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Poor People Don’t Have the Privilege of ‘Tidying Up’

On the disturbing differences between ‘Hoarders’ and Marie Kondo’s foray into reality TV

Hanna Brooks Olsen
Jan 9 · 8 min read
Marie Kondo, on her way to donate some colorful boxes. Photo: Netflix

When Hoarders premiered in 2009, it joined a slate of reality TV shows — like Intervention and My Strange Addiction — which sought to peer into the abyss of human existence. Depending on your perspective, these shows either held up a mirror to our collective consumerist reality, or shined a light on people who, mercifully, reassured us that we could be so much worse.

A New York Times Magazine columnist at the time focused on how Hoarders fit neatly into a larger consumerist structure: “In a sense, the show can be read as a metaphor for an entire culture that has lost perspective on the relative importance of things and desperately needs help.”

“Then again,” he added, “it could be read as perversely reassuring, inserting distance between the rest of us and a handful of out-of-control freaks.”

Conversely, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, which premiered on Netflix this month and immediately became must-watch resolution fuel, does not encourage gawking. As Kondo, the best-selling author behind every clothing swap you attended in 2016, bounds around middle-class homes, viewers are meant to see themselves in the clutter.

Whereas the producers of ‘Hoarders’ seemed to find the people with the most absurd accents and the fewest teeth, the producers of ‘Tidying Up’ have found families who represent #goals.

The families on Tidying Up are different from those featured on Hoarders, and not just because of the show’s lighter tone or the lack of roaches the size of Chihuahuas. They’re different because they do not demonstrate the dire, existential pain we associate with “true hoarders.” They also exist in a different economic and class reality — one that viewers aspire to be in. One that includes retirement plans and life insurance and enough spare cash to put in sliding shelving units, even if they never use them.

These are not the “out-of-control freaks” at risk of dying in their homes. These are the people who can be made happier just by learning to neatly store Christmas decorations.

The level of affluence is very much a programming choice — producers clearly selected families whose homes would be cluttered, but not, well, icky. It’s also a quiet observation about how we like our TV in this country. When we want sad stuff, we like poor people to be the ones hurting. When we want a pick-me-up, we prefer to watch folks with as much or more than we have. We want the host to reveal a backsplash behind the matching sets of dishes, not mold behind matching sets of overdue bills.

The contrast between the two shows also represents a dynamic in which poverty is portrayed as weighed down by darkness, fear, and pain — snow shovels prying old wrappers off the ground — whereas wealth is light and just needs a bit of rearranging. Poor people hoard, well-off people “collect.”

Whereas the producers of Hoarders seemed to go out of their way to find subjects with the most absurd accents and the fewest teeth — stereotypes that make it easier for viewers to distance themselves — the producers of Tidying Up have found families who represent #goals, as the kids say.

As Tyler Coates put it for Esquire:

One might assume the series would resemble something like Hoarders, a dark vision into the disturbingly cluttered homes of potentially troubled individuals. For those of us who aren’t drawn to shows overflowing with such grim schadenfreude, Tidying Up is blessedly a kinder, gentler makeover show.

The show is “kinder” in part because the Tidying Up couples are affluent, or at least doing okay; their homes aren’t about to be repossessed, and their collections of objects aren’t threatening to bankrupt them. They have the resources to have this much stuff. For many Americans living on less than a middle-class income, the families on Tidying Up are more aspirational than relatable.

“If we don’t have enough time, then maybe we can pay somebody to do these things,” one mom says, gesticulating with an arm that plays host to an Apple Watch. She hates to do laundry, so she has someone who does it for them. But she still can’t manage to put it away or keep it organized. Her husband, in a voice just teetering on actual anger, says that it pisses him off. Because they could do these things — like laundry, something that is much more difficult for people who don’t have a washer and dryer right there in their home — but she’d rather spend money to have more time.

The Tidying Up families are also geographically similar, all living in the Los Angeles area. Sarah Archer writes in the Atlantic that “some are well heeled and others live modestly, but none are full-on hoarders, nor are any of them extremely rich or desperately poor.” The assertion of varying economic backgrounds is debatable; even those portrayed as living “modestly” in Los Angeles appear to have access to wealth beyond that of the average American.

What Is Compulsive Hoarding?

Hoarders taught us that to be a true compulsive hoarder, you need a specific number of roaches, dead cats, or expired cartons of inscrutable black goo in a broken refrigerator. To really be a hoarder, you must be extremely sad and poor. Or at least of a lower class.

