Netflix’s “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” has everyone in a frenzy to clean up their spaces and throw out half their belongings, but in the show’s process to clean, it exposes something else — a gender divide in tidying up.
While Kondo’s KonMari method may require equal responsibility when it comes to tidying up, the burden of the physical act of decluttering and the emotional labor that comes with keeping a house orderly ultimately (and unfairly) falls back on the woman in the household, episode after episode.
“I think women in our society are a lot more oppressed than we like to think – sexual assault and harassment are ubiquitous, we work and earn outside the home, getting paid one-third less than similarly-situated men, yet are expected to do most of the unpaid household work and emotional labor when we get home,” said Sheena Wadhawan, a diversity consultant and the deputy director of EverydayFeminism.com.
“Cleaning the house was definitely — wasn’t my priority, but it would definitely be hers,” Ron Akiyama said of his wife in the second episode of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.”
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In almost every episode with a heterosexual couple, the woman expresses how she feels that the “mess” is her responsibility to fix. The men, on the other hand, don’t come across as apologetic nor do they take accountability for how the home got to its untidy state.
Kavita Daiya, the director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at George Washington University, explains that this happens because women internalize these societal expectations about a woman’s place in the home.
“Even when women are educated, and whether they’re stay at home or working mothers, the show reveals that women have internalized social norms and expectations about gender that mark women as primarily responsible for domestic lives, domestic chores, and family–in a way, the men in this show are freed up from these responsibilities for the most part,” Daiya said.
The eight-episode series kicks off with the Friend family — Kevin and Rachel, a married couple with two kids whose five-year marriage is seemingly being wedged apart by finances and cleanliness.
“We fight about laundry and it seems so silly when I say it, but really it pisses me off like a lot,” says Kevin, who explained that he’d rather do it together as a family. “It’s not because she doesn’t do the laundry, it’s because we hire somebody to come do it.”
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Rachel divides her time between part-time work and being a stay at home mom who caring for two toddlers, which as she describes as chaotic. And the one thing she absolutely hates to do — like really hates to do to the point that it gives her anxiety — is laundry.
Once Kondo comes through and helps Rachel and her husband get their house in order, Rachel candidly says to Kondo that Kevin has become more romantic and affectionate and told her that “cleaning is sexy.”
The rest of the episodes with heterosexual couples follow the same pattern as Rachel and Kevin. Although each of the subsequent couples come from a different background than the Friend family, the gender divide is blatant in every household.
“The Marie Kondo show has me pondering in particular sentimental items,” Wadhawan said. “I find the creation, gathering and labor of deciding what to keep or discard in terms of sentimental items defaulting to me as the woman and mother. If I didn’t print and frame photos of my children, there wouldn’t be any. If my mother-in-law didn’t gather photos of my child into photo books, they wouldn’t exist.”
This hold’s especially true for the Mattison family — more specifically Shenita. The guilt of a messy home quickly falls to her because she’s depicted as the one that can’t seem to let go of things. Not her kids’ toys, not her clothes, not her books and most importantly not her scarves.
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Shenita explains to Kondo that she’s Pakistani and since she doesn’t have a big community in LA, she treasures her scarves and clothing because they give her a connection to her culture. But Aaron, her husband, doesn’t appear to understand why she holds on to a lot of things and ends up making her feel guilty until she gives in to his way of “tidying up.”
“She is having to justify taking up space in the home. The scarf thing is so interesting, because those scarves are a connection for her to her culture, and it was interesting to see him say that she wasn’t wearing them, so why is she keeping them,” Daiya said. “He doesn’t acknowledge their cultural significance, or the fact that we all hold on to objects for their sentimental value. That kind of shaming can be very emotionally oppressive.”
In another episode, one husband, Douglas Mersier, was frustrated because he’d go into the kitchen to grab a glass, but find the cabinet cluttered with spices — but he admits that he never cooks. When the show cuts to another scene, the Mersier kids and husband reveal that anytime they need anything, anything at all, they ask, call or text their mother nonstop because she’s the keeper of all their things.
In a subsequent scene, Katrina Mersier, the mom of the family, then breaks down crying because she feels that she’s the one to blame for the mess. She’s the only one taking responsibility for the home being the way it is.
“It looked like a lot of women that they were featuring had internalized the idea that they were responsible for the kitchen, the cooking, and the organization (of space and clothes), and that it was a reflection of their own self, their own competence–in a way that the men didn’t internalize it,” Daiya said.
Daiya also added that the gender divide became more apparent in the allocation of household tasks. Kondo assigned the men to clean up the garage, whereas women were mostly relegated to tidying up the kitchen.
None of the men in the series seem embarrassed or take accountability for the garage or rather any other areas of the house being cluttered. It was just cluttered because it was cluttered and not because they “failed” at being a good husband.
“The men didn’t think ‘the garage is a disaster, that reflects my failure as a husband’ whereas the women were sometimes depicted as thinking, ‘this reflects my failure to be a good mom (or wife),'” Daiya said.
It’s something to consider while binge-watching “Tidying up” — gender bias and guilt certainly don’t “spark joy.”