Marie Kondo's deceptively simple 'Tidying Up' tips are spreading the gospel of joy when Americans need it most

Kondo's show is popularizing an array of un-American philosophies: be thankful for what you already have, practice humility, seek peace.
Illustration of Marie Kondo surrounded by a mountain of clothes.
Kondo's show is "the new Netflix and chill."Lilli Carre / for NBC News
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By Elena Sheppard

I never read Marie Kondo’s book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up." When the English translation hit shelves in 2014, Kondo’s guide became a New York Times Bestseller and her advice to question if an item “sparks joy” became part of the cultural vernacular. I deliberately steered the other way. Smash-hit best-sellers scare me. I acknowledge their success, I store away the title for later reading once the hype dies down — and then the movie or TV version comes out and I inevitably just watch that instead.

Personal history repeated itself when Kondo’s new Netflix show, "Tidying Up," dropped in one neat and bingeable eight-episode package on Jan. 1. I watched, I questioned why I’d never read the book, and then I got inspired. Along with what feels like everyone else on my social media feeds, I’ve spent the early days of 2019 decluttering my living space and learning how to properly fold.

There’s something else at work here, something more than Kondo’s unmistakable charm as she teaches various families how to organize their toolboxes and laundry rooms and lives.

Kondo has been somewhat of a household name for several years now, which may be why her show became such an overnight hit. But there’s something else at work here, something more than Kondo’s unmistakable charm as she teaches various families how to organize their toolboxes and laundry rooms and lives.

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Importantly, Kondo’s goal is not to design the perfect home — Kondo couldn’t care less what color someone’s walls are — it’s to seek out and increase the tranquility in one’s space and amongst one’s things. It imagines the home as a sanctuary, rather than a dream house. Upon entering each house, Kondo has a practice of sitting meditatively on the floor and introducing herself to the space. “All we’re communicating to the house is that we’re thanking it first for always protecting you and that we’re about to begin this process of tidying,” she explains in episode one. It’s quiet, it’s kind, and for reality television, at least, it’s radical.

On a purely practical level, the series has set itself apart from its more voyeuristic peers. While these families sort through their miscellaneous cupboards and bulging filing cabinets, so can we. It’s a reality show in part built on audience participation, a truth acknowledged via Kondo’s direct-to-camera lessons on how to store everything from neckties to baby clothes to pet toys.

It’s also a technique that worked nearly instantly on me. Episode one was not even halfway through when, in a quest to find my own magic, I began wrestling all the hangers out of my closet and evaluating my t-shirts on their ability to spark joy.

Indeed, clothing is an incredibly important part of Kondo’s method; each episode begins with a massive clothing sort. Kondo argues you can’t clean your home by room, you must clean it by category, clothing first. It’s brilliantly simple, and it brings everyone down to the same level — at least at the beginning.

That said, "Tidying Up" is not your average American phenomenon. Deceptively innocuous, it is ushering an array of un-American philosophies to the American television mainstream: declutter your life, be thankful for the home you have, practice gratitude. In a country filled with overstuffed garages and increasingly excessive home makeover shows — think "Fixer Upper," or "Extreme Home Makeover," or even "Hoarders" — "Tidying Up" preaches humility, and the idea that we should tidy our homes to show ourselves and our living spaces respect.

The show’s refreshing optimism is another large part of the appeal; it mirrors shows like "The Great British Bake Off" in its unmitigated kindness. Contrast this with the general global climate of negativity and political fear. Look into Kondo’s world and everything is organized, cheerful and attainable. If sorting the vitamin bottles on top of my fridge and folding my underwear into tiny tents will help me feel a modicum more joy in this unsettling world, then for goodness sake I’ll try it.

The show’s refreshing optimism is another large part of the appeal; it mirrors shows like "The Great British Bake Off" in its unmitigated kindness.

“The point of this process isn’t to force yourself to eliminate things,” Kondo says in the final episode of the season. “It’s really to confirm how you feel about each and every item that you possess.” As a viewer, that connected. It’s the idea that sent me searching for the step-stool in order to clean out my Tupperware cabinets. Pare down my home so it’s only filled with things that actually make me happy, and the benefits will ripple through my life? Nothing new must be acquired, no walls knocked down or kitchen islands built — I’m in.

I’m still deep in the Kondo-ing of my home — it’s a lengthy journey — but as Kondo says time and again on the program, this process will be completed. When I posted a before and after photo of my newly folded piles on Instagram, a friend described Kondo-ing as “the new Netflix and chill." And, at least for this week, she’s right. Amid a shutdown government and a whiplash-inducing news cycle, we could all use a little bit of peace and magic, and literal chill. I’ll admit that there’s an undeniable feeling of calm having the previously forgotten parts of my home now neatly arranged. My socks are folded perfectly in rows, a private, Kondo-led rebellion against the chaos of the world.