The real-life definition of compulsive hoarding is a contentious issue among mental health professionals. The 2013 edition of the DSM saw hoarding moved into its own category of mental illness, separate from obsessive-compulsive disorder, though some people still consider the two linked. Others see it more as a reaction to trauma. Some experts say that dramatic home cleanups, in the absence of cognitive behavioral therapy, don’t really help anything. Meanwhile, researchers using grant money from the National Institute of Mental Health described hoarding as the result of “idiosyncratic categorization problems for personally-owned items as well as other aspects of economic reasoning.”

You might be hesitant to throw things away if you know that you can’t afford to replace them.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has a simpler definition, describing hoarding as:

the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value. The behavior usually has deleterious effects — emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal — for a hoarder and family members.

What sets compulsive hoarders apart from others, according to the association, is not the grossness of their hoard, but the quantity of items. And the situation may not always appear as extreme as you would think. One study found that only 8 to 12 percent of self-identified hoarders have faced eviction threats as a result of their condition, even though that seems to be the consequence looming in most Hoarders episodes.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America also cites compulsive behavior less extreme than collecting a freezer full of dead cats, such as:

  • compulsively shopping (such as never passing up a bargain)
  • compulsively acquiring free items (such as collecting flyers)
  • compulsively searching for perfect or unique items (such as an old container that doesn’t appear special to others)

Symptoms, the Association says, may include: “loss of living space, social isolation, family or marital discord, financial difficulties, health hazards.”

The Mayo Clinic, meanwhile, states plainly that “a person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items.”

By these definitions, some of the middle-class individuals on Tidying Up might actually be hoarders — especially those demonstrating a deep emotional attachment to their belongings. But of course, many TV critics have been quick to say that this show is different. These people are different.

A Poor Person’s Disease?

There is an argument to be made that hoarding, as it’s defined, is a poor person’s disease. You might, for example, be hesitant to throw things away if you know that you can’t afford to replace them.

Researchers have also shown that significant financial setbacks, as well as untreated trauma (like being poor), can create hoarding behavior.

“While more research is needed, evidence supports the notion that whether from direct experience or modeling from caregivers, hoarding behaviors can emerge in response to troublesome life events, poverty, or financial trauma,” write Kansas State University’s Anthony Canale and Bradley Klontz. “The resulting fear of not having enough can lead to an irresistible urge to excessively acquire and persistently hold onto resources to protect oneself from a period of future potential lack.”

Maybe the difference between hoarding and collecting is simply class privilege.

But when you’re hoarding literal garbage, as many people on Hoarders do, it looks like, well, garbage. When you’re hoarding high-end children’s clothing and stuffing it in the bottom of a closet after someone has professionally laundered it for you, it just needs “tidying up.”

Maybe the difference between hoarding and collecting is simply class privilege — maybe the folks on Tidying Up ended up on that show instead of the other one because of their proximity to Netflix’s Hollywood studio, camera-ready supportive family members, homes with ample space for organization, and of course, enough time and money to spend on laundry services and organizational structures.

Take Margie, for example. As she moves between her stainless steel appliances and travel mementos in her Culver City home, we learn that she recently lost her husband and is clearly still grieving. Cleaning out her house, she declares, is going to become “my full-time job.”

In a country where nearly 40 million people live in poverty — including close to 13 million children — and many have no savings or retirement plan, the idea that paring down a lifetime of belongings, stored in a home that has been stable and gathering equity over the last 30 years, could be a “full-time job” is remarkable.

It’s remarkable, too, that finances rarely become an issue in Tidying Up, whereas poverty is a constant specter on Hoarders. But then, that’s not what Tidying Up is about. Whereas Hoarders was often criticized for being exploitative and failing to offer its subjects any real, salient help for their clear mental illness, Tidying Up is all about solutions — regardless of whether any of the subjects will actually utilize them in the future.

But then, it’s not really about the subjects — it never is with TV. It’s about the viewer. And Kondo’s viewers are left feeling ready to take on any number of projects. They are left feeling better about themselves, not because they feel superior to the people on TV (like they might after watching an elderly woman sleep in a pile of old newspapers), but because they know how they could be better than their current selves. If people wanted to see poor people going through something hard, they wouldn’t be seeking the joy-sparking delight Kondo brings to a junk drawer.

It’s understandable; the world is dark and life is, for the millions of Americans who work full-time and still can’t afford enough bedrooms, extremely difficult. Some escapism is nice. Some inspiration is nice. Some aspiration — Those counters! Those cabinets! — is nice. And maybe some storage containers which, of course, may only be kept if they bring you joy, or at least hold the objects which do.

Hanna Brooks Olsen

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I wrote that one thing you didn’t really agree with. Interests include progressive policy, minor league baseball, and Oxford commas. Curious to a fault.