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Netflix Wants You to Fix Your Life, One Reality Show at a Time

Samin Nosrat in Salt Fat Acid Heat, Marie Kondo in Tidying Up, and Tan France in Queer Eye.
Samin Nosrat in Salt Fat Acid Heat, Marie Kondo in Tidying Up, and Tan France in Queer Eye. Photo: Netflix

The intro to Netflix’s latest reality show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, greets the viewer with the image of Kondo smiling happily and announcing, “I love mess.” Her delight seems improbable because she’s staring at piles of someone else’s junk, but she appears sincere as she approaches it with both happiness and discipline. She’s not amused by the junk, or by the people responsible for it. She never looks overwhelmed or shocked. She is capable, and she is joyful.

At first glance, Tidying Up looks like a cousin to reality shows like Hoarders or Extreme Home Makeover, something that combines the voyeurism of looking into other peoples’ homes with the self-realization vibes of a makeover show. It seems like a copycat of a show that already exists, much like other Netflix reality shows: Queer Eye is a reboot of the original series with lots of makeover-show DNA in its format, and Salt Fat Acid Heat does triple duty by filling the celebrity chef, how to cook, and travel-food programming spaces.

But these three shows in particular bear more resemblance to one another than they do to whatever formats they may have aped. They’ve coalesced into their own genre — that of the Joyful Expert. They are a set of shows with a shared worldview about self-care and domestic mindfulness that’s different from the shame-based emotional language of Hoarders or the snobbish aloofness of most travel-food TV. On Tidying Up, Queer Eye, and Salt Fat Acid Heat, things are allowed to be: exciting, scary, new, unknown, pleasurable, beloved, disliked, anxiety-producing, forgivable, manageable. Things are not allowed to be: thoughtless, shameful, avoided (unless you’re making a thoughtful decision to avoid them), too overwhelming, cruel, compromised, apathetic, impossible, obnoxious, unknowable, boring, or neutral. On these shows, negative experiences and emotions still exist, but the role of the Joyful Expert is to help you confront them, to make you less afraid of them, and to guide you to push through them.

Samin Nosrat will show you how to season your food so that it’s not bland, and she’ll speak clearly and simply so that making a good roast chicken becomes a knowable, achievable task. The Fab Five will identify the aspects of your life that are scary, like coming out to your stepmother or applying for a new job, then they’ll push you to confront those fears, wear clothes that fit, and be honest with people in your life about who you are. In Tidying Up, Marie Kondo asks you to consider the things in your home that are beloved, and then she asks you to excise all the stuff that you’ve been avoiding, all the clutter in your home you try to ignore. These are shows about making decisions, about choosing knowledge over ignorance, and about how hard, quotidian, domestic tasks can bring you pleasure.

In other words, they are shows about finding joy. This comes up most explicitly in Marie Kondo’s chant that her clients identify the things that “spark joy” in their homes, but it’s also a prominent ideological pillar of Queer Eye and Salt Fat Acid Heat. Nosrat’s beaming countenance as she gazes on a bed of drying seaweed is much of a piece with Jonathan Van Ness bouncing gleefully at the reveal of someone’s new haircut, and the two images make a beautiful coordinated set with Kondo squeaking with delight as she springs into a garage full of junk. The goal of each show is that people — participants and viewers alike — find joy in their own lives. Meanwhile, the hosts model it themselves by ceaselessly performing their own joy. They clap, they leap, they smile, they gesticulate, they hug, they weep, they laugh.

They are ecstatic, in the same way that a 17th-century evangelical account of finding God is ecstatic. Inside Queer Eye, Tidying Up, and Salt Fat Acid Heat there’s an almost Puritan work ethic, the sense that effort and consciousness are good, and that easy things are suspect, especially if they reinforce a damaging status quo. But even though Kondo’s aesthetic is stark enough to mesh with a Puritanical view of the world, the point is not to focus your joy on abstract beliefs like God or service. The point is to cleave away every object and relationship that doesn’t actively delight you, to expend as much energy as you can give in the pursuit of food that pleases you, to examine yourself and your belongings in order to make yourself happier.

