Sparks joy. Does that spark joy? Honey, maybe we can spark joy later tonight? It can be used straight or with a touch of sarcasm. What is sparks joy? It is the most memorable catchphrase from the tidying up expert from Japan and Netflix phenom Marie Kondo.
Kondo has given Netflix the water cooler original content that it has desired as other studios begin to launch their own streaming services, removing precious content from Netflix’s catalog. What the phenomenon has also done is given Americans a window into how chaotic their lives are, including those with the finances and status to seemingly maintain order. Kondo’s show is fascinating for what it tells us about America’s current arrangement without explicitly stating the obvious problems.
Have Americans all become one year away from being hoarders? Hoarding came to American cultural notice when the reality cable docu-series Obsessed found great success with the hoarder episodes. This launched the series Hoarders in ’09, and copycat series popped up elsewhere. Hoarding then created a series of clean up and therapy services with government enforcement of ordinance violations now that Americans realized they could report odd neighbors. The key to this all is that America has such a consumer culture and such material comfort that it could sustain millions of hoarders keeping tons of junk. We have all of this stuff but none of it matters as Mrs. Kondo finds a way to trash it.
Marie Kondo enters these homes in her series and does not find hoards. Some of the homes feel like hoards in their nascent phase and others are just disorganized homes. A hoarder compulsively keeps things and never throws anything away. These homes that Kondo visits are merely people who never learned to throw anything away or organize a closet. Like an anime elf, she jumps and cruises through the messy homes game-planning a solution.
The solution has a Japanese tinge to it of course. If you have worked in manufacturing with Japanese consultants, you may be familiar with the idea of kaizen. American corporations in the ’80s hired Japanese consultants to help with efficiency, process management and improvements in their factories. A lot of changes were standardizing tools and minimizing the need for odd inventory purchases. A CNC machinist may open his toolbox and be assured that his toolbox and every other CNC machinists’ toolbox was filled and organized the same. Watching Marie Kondo, one may think that this is one of the Kaizen consultant’s daughters grown up to kaizen your home.
Looking at Kondo’s background and considering Japanese culture, this should not be a surprise. Kondo spent years as an attendant at a Shinto shrine, which allows one to see Kondo make a ritual of the tidying up process. There is her thanking of the home. Kondo also has people thank their clothes or items for their service as if they were alive, similar to the Shinto idea of everything having an essence or spirit. It strikes the Americans as odd but gets them to trash their useless items with a process.
These are useless items yet it is an ever growing pile of them. One of the fastest growing industries in construction in America is building self-storage facilities. The entire industry is booming. Article after article from business news outlets since 2010 discuss the growth of self-storage as Americans continue to buy stuff. Despite a depression, which is what this current malaise is, Americans keep buying consumer goods. We also never part with them.
Kondo’s catchphrase of sparks joy is an order to only keep items that bring you joy. It is a great ploy to maximize purging. The difficulty people have with getting rid of items is so tough to overcome that she has to set a high bar for these clients to merit keeping them. Sparks joy might as well be top five. What is your top five of anything? Keep those. Junk the rest.
It is junk. Kondo comes in and brings order to these homes filled with junk. The ritual matters. This is basic maintenance of a home, yet the rich and poor alike of California all fail to keep orderly homes. If you watch this, you will see pricey looking homes cluttered with kitsch and crap. There are entire rooms of shoes like Imelda Marcos. There is one man who bought sneakers that he never wore. He just bought them to have them. Dozens of pairs never worn all costing a pretty penny. The sneaker fetish is an amazing consumerism meme that worked on men.
The series even sets this up to educate you as Marie Kondo not only teaches the clients to fold she teaches you. Warning: if you worked at the GAP and was trained to fold, you will still feel inadequate when you see her fold. If you are a lucky man, you will find your clothes folded in the new KonMari method after your wife watches an episode or two.
Your wife will probably make small changes here and there after watching this show. This strikes at the heart of the greatest contrast in this show. This might be the most horrific reveal. Kondo embodies the feminine, domestic order & bliss, while each of her American clients are mannish, sloppy and unhappy women. Viewers witness the decay of the American woman not just in appearance but in basic homemaker functions.
