Marie Kondo, Mary Poppins and magical adulting fantasies for a hostile world

"Mary Poppins Returns" is a story for adults, just like "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo." They target a specific need

By Erin Keane

Chief Content Officer

Published January 12, 2019 1:00PM (EST)

"Tidying Up With Marie Kondo;" "Mary Poppins Returns" (Denise Crew/Netflix/Disney)
"Tidying Up With Marie Kondo;" "Mary Poppins Returns" (Denise Crew/Netflix/Disney)

It was only when I saw the blood dripping from my mouth that I wondered if maybe I was taking the whole Marie Kondo thing a bit far.

Like many a January cocooner, I’ve been binging the home-organization superstar’s new Netflix show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” with the intensity of a person who just last month rearranged her kitchen cabinet purely for the fun of it, wrangling all the little bags and boxes of rice and oatmeal and pasta and beans into rows of proud Mason jars, all labeled and corralled into appropriate zones for more efficient browsing and meal planning. I’m not a naturally tidy person, nor am I a minimalist by any stretch of the imagination. What I am is a systems enthusiast. Some writers procrastinate by cleaning or baking; I’ll spend an hour in Target picking out the perfect containers to straighten out my bathroom closet. If I can’t figure out the right organizational framework for my book project just yet, I can at least bring some order and beauty to the dried beans stash.

I’ve never read Marie Kondo’s blockbuster book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” but I have read approximately 1500 search-engine optimized articles about her KonMari Method so I’m pretty sure I had the routine more or less down before I started watching. Throw things out that don’t “spark joy,” but thank them for their service on the way out. Cute, though it never motivated me to open my sock drawer and sit with my emotions. But after the first couple of hours of the TV show, in which the tiny smiling guru travels in a pristine white shirt to a different house in each episode and helps a sweet, mostly-functional family deal with whatever major emotional blocks are keeping them from optimizing their space — in the end someone usually cries, but they’re joyful tears — I opened the refrigerator to grab a snack and ended up reorganizing the entire contents. Now all nine of my mustards are standing together, unapologetically, waiting to be put to use. I did not thank any of the elderly olives lingering in the back of the shelf before I threw them out, which I realize now may have activated some kind of curse.

After two more episodes, I couldn’t stand to open the cabinet where we keep the coffee and tea stuff anymore. How do two people own this much tea? After I separated and labeled like a boss, I marched my husband into the kitchen and demanded he praise the work. In retrospect, his look of wary alarm should have been a warning.

Reorganizing your tea stash is not exactly what I would call “life-changing magic” nor is it bringing me closer to the solution for my creative problem. But it did put a cocky spring in my step. It’s so easy, as Anne Helen Petersen points out in her insightful Buzzfeed essay “How Millennials Became the Burn-Out Generation,” to succumb to “errand paralysis.” The burn-out that comes with working pretty much 24/7, in a world in which stagnant wages in precarious industries with non-negotiable student debt looming overhead is the rule rather than the exception, can make dealing with non-emergency “adulting” feel like the last priority on Earth. I’m not a millennial, and by most objective measures I live a nice enough life, but I did watch five other people’s houses get cleaned — because I planned on writing about it for work, naturally — before I bothered to separate my own herbals from the Earl Greys. In that headspace, any small adulting victory feels like landing a body blow on the ever-encroaching chaos.

While taking notes for this essay, I had another flash of insight about my kitchen cabinets, because this is what Marie Kondo makes you do, think deeply about your kitchen cabinets as a metaphor for your life. Don’t be a procrastinator, I told myself. Be the kind of person who takes care of business cheerfully in the moment! So I skipped lightly to the basement to retrieve the container I knew would solve my disorderly onion storage problem. Which is when I tripped, flew down the stairs and introduced my face to the basement’s concrete floor.

I limped back up to the bathroom mirror, opened my mouth to check for dental damage and saw nothing but blood until I could stanch the flow from my busted lip. The cheekbone under my left eye was swelling, my teeth felt unsettled and weird, and who knew what was going on underneath the skin of my rapidly swelling arm?

I had adulted myself right into an urgent care facility, where I had the pleasure of having my (good, employer-provided, thank god) health insurance denied inexplicably by all three third-party eligibility verification systems the clinic, which is part of a large hospital network, uses in place of communicating directly with the insurance companies, likely for efficiency on one end and cost-cutting on the other. (How many largely invisible companies are making money off our convoluted health care system without ever contributing directly to patient care? A lot, as it turns out.) Trying to figure out the problem some faceless interface said I had over the phone with a representative from my insurer, while also trying to hold both an ice pack and a washcloth on my face so I wouldn’t start bleeding again in this very public waiting room? Did not spark joy.

Which brings me to the underlying reason I think so many of us right now love to watch strangers fold their t-shirts properly: organizing a kitchen feels possible. Fixing something necessary and yet broken like our stupid, impersonal, expensive, and utterly baffling health care system does not.

Pinned to the side of my otherwise tidy refrigerator is a card with an insurance rep’s name and a reference number and an assurance of approval scrawled on it by the clinic, which should be protection against an unexpected bill for my X-ray, but who really knows? I am clinging to it like it’s a priceless family heirloom.

* * *

“Mary Poppins Returns” is ostensibly a children’s movie but it’s really made for today’s adults. As Jodie Eichler-Levine wrote here in Salon, "We need Mary Poppins because right now we are desperate not for escape, but for an adult in the room and for the comfort that comes with the everyday actually going as planned."

Emily Blunt delightfully reprises the role Julie Andrews made famous for Disney as the solve-it-all, omnipotent nanny who taught the Banks children how to make tidying up a fun game while convincing the elder Mr. Banks to lighten up a bit.

