What If You Just Didn’t Clean That Up?

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

Good news: America has officially entered its messy-house era. It’s been a few years coming, at least since we all accepted slovenliness into our hearts during the COVID lockdown. TikTok has helped turn our heads away from the ideal of the Insta-perfect home interior, which, finally, people are realizing is culturally neutered and aesthetically boring. Then, this past week, Marie Kondo herself admitted her house is a mess now that she has kids, a statement that was received like a divine pardon by mothers the world over. Meanwhile, Julia Fox proudly offered us an unapologetic tour of her quite-messy apartment. Our domestic cultural norms feel like they move in geologic time, slow as plate tectonics. But then, sometimes, little earthquakes happen.

I’ve been waiting for this change for a long time, not because I love a mess, but because I have always had conflicted feelings about the moral supremacy of cleanliness. When I was young I lived for long periods of time on a commune in Vermont that my father had helped found in the 1960s. It was a very wonderful place (it still is), home to a rotating cast of interesting people. It was also very dirty. Messy and dirty. The mess was not generally considered a problem. Or, if people really hated it, they left. Desultory cleaning occurred, but not on any routine schedule. There were no “chore charts” at this commune. People had other things they wanted to be doing.

But the moral imperative to be clean still haunted the margins. I used to love going to play at a the house of a neighbor whose parents kept a beautiful home. I loved everything about this house: The Aveda soap in the bathroom, the cans of Knudsen fruit spritzers in the fridge, and the turkey-ham sandwiches with a pickle on the side that we were served for lunch. At the commune, lunch for the kids was usually pasta seasoned with a liberal splash of tamari, spooned onto a thin paper plate that would later be burned on a big bonfire in the orchard. Being at my friend’s house, where everything was clean and orderly, was a balm for my tiny Virgo soul.

The commune mothers were not amused when I told them how much I liked it over there. Not long after, my friend’s mom was at the commune for a cookout. “Well, the kids seem to think you’re quite the Martha Stewart,” she was told archly. I knew this was meant as an insult, though at the time I couldn’t figure out why. Who wouldn’t want to be like Martha? But Martha represented an ideal of domestic mastery that the women of the commune had been strenuously rejecting for decades by that point. Even so, not even people who choose dirt are immune to the shame of being called dirty. My preference for clean houses stung.

It’s a curse to be a commune Virgo. I admire order, but I don’t associate it with joy and I never really learned how to create it, so I live in a state of mild self-disgust most of the time. I’m forever thinking about ways that my versions of clean are other people’s versions of dirty. Or, put another way, how other people’s versions of clean are beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed. (I learn a lot from CleanTok, which was introduced to me last year by Jess Grose.) We hire a cleaner who comes every two weeks, which is just about the minimum that we can get away with to contain our mess.

Everyone’s definition of what clean looks like might differ, but what clean means — what it says about a person — becomes undeniable the more you ask what cleanliness “is.” Like Tressie McMillan Cottom’s recent writing about “blond,” “clean” is mapped to status. Some people get to be messy, and other people don’t. Dirty and messy are not the same, but they operate along the same status hierarchy. Given that we’re living through a time when heterosexual domestic roles are in the excruciating process of being renegotiated, and Marie Kondo has given us permission to leave the mess for another day, it’s worth asking how and why these hierarchies continue to exist.

The hierarchy of acceptable messes

Every so often, a photograph of an incredibly messy office resurfaces on my social feeds. It was originally a tweet, the caption of which read, “If someone ever criticizes your tidiness, show them this, the New York Review of Books office.”

You’d never use the messy office of an ambulance-chasing lawyer or a CPA during tax season to defend your own mess. Those spaces do not elevate mess because they’re not considered sites of brilliance at work. But in the office of The New York Review of Books  — or the studio of Francis Bacon, to cite another famous example — mess is a sign of minds engaged in more important pursuits than tidying up.

Who else gets to be messy? Anyone considered brilliant in their field. Hot 23-year-old white girls. (Mess permission is absolutely linked to race and class, and I don’t think hot people of color are granted the same mess pass as hot white people. Obviously, unbrilliant, unhot people of all races are shit out of luck with regards to mess, and poor people? Fetch your brooms.)  Charming bachelors, newly divorced dads, yes. (Newly divorced moms? Not sure about them, but I’m leaning toward no.)

Everyone else is held morally accountable for their mess, to varying degrees, and this is out of step with the actual conditions of people’s daily lives. We need our ideas about cleanliness to catch up with reality, because they are stuck in the mid-20th century, when most women didn’t work outside the home. We might finally be inching toward that place — but Julia Fox shouldn’t have to change the world all by herself.

Women were responsible for housekeeping for thousands of years, up until just a few decades ago. So there’s no mystery as to why we are still the ones who carry the moral weight of cleanliness. I’m not saying it’s right, but I do think it’s obtuse to pretend that it doesn’t make sense. This obviously isn’t biology talking, or even necessarily the expectations of our partners. It’s the pressure of centuries of social norms. When we talk about the process through which men are taking on more domestic responsibility, we often focus on how they should notice and care more. But I wonder if Marie, Julia, and my commune mothers weren’t right: Women can afford to care less. For two-income families who can’t afford a full-time housekeeper, maybe caring less is where the solution lies. I know there are some readers who bristle at this because it smacks of lowering one’s standards to accommodate masculine laziness. Valid point! But also, the people who came up with our working definition of clean didn’t work outside the home. Why is their definition still in use? Who benefits?

What is cleanliness even about anyway?

Cleanliness has historically been about well-being, peace, and, to a lesser extent, health. But “clean” and “dirty” are also categories dreamed up by social groups. Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, an essential 1966 text on cleanliness rituals and what they mean, is a wonderful guide to better understanding the way that cleaning has functioned as a ritual in different societies, rather than as a moral imperative.

Douglas’s research showed how cleaning rituals harmonized social relations — they made people feel good. Wiping down a countertop can be a form of praying; just ask a Zen monk. Cleaning in premodern societies was often about marking special moments and observing transitions from one state to another. We still do this when we take part in spring cleaning. But one of the many things that suck about living in a neoliberal social system is that these rituals are pressed into service as forms of self-improvement. Cleaning rituals have gone from private forms of ritual pleasure and devotion to performances of efficiency and competence loaded with moral significance. How boring!

Meanwhile, product marketing has convinced us that we have to clean obsessively for our health. I can report from extensive first-hand experience that things can get quite filthy before people are actually getting sick. Most of us have the privilege of living at a very safe distance from real problems of sanitation. As a fear-mongering tactic, the concept of sterility works incredibly well, but it’s a charade unless you’re dealing with very contained spaces. (Lysol wipes? Good luck, honey. The germs are everywhere.) Common-sense habits, not special products, are what keep us from getting sick. If COVID didn’t teach us that, nothing ever will.

Social media might be nudging us gently toward liberation. As I’ve written elsewhere, TikTok has rendered influencer-perfect neutral-toned home interiors obsolete among Gen Z, although they do still persist on Instagram. There have been some recent examples of #hotmessmoms creating viral content of their truly trashed kitchens. Even Taylor Frankie Paul, she of #momtok fame, recently posted a legitimately messy pic of her monstrously large Utah kitchen. All of this suggests that norms are changing, slowly.

Anyway, wash your kids’ backpacks once a week if you must. Shampoo your rugs; dry-clean your curtains. If these rituals bring you joy, nothing should stop you. It’s the shame and the gendered moral obligations that we’re outgrowing, not the fresh scents.

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What If You Just Didn’t Clean That Up?