It used to be generally accepted that overblown levels of domestic perfection were merely a shorthand for inner despair. Whenever a film opened with a housewife in manicured suburbia adding the finishing touches to a flower arrangement or a pie, we all instinctively understood that this was a clear cinematic trope meaning that her husband is having an affair, her life is overshadowed by the desperate creep of pointlessness and by the end of the film, she will have tipped into a bottomless pit of churning, wailing mental anguish.
But now, apparently, we all want to be that housewife.
Humankind has been agonising over the best way to pin down lasting happiness since homo sapiens shared the first inspirational meme on the cave wall, but it seems that now we have finally reached a consensus. The answer to this eternal human quest? Women: do more cleaning.
The last couple of years have seen the meteoric rise of a new sub-genre of self-help: the transformative cleaning manual. Gretchen Rubin started the trend when her hugely successful book, The Happiness Project posited a vision of happiness achieved in large part by decluttering your wardrobe. Marie Kondo’s mega-bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has sold well over two million copies, with its author crowned one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2015.
Since the 1950s, inspirational books and articles marketed to women have slowly shifted their focus from “advice for making your husband happy”, to “advice for making yourself happy”. But the actual advice itself has stayed scarily similar, usually coming with a hefty dollop of domestic obligation. And the transformative cleaning manual gives this a new twist. Now cleaning isn’t just pitched to women as a necessary annoyance, but as a genuine route to inner fulfilment.
Kondo’s standards, for example, are punishingly high: a home with no extraneous clutter, in which every single object “sparks joy” in its owner, and all clothes are folded in her signature vertical style with precise geometric efficiency. According to her patented “KonMarie” method, achieving this level of household perfection should be tackled, step by step as a mammoth one-off project lasting several months, purging our homes like a giant domestic enema. It’s a standard that would have had our mothers’ generation fleeing in horror.
Women have long been oppressed by the deep-seated cultural expectation that our leisure can only begin once our domestic obligations have been met
There is little question about the intended audience for this type of book. Women buy more than 80 per cent of all self-help books across the board, and an even higher percentage of cleaning manuals. The books themselves, though overtly gender-neutral, are in reality subtly gendered in everything from the cover design to the case studies, which almost exclusively feature women. It’s no surprise that my husband has never heard of Marie Kondo.
It’s easy to be seduced by their promises. I harbour a constant fantasy that one day I will have a perfectly clean home. I feel guilty sitting down when there is wiping to be done and I am constantly telling my kids to “wait a second” while I just pick up or dispose of or fold One More Thing. After buying Kondo’s book, I squandered entire minutes of my one and only life staring at a bottle of dishwasher liquid pondering whether or not it “sparked joy”. I later spent the rest of that sunny bank holiday afternoon at home, alone, KonMarie-ing my sons’ drawers while my family was out having fun at the park (only to have them wholly un-KonMaried moments after they arrived home.)
There’s no question that most of us feel a bit brighter when the house isn’t a tip, but this cultural conflation of cleaning and inner bliss raises serious questions about the strangely limited aspirations many women are trained to have for our own happiness.
While men are conditioned to dream big – to see their happiness in terms of adventure and travel, sex and ideas and long nights of hilarity – women are now encouraged to find deep fulfilment in staying home to origami our pants.
“Life truly begins only after you have put your house in order,” writes Marie Kondo. But isn’t this exactly the mindset that women have been battling for generations, a modern take on the suffocating maxim that “a woman’s work is never done”? We have long been oppressed by the deep-seated cultural expectation that our leisure can only begin once our domestic obligations have been met.
Even without vertical folding, time-use surveys show women do approximately twice as much cleaning as men, while men take a staggering five hours more leisure time than women each week to relax and pursue their own interests. Now the transformational cleaning tome sells domestic drudgery back to us as spiritual awakening.
But surely we should be pushing back against this cultural expectation. Rather than constantly raising the stakes for what clean should look like, I would love to think that we could dream bigger for own happiness than an organised sock drawer.