In this cohort of reality shows, the outward is a reflection of your inner life. Fixing one part of that equation helps fix the other parts, no matter if it’s your home, your clothes, your job, your food, or your possessions. That’s true whether it’s Karamo Brown helping a transgender guy get his driver’s license changed to reflect his gender, Samin Nosrat explaining why your pasta will taste better if you throw a ton of salt in the water, or Marie Kondo insisting that a couple sort their clothes into separate spaces to avoid frustration and confusion. Proper salting is the enemy of blandness, just as clutter is the enemy of productivity and shame is the enemy of joy.

There’s another common element of these three shows: None of them are hosted by straight, cis white men. This seems fundamental to what they are, but it’s tricky to untangle how that plays into their overall view of how the world should be. It’s amazing to see popular, buzzy, successful reality shows where the experts are queer people, women, and people of color. It is good that positions of expertise are held by people who aren’t typically recognized in those roles. It’s especially nice when the host and participants represent a broadly envisioned, inclusive image of the world. Kondo’s show and Queer Eye both feature queer participants and nonwhite families. The food guides in Salt Fat Acid Heat are almost exclusively women. The image of humanity in these three series is lots of different kinds of people, unified by their readiness to tackle hard things and come out the other side feeling better about themselves.

But the real world is not an episode of Queer Eye. Marie Kondo will never be able to tidy away racism with the same calm insistence that she does your socks. Though this genre focuses on a full-spectrum representation of human existence, the flip side is that these shows can also mirror exoticizing culture tropes in culture: Kondo is not just a woman who’s here to help you organize, but a tiny Japanese fairy godmother, a Miyagi-esque character whose identity is mined to help upper-middle-class white people improve their lives. The same is true for the Queer Eye guys: Like Kondo, they behave almost identically regardless of who they’ve been dispatched to help, but because we view media in the context of all the other media we’ve ever seen, the viewer’s context shifts depending on who our experts are helping. When the Fab Five help queer people, they are warm mentors; when they are Queer Eye-ing straight people (especially men), long-standing cultural baggage turns them into gay best friend characters, marginalized in their own stories and existing solely to help straight people. (This issue is blissfully less present in Salt Fat Acid Heat, where Nosrat isn’t responsible for teaching clueless cooks how to prepare green beans. She also negotiates it by placing herself in the position of both teacher and learner.) It’s hardly Kondo or the Fab Five’s fault that their reality shows sometimes reinforce an image they had nothing to do with creating. Neither Tidying Up nor Queer Eye are deliberately recreating these tropes. But it’s still a feature of these shows, a cultural echo they cannot fully shake, something too snarled and historically laden to be coiled away in an eight-episode box of diverse colors and styles.

Given that marginalizing element, it’s easy to why these shows pivot instead to their shared visual language of finding good in the world, usually via an extreme close-up of some specific task (herbs being chopped, a pair of underwear folded away into oblivion, a hand knotting a necktie), followed by a close-up of a face, nodding in appreciation. It’s a visual device that replicates what these shows want to be: highly specific advice, tied to someone’s personal improvement. For Queer Eye, Tidying Up, and Salt Fat Acid Heat, the goal is to focus on the positive, to expend energy on joy rather than negativity. How can you blame them? The world looks so manageable from that vantage point. It’s not perfect — if it were, what would be left to tidy? — but it’s approachable. Rather than lingering on the past, we should take painful things, hold them for a few moments, say thank you for the role they’ve played in our lives, and then jettison them overboard. Or, if that can’t be done, we package them into neat decorative boxes where they are safely contained in a nice drawer. And then we close the drawer.

When I watch these shows, I get a little stuck thinking about the things that cannot be tidied no matter how hard you try, the relationships that cannot be fixed, and the sad, limp meals you eat when you just don’t have the time to spark joy. But I still enjoy them. I spent the winter break organizing my home, and it was satisfying to haul bags of things I no longer needed out of my front door. I made a very good roast chicken. I snapped at my children sometimes, and I did not Take Lots of Time for Me, but I will try again tomorrow. Joy takes effort, the experts tell us. You can always try again.

Netflix Wants to Fix Your Life, One Reality Show at a Time