The Racist Backlash Against Marie Kondo of Netflix’s ‘Tidying Up’
The sneering and commodification of the Japanese author and host reveals a truth: White people really don’t like it when they feel like an Asian woman is telling them what to do.
It’s been a full five weeks since Tidying Up with Marie Kondo debuted on Netflix, yet folks can’t seem to stop airing their distaste for the 34-year-old organizing consultant. What is it about the queen of clean that makes people so consistently messy?
In her 2011 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo writes: “Don’t focus on reducing, or on efficient storage methods, for that matter. Focus instead on choosing the things that inspire joy and on enjoying life according to your own standards.” The goal is to reach your own personal “click-point,” where you feel at ease with all you have. “For a shoe lover, it might be one hundred pairs of shoes, while a book lover might not need anything but books.”
Kondo’s KonMari Method draws inspiration from Shintoism, where cleaning is regarded as mental cultivation. Her book, which is both straightforward and humorously self-effacing, held a top spot for over 86 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold more than two million copies worldwide. Her brand, KonMari, is now a booming business that even trains and deploys its own consultants.
The idea that we should maybe look at the sum total of our belongings and decide if we’re happy is not a controversial or even new idea. How many men have taken Tyler Durden’s “the things you own, end up owning you” or Jordan Peterson’s “clean your room” as gospel? Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus are the producers behind Netflix’s Minimalism, and at TEDxFargo Millburn gave an entire talk about rummaging around his apartment, “retaining only the things that added value to my life... as a minimalist, every possession serves a purpose or brings me joy, and everything else is out of the way.” Yet with the premiere of Kondo’s Netflix show, she’s become the subject of critical think pieces and sneering; when a white man articulates these ideas, people applaud.
It’s perhaps fitting that Tidying Up debuted when it did. With celebrities voluntarily offering up that they’ve had violently racist thoughts and politicians’ disgusting costume choices coming to light, Tidying Up has revealed yet another uncomfortable facet of our supposedly post-racial society: White people really don’t like when they feel like an Asian woman is telling them what to do.
There’s a sort of lateral violence at play in the Tidying Up discourse in how white women will sometimes deliberately misunderstand or talk over women of color. Kondo emphatically does not do the cleaning for her clients and simply offers suggestions, yet many white women have interpreted her as irrational, and her methods too militant. “This is a woman who thanks every item she owns for its ‘service’ before she goes to bed at night, a habit which is not borderline obsessive compulsive at all. Definitely not,” writes Leah McLaren at the Globe and Mail. “The fact that Marie Kondo places more importance on tidying her things than using them should give you a pretty good sense of how alien her priorities are,” writes Tanya C. Snyder at The Washington Post. Kondo has been accused of making it so a writer couldn’t feel connected to her mother’s belongings after she passed and clogging up our landfills. Author Jennifer Wright, in a now-deleted tweet, called Kondo a “monster,” and others have memefied Kondo, misinterpreted her methods as “woo woo nonsense,” and made horrendously off-color jokes.
Even some of the compliments Kondo has received have been heavily racialized and Othering, focusing on her body and her perceived otherworldliness. Critics have described Kondo as “a little doll,” “a pretty little pixie,” with “fairy-like delicacy” and “magic hands.” She is someone they can see only existing in “an art gallery, waiting room or mausoleum,” or as a modern-day Cinderella. Molly Young at The Cut writes that Kondo has “more in common with a snowflake than with the flesh-and-blood humans around her.” Barry Yourgrau at The New Yorker calls her a “determined young heroine from a Miyazaki film,” whose book advice he finds “almost barbaric.” These interpretations see her as an almost yellow peril figure wrapped up in the pleasing aesthetics of a stereotypical Asian sage, which only serves to flatten and dehumanize her. It’s easier to ignore her advice if, in your mind, she’s literally not real.
And then there was the tweet from author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich. “I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo learns to speak English.” After understandable backlash, Ehrenreich deleted but then followed up with a new tweet where she admitted she “hates Kondo because, aesthetically speaking, I am on the side of clutter.” Ehrenreich then doubled down on Kondo’s language being a key issue.
Ehrenreich later apologized: “Sorry to anyone offended by my tweet about Marie Kondo! Sometimes my attempts at subtle humor just don’t work.”
(For the record, Kondo moved from Tokyo to LA, and any episode of Tidying Up or her talk at Google will show you she has a rudimentary grasp of English and is clearly, sincerely trying.)
It’s difficult to glean where all this vitriol is coming from. We could look at statistics that show that Asian women as a whole earn more than other women, have higher rates of education, and pull slightly more on dating sites. That Kondo is very feminine and seems to love pink, and that maybe that clashes with older waves of feminism. But these factors seem tangential to the real issue, which is the mere fact that Kondo is successful. Americans, even liberal ones, are still used to authority figures being white and male, and anyone who upends that convention elicits a knee-jerk, gut-deep negative reaction. It’s not only a sign that our institutions—our political offices, our movie studios, our board rooms—have failed to reflect an increasingly diverse world and that we’re still more xenophobic than we’d like to believe. It’s also a marker of how our feminism, our liberalism, still struggles to be intersectional, to see non-white foreigners as living, breathing, human beings.
In a 2016 feature for The New York Times, Taffy Brodesser-Akner took note of this palpable dislike American women seemed to have simmering under the surface at a conference for the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). While the women all had varying organizational methods, they were “fairly unified in their disdain for this Japanese interloper.” One member told Brodesser-Akner that Tidying Up is a good book only if “you’re a 20-something Japanese girl and you live at home and you still have a bunch of your Hello Kitty toys and stuff.” Brodesser-Akner notes this was not the only statement she heard during the convention that displayed an “aggressive xenophobia and racism” towards Kondo, but it was the only one appropriate enough to publish in the NYT.
Brodesser-Akner noticed many of the women felt they could’ve easily come up with Kondo’s methods, and were a bit begrudging about giving her her full due. It’s easy to see this thinking reflected today. Sarah Knight, author of the book The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k, has made a lucrative platform off of being the antithesis to Kondo, copying everything from Kondo’s naming convention to cover design. “I too enjoyed Kondo but *mental* decluttering was largely unrepresented in her book,” wrote Knight on Twitter, ignoring that mental decluttering is the central tenet to Kondo’s ideology. Peter Walsh, from TLC’s Clean Sweep, went on the Rachael Ray show alongside Kondo to demonstrate his methods; the audience, a majority white women, seemed distinctly unimpressed with Kondo (needing to be coaxed to applause by Ray), but gave Walsh a wave of ecstatic sighs when he suggested you can store belts in a paper organizer.
There’s this sense that no one is actually listening to Kondo. She’s been reduced to an anime caricature, a fantasy creature who paradoxically both elicits dread and is easily dismissed because of her stature. White women writers found a way to profit off their collective disdain for her, and her intended meaning has just gotten buried and buried under think pieces repeatedly renumerating how wrong she is. She literally just wants to help people declutter so their physical belongings no longer take a mental toll on their well-being.
It seems like so much of the internet has gotten Kondo horrendously wrong. “I was always more comfortable talking to objects than people,” she tells Brodesser-Akner. By her own admission in Tidying Up, she has more loungewear than going out wear, implying she’s more introverted than her public persona would suggest. That we’ve stripped a smart, young, perhaps shy entrepreneur of her humanity and commodified her feels like such an ugly reflection of the world we live in right now. The KonMari Method is all about introspection and examining your values; maybe it’s time white people looked inward and seriously ask themselves why they are so invested in stripping a woman of color’s joy away.