It is not just the show. In ’16, a GQ female writer attempted the KonMari method of purging and revealed the same dynamic. She was a schleppy Jewish urbanite who mocked Kondo’s take on everything and the Kondo advice to dress well, even at bedtime. Yes Millenials and Gen Z, there once was a time when American women wore sexy nighties and lingerie instead of fleece pajama pants with sexy stitched on the rear. Kondo believes in a standard and exceeding that standard, which is anathema to her clients on the show.
It hits each episode. Kondo arrives with her silky long hair, always in a skirt, standing at 4’7″ maybe 85 pounds and moves with purpose, maintaining good posture. The women on the other side of the door might have been superior in looks but have destroyed that superiority with tattoos, poor body language, obesity, etc. These women all look frazzled or grubby. The American female is on display with a petite competitor and comes away looking awful. Even the Japanese-American Boomer looks awful, as if driving the point home that modern America will destroy all cultures.
The very first episode sets the stage for this juxtaposition and may be the best contrast. There is a mom who stays at home with two small children while her husband works 50-60 hour weeks. For some reason, she needs a helper to come to their house to help with domestic things. We are never given the reason besides she cannot do it and anxiety, oh-my-god I need a pill. This irks her husband who also hates that his kids do not get his best.
The husband has to admit that he is in the wrong in a confessional shot. The story of that show, each episode has an obvious story arc, is that the chaos of their home threatens their marriage. The real subtext is that this woman is a useless partner, failing to fulfill the role of wife in a meaningful way to assist his hardworking provider role. What exactly is his wife doing all day? What? She admits to anxiety, which is referenced multiple times. He married a basket case. A once pretty basket case who stands like a man and still nurses her kid at age two where the child can request nursing as “do boobies”.
There is an exchange in multiple episodes where the American wife will joke, snark, and say that sure Kondo can be organized but they’re moms. Kondo then says “I have two girls“. The American woman is then stunned and if we were to read their expressions as windows into their thoughts, they feel like failures. Here is a tiny sprite of a woman with two kids who can keep a tidy house. Every American woman on the show looks like an overfed giant compared to Kondo. What is your excuse big Yankee lady? Kondo even admits to scolding her kids, which must blow the minds of the indulgent American parents. Kondo’s kids learn to tidy up, too. The KonMari process is not just tidying up your house but is trans-formative, which appeals to a nation of women who have internalized the idea that a new set of clothes and a new hair style can make a new you.
What is the excuse though for any of these people? The story arcs of the series make up a carefully curated cross section of middle to upper-middle Californians with one poor black family thrown in for diversity quotas. California does not come across well in this series. Whether it is the gay couple, the other gay couple, the well to do white dad and Indian mom, the retired Asian couple or young white family, what is keeping these people from simply tidying up some papers and purging clothes? They all fail. Look around your own room, is it tidy. What’s stopping you? Jordan Peterson has also said clean your room. Kondo and Peterson are both targeting literate audiences; Peterson as an author and speaker and Kondo by explicitly having books be a section of her system. The poor do not read enough for their books to need sorting.
Marie Kondo will enjoy a successful near future. If Goodwill has seen donations soar due to people tidying up, Kondo can slap her name on any product and the middle to upper middle striver wives and moms will buy it. Her target demographic of middle class families is the coveted spending cohort, so the deals and strategic partnerships will roll in from which Kondo will select. Maybe her customers won’t tidy up, but they can buy the Kondo scent line to give their home a Shinto shrine smell.
The Kondo tidy up message is a basic call to bring order into one’s life. These people all live chaotic lives. Even if they have minimal responsibilities, they somehow create anxiety and a hectic pace to avoid dealing with themselves. It was said that the JFK administration did not have a concrete foreign policy but just jumped from crisis to crisis. The modern American is similar in that there is no order to their lives but they go from immediate concern to concern, one consumer fix to the next, and distraction to distraction. This is how papers pile up and everyone becomes a borderline hoarder. There is no focus on the present. There is no mindfulness of the situation or of one’s fit into the greater scheme of life.
This is the deeper message to take in besides picking up a few items around your house so you do not turn into the fledgling hoarders on the show. Paying attention to the small details and creating order in a home will translate to a healthier mental state. It is going to require focus and mindfulness about your immediate life and surroundings, not the latest distraction or outrage of the week. Each time you give into the distractions and concerns provided by others is a moment not focused on your life and loved ones. Even Marie Kondo’s idea of sparks joy points to this. What in life do we have that really brings us comfort, happiness and meaning? That is all we need.