it’s cool, but because my partner is devoted to a sort of materialism (not to be confused with consumerism, and not the kind that leaves its sufferers spiritually empty). He has a reverence for material things; an appreciation for them that means he doesn’t buy very much. His frugalism is virtuous: shopping at the market for the cheapest prices, strictly buying only what we need, using everything, wasting nothing, buying luxuries only if they are on special. He’ll eat the wilted lettuce and sad tomato at the back of the crisper—the stuff I eschew for fear of weird textures. ‘Food shan’t be wasted!’ It’s an approach that would make his thrifty Nonna proud. For an object to find its way into our home it has to be functional and necessary. But this doesn’t mean deprivation: if something has value, it is worth purchasing—even if it is expensive. I’m the apathetic sidekick with little to no aesthetic talent, and, if it were up to me, my home would probably be floor to ceiling Frida Kahlo dedications. A friend, upon walking to our home for the first time, asked earnestly, ‘Where’s all your stuff?’ ‘This is all I have,’ I said, wondering what was missing.

The thing is, my home is very calming for me. I, like many of Kondo’s devotees, have struggled to manage my own consumerism—particularly around clothing. When I lived with my parents, my bedroom was a constant battle. Now living aligned with my partner’s values, my home is functional, organised, and filled only with necessary and purposeful things that are treated with respect and appreciation. For a person of my anxious constitution, a peaceful and organised home is a sanctuary.

This is a realisation I had after watching Kondo’s show, in which she makes several visits to the homes of selected American families, diverse in demographic and accumulation, and coaches them, gently and non-judgmentally, to find a way to manage their homes, possessions, and subsequently, their relationships with one another and themselves. Kondo’s approach is not a dogmatic ode to modern minimalism. It is not about aesthetic. It is simply about teaching, or perhaps training Americans to see their material possessions as things of value; as precious things that serve them. She gently shows them how to make their homes and their storage spaces easy and functional. Their relief and lightness are tangible.

One thing I found really beautiful was the ritual Kondo performs before she begins her work. She calls it ‘greeting the home’. She kneels on the floor, closes her eyes, and meditates. During this meditation, she explains, she thanks the home, and intuitively surveys its energy. In a few of the episodes, she encourages the participants to complete the ritual with her. Occasionally, this quiet act of devotion brings them to tears. The ritual seems so anti-American; so humble and reverential. Another interesting ritual takes place as she is teaching her participants how to sort through their things. Before throwing items out, she asks them to clasp it in their hands and genuinely thank it for its service. I know, I know. It sounds… too much. But, I think there are some important lessons here.

Most of us know and acknowledge that our culture is deeply steeped in consumerism. Goods are expendable, dispensable, easy to discard, easily replaced. We express very little gratitude for our possessions—when they tear, we throw them away rather than repair them. When our preferences change, we rid our wardrobes of items that no longer suit our personal style. We shop for fashion, rather than comfort and function. What is the value, not economically, but spiritually, of an item of clothing in our lives today? Often, its value exists only in the brief moment that we think it contributes something to our personal aesthetic, rather than its functional value in allowing us to move through the world.

At the end of each episode, Kondo’s participants do not live in unrecognisable homes. Their homes do not look like the apartments of intellectual Scandinavian couples with no children. It is not about aesthetic uniformity, like minimalism tends to be. Throughout the participants ‘journey’ with Marie, they unpack their complicated relationships with their things, interrogating why they have accumulated so much and considering what barriers prevent them from addressing underlying emotional issues connected to this accumulation. For some, their things are a source of comfort; owning them and having them around makes them feel safe and secure. For a young couple with two children, their home’s unmanageability reflects their struggle to figure out a way to cope with the practical demands of their lives.

What I appreciate most about Kondo’s teachings is that she’s not about ridding homes of vast amounts of things. Before watching I was imagining a disaster befalling American landfill sites as the Kondo-fever spread throughout its states. But, Kondo beautifully articulates that possessions don’t just exist abstractly in our lives; stuff is sentimental, steeped in history and connection.  She explains, in reply to a comment on Instagram:

‘I don’t think being tidy is equivalent to possessing less items. What is important is that each and every time in your home has a relationship with yourself. Does each item spark joy for you? Does it make you comfortable? Does it have a home? Are you taking good care of it every day? Even if you own a large number of items, if they satisfy all of the above, you do not need to force yourself to let go of things about become a minimalist’.

Kondo invites us to contemplate, what are the unmet emotional needs we are trying to fill with the stuff we have around us? In avoiding managing our things, what are we avoiding emotionally or psychologically? What are our underlying beliefs about stuff? Are they healthy? Kondo’s participants aren’t rampant capitalists, they are people struggling within the Western world’s model of affluence that equates accumulation with value.

What Kondo’s work helps us to understand is that we do not need to be ashamed about owning things; we just need to change our relationship with the things we have. We need to centre ourselves in gratitude, appreciation and reverence. Materialism is a good thing. It means we buy less because we are more satisfied with what we have. It means we are less likely to replace something or throw it out. Rather, we can repair or be more resourceful in finding solutions. The KonMari method is a mindful, gentle and non-judgemental approach to examining our complicated relationship with stuff. And she just might save us.