By Eliza Romero
Early last week, Marie Kondo was all over the news. Why? Because (white liberal) book lovers were all riled up over some deliberately misinterpreted comments she made about decluttering people’s book collections on her Netflix show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.
I knew her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, was a huge hit among the lifestyle/home decor/mommy blogger set but I never read it. I also knew that every time she uploaded a video on YouTube, even if it was as mundane as folding a sweater, it would go insanely viral, racking up millions of views within hours. And I knew exactly when her show debuted on Netflix because my Instagram feed was filled with everyone’s piles of clothing and miscellaneous junk, before and after photos of their newly decluttered closets and kitchens, and lots of “spark joy” memes. But it wasn’t until the posts became more negative and filled with personal attacks against her that I really began to pay attention.
Though today she’s a household name and a movement, back in 2011, when her first book was published, it was released with zero fanfare. Much of it had to do with her being unable to speak English so her editor and agent couldn’t book her on the usual press tours and talk show circuits that they do for other authors. It wasn’t until a New York Times Home section reporter wrote an article about her decluttering method (known as the Konmari method) and then the book started flying off the shelves. The most revolutionary thing in it is that the opposite of happiness isn’t sadness, it’s chaos. And chaos is clutter.
Most people who have criticized Kondo believe that she thinks you shouldn’t own anything or that you should own as little as possible but that just isn’t true. She actually says you can own as much or as little as you want, as long as all of it sparks joy in your life. “Spark joy.” It’s like a spiritual mission for her.
This is the gist of her method: She says that all people buy things for a reason and if they take the time to figure out why they buy the things they do and why they think they need it, and why they form an attachment to it, even if it serves no purpose and brings no pleasure, they would find a deeper understanding of themselves.
Marie Kondo’s approach requires a level of introspection about yourself that white Americans are not used to the way nonwhites are. It’s a coming to terms with identity that white Americans have never had to consider. Instead, they place value on the things they own. Those items are what shape their personalities.
People have no problem with a show like Hoarders, where people with actual mental health issues have their hoards ripped away from them. (Afterwards, they overcompensate by hoarding even harder.) Then there is the show Clean Sweep, where the hosts bully people into getting rid of their things. There’s no backlash to Clean House either, where the hosts bully people into having a garage sale. Marie Kondo’s approach is about as gentle and sweet as you can get. She doesn’t pathologize her clients. In fact, her approach is pretty hands off. She advises them, gives them recommendations, then leaves, only to return a few days later to check on their progress.
Despite how light and fluffy the show is, it’s also depressing. These are normal people in healthy relationships who seem to have it all — stable relationships, careers, and families. But when you zoom out, it’s also a mirror of the completely broken economic system we live in. Keeping a house was once considered important enough that someone had to stay home and do it full time. Now, people no longer have time to properly keep a house anymore. Careers are more demanding than ever before. If you’re a parent, you’re expected to parent in ways that none of the generations before us had to. Nobody has the time to keep up with organizing, decluttering, and cleaning.
All of the backlash against her happened because of a deliberately misquoted and misinterpreted comment she made about the amount of books she has in her apartment and of course, her critics got all moralistic for no reason.
What she said: “I myself keep no more than 30 volumes in my home…Just keep the books that spark joy in your life and that you plan on rereading.”
What her critics heard: “Nobody should own more than 30 books.”
After her critics slandered her, they compared her to Joseph Goebbels and his Fire Incantations during the reign of Nazi Germany where millions of books were burned. They compared her method to the novel, Fahrenheit 451. If you pay attention to all the backlash online, her critics seem to believe that there is some sort of correlation between the amount of books a person owns and how virtuous they are. Hoarding is disgusting and only for poor, white trash people. But book hoarding is good and moral. It’s like the organic food of owning things. The books people own are nothing more than social signaling.
The backlash began when a novelist named Anakana Shofield, who, having never read Kondo’s books or watched her show, misquoted her in a series of viral tweets then wrongly interpreted Kondo’s comments about “sparking joy.” She seemed to think that a book’s content was meant to be joyful, not the book itself that brought joy to its owner. Because I’m such a supporter of public libraries, I see no reason for anyone to own that many books. And I am an admitted book lover and voracious reader.
There is a knee jerk reaction to seeing a Japanese woman like Marie Kondo that just angers white women. On Facebook and Twitter, white women are up in arms to take her down. The hate isn’t just dismissive disagreement. There is real rage, xenophobia and racism, with a splash of misogyny at play here. Interestingly, many of these women aren’t the MAGA, political conservatives one would expect them to be. No, these women are active members of the Resistance against Donald Trump. They are fans of Hilary Clinton, Women’s March participants, and supporters of movements like Black Lives Matter. So why all the xenophobia and racism?
In a nutshell:
1) She is so unapologetically Japanese. She does not speak much English and uses an interpreter to speak to the cameras and her clients. Many of her critics couldn’t resist mocking her poor English skills. This really hit me because though my own father speaks English quite well, he does so with a thick Filipino accent, so seeing him infantilized has always bothered me since I was a kid. And it only happens to non-white people with accents. Never do you see British or French people mocked for theirs. Their accents are viewed as sophisticated while Asian accents are seen as inferior and ugly. That’s racist and xenophobic.
2) Her approach is largely influenced by Japanese culture and folk Shintoism, which is different from the Euro-Christian ideals of white Americans. This is taken as an affront to their ways because of Shintoism’s focus on ritual practices that are meant to be carried out diligently in order to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past. I can’t count the number of times I saw her religion mocked as nothing more than some woo-woo superstitious nonsense.
3) Her approach can also be seen as anti-capitalist, with her message of consuming less, not more. This is obviously considered anti-American to many, since a love of capitalism is forced on us at an early age. Capitalism isn’t healthy either; it’s such a driver of inequality — social and economic.
4) To put it bluntly, white women don’t like being told by a petite, prim and proper, soft-spoken Asian woman, what to do. How dare she have the audacity to teach HER Japanese ways as the solution to the very American problem of consumerism and hoarding. White women still view Asian women as their loyal sidekicks. They view us as objects with no agency. They see it as an affront when we have opinions that don’t support theirs. We are meant to reassure and center white women, much like the sassy black friend or the gay best friend with all of his snarky one-liners.
The backlash against Marie Kondo just emphasizes how much liberal white women are willing to support, defend and uplift underrepresented communities, but only on their own terms. As if anyone needed proof that white liberals were just as racist as white conservative. Kondo doesn’t make them feel like the white savior they all want to be so badly. The loudest of Kondo’s critics seem to perceive these differences in cultural values as an attack on their own personal values. Not only that but they see it as an attack on their very sense of self. (Hypable)
*To read more by Eliza Romero, visit her blog Aesthetic Distance. She can also be found on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Her weekly podcast, The Aesthetic Distance Podcast, is available on Soundcloud and iTunes.