In the sequel — charmingly peppered with signs of romance between lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer, in splendid trousers), now a grown up labor organizer — Mary Poppins returns to the Banks home as Michael (Ben Whishaw) is struggling in the wake of his wife’s illness and death. The late Mrs. Banks kept the place afloat while Michael dreamed, apparently, and while he has managed to drag himself every day to a job at the bank, where he’s resigned himself to working now instead of pursuing his art, he’s hopeless at running a household — even with a housekeeper on site — and faces eviction from the once-proud Banks home after forgetting to make payments on the loan he took out against the property when his wife was sick. He’s paralyzed by crushing responsibility, grief and depression, and impending financial doom, and it's heartbreaking. (Warning: every kind of spoiler for this film's plot lies ahead. You've been warned.)

His three children pick up the slack for him, strategizing on their walk to the store about how to stretch the budget using grocery hacks their late mother taught them like asking the baker about half-price day-old bread. Unlike Michael and Jane, who were mischievous youngsters in their day in need of just a little whimsical order to keep them from driving their uptight father crazy, Michael’s kids are tiny adults by necessity, convinced they don’t need the magical nanny who just flew in on a kite because they’re basically running the place anyway, albeit poorly because they’re still in grade school. It’s Michael who really needs the nanny as he scrambles to find the stock certificates his father left him, which he has carelessly lost in his hoarder-hole of a house, in order to save the family home from his evil banker boss (Colin Firth), whose corrupt actions call to mind contemporary stories like the Wells Fargo "computer glitch" that caused hundreds to lose their homes in the foreclosure crisis.

All of this is to say that what Michael Banks lacks isn't just his wife but any wife; that’s more or less, minus the romance, what Mary Poppins represents, as her arrival instantly smooths out the rough edges of the home and allows Michael to focus on the task at hand. He gets a nanny instead — pause to consider the devastating irony — but through her generous and seamless wisdom and guidance, the children learn resilience and the value of play, which leads to Michael finding the stock certificates just in the nick of time. (The real kicker, when an elderly banker actually saves the Banks family from his awful heir, is a particularly far-fetched adult fantasy as well.) Mary Poppins even manages to stop time in order for Michael to beat the bank’s deadline, and she nudges Jack and Jane together in her spare time. Thanks to Mary Poppins, Michael's errand paralysis doesn't wind up sending his family packing into Jane's single-gal flat, and since it turns out the stock certificates are worth far more than the loan balance, now he can even quit his job and devote his time to his art while being a present parent for his kids, who can finally stop worrying about how much a loaf of bread costs.

This is how we know “Mary Poppins Returns” is a fantasy for adults, not kids: Who doesn't want a wife, for reasons the seminal feminist essay by Judy Bayers (then Syfers), published in the first preview issue of Ms. Magazine in 1971, lays out so starkly? Like many of my generation I first read that essay in freshman comp and it changed my entire view of what an adult should be — her own wife, more or less, even when partnered with another adult.

* * *

My husband was with me in the waiting room of the urgent care center, but because our insane health care system makes it cheaper for each of us to be on our own employers' plans, I had to advocate for myself through the blood and bruising because my name's the one on the policy. For about two minutes after we got home I thought I had lost the piece of paper with the approval information recorded on it, and I broke down and cried like a lost Banks child. Had Mary Poppins clacked through either door on those Fluevogs of hers and taken over, I would have let her.

Michael Banks had a wife, and she died, which devastated him emotionally. But her sudden absence also exposed his inability to function on her level — to adult — under the pressures of becoming a single parent during an economically harsh time, with nearly devastating results. Who among us can judge? When you're your own wife, chances are you've dropped the adulting ball once or twice yourself, and wished for some version of a Mary Poppins to magically pick it up again and set things to right.

Because she projects such serene joy at the process, Marie Kondo turns the annoying drudgery of tidying up into a game, not so unlike the original Mary Poppins' "Spoonful of Sugar" nursery cleaning trick. She doesn't move into her clients' homes, but her arrival, while not unplanned like Mary Poppins', happens with both great fanfare and a combination of trepidation and excitement. She's going to change things, is the fear, even though all parties understand that the change is needed, if only because it's unpleasant to work around stacks of Christmas decorations on the dining room table.

The real story of each household isn't in the smaller box Marie suggests they nest inside a larger box to keep ties untangled but rather what the disorganization in the individual homes represents: grief over the death of a husband, an empty-nest marriage adrift, a mother trying to be all things at once to her kids and husband, a fear that parents won't take a same-sex relationship seriously. The implication is that by optimizing our living areas, we can open up the space to work through the complex emotional issues that lurk in the clutter.

Should otherwise stable adults be capable of organizing their living spaces once it becomes apparent they need to without being sold a method? Sure — just try to keep your blood on your insides. But that doesn't mean the pressures that can cause errand paralysis can be erased through the KonMari technique alone. Those pressures are not just internal, as "Tidying Up" highlights, but also external, as both Petersen's BuzzFeed essay and Tiana Clarke's urgent and necessary follow-up, "This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like," explain (and the corrupt foreclosure in "Mary Poppins Returns" demonstrates).

Losing ourselves in the soft, pastel-edged fantasy of Kondo's game, though, can remain a welcome distraction from the constant battles against faceless forces we are beholden to outside of the walls of our homes. It's an alluring fantasy, the idea that a stranger — a benevolent and stylish and kind stranger, no less — might swoop in and gently nudge us all toward a better life. "I love a mess!" Kondo declares with delight at beginning of each episode when the shame-faced residents are forced to bare their awful closets to the camera. Maybe she can work her life-changing magic on the health insurance industry next.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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