In the wake of Martha Stewart’s public disgrace, TV pundits instantly began speculating on who would take over Martha’s mantle—as if America desperately needs a domestic icon to keep the place from falling into slatternly disrepair. Be not afraid: All across the cable box, shows like Clean Sweep and Mission: Organization are proliferating, an outgrowth of the organization industry that has emerged in recent years to defeat the clutter engulfing us. Even fashion makeover shows have shifted their boundaries to include houses: Extreme Makeover now has a spin-off, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy always gussies up the dwelling along with the doofus.
Just as makeover gurus propose that how we look determines how we feel, these cleaning shows suggest that eliminating stuff will transform our inner selves. That’s why people are willing to spread their worldly goods on their front lawns in several of these series and let strangers judge what’s “useful.” Removed from the home’s womb-like enclosure and exposed to the harsh light of day, all those books, pillows and tchotchkes they’ve clung to don’t look so special or intimate anymore.
The Life Laundry, a fascinating British import on BBC America, approaches the purging process with more gravitas than some of the other shows. It tends to feature people in a transitional phase whose emotional paralysis has turned them into hoarders. Take Anita, who let her house go to seed after her domineering husband, Cyril, passed away seven years ago. According to Anita, Cyril warned her, “You won’t know what hit you when I die, you don’t know how to do anything.” Mournfully, she adds, “He was right.” Her house looks like Miss Havisham-land: fridge bloated with long-expired goods, a bedroom and spare room clotted with Cyril’s stuff. “Seven years of clutter,” announces the show’s host, Dawna Walter. “It’s time to let go of the ghosts.”
Walter is an American living in England, part “de-clutter” guru (founder of a British organization chain store) and part New Age denizen (she’s a Reiki master). The Life Laundry‘s angle is that mess isn’t just a consequence of everyday living and the time-crunched schedules of working men and women—am I sounding defensive yet?—but a sign that something is terribly amiss. Walter often reduces her subjects to tears when she confronts them with their emotional blockages —incomplete mourning in Anita’s case. On the BBC America website, Walter explains, “Clutter holds you back from actually releasing you from things you really don’t want to do anymore.” She convinces Anita to trash 70 bags worth of old stuff, chucking the most sentimental items into a giant crusher machine and putting a few choice items up for auction. Then she turns Cyril’s old study into an exercise room, so that Anita can get her body into shape for this brave new life.
Mission: Organization on HGTV styles itself as a more straightforward home improvement show, helping out newlyweds who have crammed too much stuff into a new house, or reworking the tiny studio apartment of a young Manhattan woman. In the latter case, a self-proclaimed “apartment therapist” named Maxwell Ryan tosses out most of his client’s mediocre furniture, sticks up lots of wall shelving, and voilà: a space worthy of an Ikea catalog!
My personal favorite is Style’s Clean House, the least solemn of the bunch. At the helm is a loud African American comedian called Niecy Nash who says “Girl!” a lot, and keeps her team—a designer, organizer, and tag sale expert—on a tight leash. Niecy’s candidates tend to be in less dire circumstances than The Life Laundry‘s—a clotheshorse, for instance, who can’t bear to give away any garments. (With good reason: That skirt you just gave away will be back in fashion before you know it!) Like most of these shows, Clean House forces people to relinquish treasured objects and furniture, something that horrifies most of its subjects. When asked why she surrounds herself with so many things, one woman replies, “Because they all have meaning.”
Housekeeping is one of the most tedious occupations known to humankind, yet somehow these series inject an element of excitement and suspense into the process. Will she agree to give up that teddy bear collection? Will he freak out when his trophies are carted away? In both Clean House and TLC’s Clean Sweep, the tag sale is the cathartic centerpiece around which the show pivots—a fantastic transaction which shifts junk from one clutter bug’s house to another. With the profits from these tag sales, each show’s decorating team can spend the second half of each episode whipping up a fresh new look.
I’ll admit that I find this fantasy of stripping away unnecessary clutter extremely satisfying. But as in makeover shows like What Not to Wear, the result often feels generic: a house robbed of eccentricity and character in the name of style. You can chalk it up to the legacy of Martha Stewart, this striving for perfect order in our lives, this privatized utopianism. As Margaret Talbot noted in a 1996 essay in The New Republic, “To read Martha Stewart is to know that there is no corner of your domestic life that cannot be beautified or improved under careful tutelage, none that should not be colonized by the rhetoric and the discipline of quality control.” So why not throw out photo negatives, favorite books, and furniture passed down generations, as these shows coax their participants to do? We might as well buy newer, better things that match, because as far as the organization experts are concerned, our sentimental journeys are eminently disposable.