“I was obsessed with what I could throw away,” Kondo once said, about her development of what became known as the KonMari method. “One day, I had a kind of nervous breakdown and fainted. I was unconscious for two hours. When I came to, I heard a mysterious voice, like some god of tidying telling me to look at my things more closely. And I realised my mistake: I was only looking for things to throw out. What I should be doing is finding the things I want to keep. Identifying the things that make you happy: that is the work of tidying.” One day, my mother had a kind of nervous breakdown, too; while I do not believe she heard from God, it’s certainly the case that ever since, a kind of Joan-Crawfordian zeal for neatness has enabled her to feel more ordered in her mind. What is ironic is the fact that although I remain as anxious and as totally neurotic as my mother, I can’t help but gather tchotchkes at a near-psychotic pace. The house I live in with my partner, currently a building site mid-renovation, is made even more chaotic by our books and records; our mid-century lava-ware, and our frankly unwearable mid-century clothes; our many, many struggling plants. My visitations with my parents, usually for a week or so, inevitably lay waste to the maintained linearity of my mother’s life, the whirling dervish of my presence incompatible with order. Maybe it has something to with my childlessness, my general disinterest in children. Maybe it has something to do with my generation, or my age: a latent feeling that to be a mess is somehow feminist, a nod towards sexual progress.
There is certainly a gendered aspect to the way it is so often women who self-soothe by keeping everything in place. It does not seem like a coincidence to me that it’s Joan Crawford, a star whose self-presentation was aggressively designed to appear feminine and to appeal to men, who is remembered as the mother of all obsessive-compulsive cleaners. (Howard Hughes, who could not eat a can of peaches without first scrubbing the label clean off, rarely ends up cited when we talk about an overzealous housekeeper. He remains a film magnate and an aviator first, rather than having to be the proverbial Daddy Dearest.) “Researchers showed hundreds of participants random photos of a cluttered living space,” a Harvard blog reported earlier this year, referring to a recent scientific study. “Both men and women found a messy room just as messy and a tidy room just as tidy. On average, men tidy up for 10 minutes every day, but cleaning consumes a third of women’s 1 hour 20 minutes of household chores daily. Why, then, do women clean more? Respondents participating in the study were randomly told whether the messy photo depicted either ‘John’s’ or ‘Jennifer’s’ room. Participants – regardless of gender – held ‘Jennifer’s’ room, even the ‘tidy’ version, to a much higher standard and were more likely to judge ‘Jennifer’ negatively.” As writer Nicole Clark observed this January on the subject of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, “women in particular have been burdened with the expectation of managing the things we own. Things are the dominion of women, and the place where these things are stored are the dominion of women too. Women store things, organise things, clean things, order things, schedule things.”
And yes, it’s true – the work done in the home, at least as far as cleaning is concerned, is generally mine. The house is maximalist, full of things, but in its own way it is being designed towards an entirely different kind of perfect picture. As I write this, Kondo has just introduced a new ecommerce site to her portfolio of projects: “Marie Kondo has already sold the world on the joy of jettisoning the material possessions we don’t love,” the Wall Street Journal sniffed. “Now the best-selling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and star of Netflix’s Tidying Up With Marie Kondo wants us to buy stuff. Hers.” Items in the store include a $35 computer brush “offer[ing] two soft-bristle options – anti-static goat hair or lightweight vegetable-based fibres”, a $75 “tuning fork and rose quartz crystal” and an elegant brass cheese knife that costs $180. Everything is chic, exquisite, utterly in Kondo’s taste, and reassuringly expensive. It is funny that the other thing I most associate with Kondo is a gif I still see circulating online, showing her clapping her hands and crying “I’m excited, because I love mess!” In the context of the show, I have to guess that what she meant was that she loves mess because she loves dealing with it, making something beautiful and streamlined out of someone else’s chaos. Every girl-millennial my age, though, seemed to mean it literally when she appropriated it.