The Narcotic Pleasures of #Cleantok

In the lowest depths of my pandemic torpor, one of the few things that would lift my spirits was watching organizing videos on TikTok. In 2020, while my kids were doing distance learning, I occasionally closed my bedroom door to muffle the sounds of at-home third grade and pre-K and submerged into the tidy, satisfying world of another mom cleaning and then restocking her spotless refrigerator with a colorful array of fruits, vegetables and adorable mini pepperoni.

While there are many #cleantok creators and fans (that hashtag has around 30 billion views as of this writing), my favorite is @midwesternmama29, who has 3.7 million followers. Her name is Monica Brady, and when we recently video chatted, I learned that she’s a 28-year-old mom of three girls, living in rural Michigan. Brady told me that she had no experience as a content creator or an influencer (though she hates that term — she calls herself a “feral influencer”) before she started posting cleaning and organizing TikToks in the fall of 2020.

I, too, default to skepticism when it comes to the world of momfluencers. Especially on Instagram, when I see them posing with their aesthetically pleasing, apparently well-behaved children against the backdrop of a beach/farm/mountain during the golden hour, my gut always says, “You think you’re better than me???”

But I don’t feel that way when I watch Brady’s videos. She generally doesn’t face the camera, allowing only a well-manicured hand to come into view. You tend not to hear her in them, either; there’s no narration, telling you what you should be doing or how you should do it better. Mostly, you hear the satisfying sound of efficiency, like snapping containers full of strawberries shut in one fluid motion before swiping them out of frame. Or the edifying thud of a refrigerator door being confidently and tightly shut. I don’t enjoy most traditional A.S.M.R. — I can’t stand whispery voices or fingers tapping — but the sounds of tidying really do it for me.

I called Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University who researches the internet and motherhood, to ask her why she thought I found Brady’s videos so absorbing and full of comfort. She agreed that the lack of narration is key. “If she were narrating, it would be intolerably annoying, because there’s a moral imperative to be clean, especially for women,” she said. “There’s a sense you should be a good housekeeper and having a dirty house is on some level a moral failure. If she told us what she was doing, even if she didn’t mean to, it would come off as ‘Do what I’m doing.’”

I get the appeal, for some, of Marie Kondo and her method of organizing, which involves considering objects and evaluating whether they “spark joy” before discarding or keeping them; the household struggle is real, and sometimes decluttering can seem overwhelming. But for me, there’s actually a satisfaction in organizing my apartment because it’s a task that allows me to blissfully redirect my racing brain. I don’t want an organizing philosophy as much as I want to stop thinking.

Jezer-Morton also thinks these kinds of videos aren’t “inherently soothing,” necessarily. “We’re soothed because of the conditions we are living in.” Which is to say, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, which we can’t control, and are confined to our homes much more than we otherwise might be or would like to be. And she’s probably onto something: For me, being immersed, even briefly, in a digital space that is fully organized and efficiently managed is like a sedative.

Brady agreed that the pandemic has changed the way we think about our homes. She said that her fans tell her that her videos allow them to romanticize otherwise mundane moments in their lives, to take pleasure in the repetitive ritual of their morning coffee in a way they didn’t before. Jezer-Morton told me that after I introduced her to Brady’s videos, she immediately went out and purchased a nice-smelling surface cleaning spray. “I didn’t even own a surface cleaner before,” she said, telling me that she told herself: “I’m going to get one that smells good. This is going to be really nice.”

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a piece for The New Republic about how cleaning was the final feminist frontier. Cleaning is still coded as female, and women feel they are judged for a dirty house in a way men aren’t. In a 2019 research paper, Sarah Thébaud, Sabino Kornrich and Leah Ruppanner wrote, “although women’s housework hours have declined in recent years, women continue to do more housework in most households, even those where women’s earnings are the same as or greater than their husbands.”

It should go without saying that this is deeply unfair and that male partners should expect to — and should do — their fair share without prodding. And as long as household cleanup is something that women continue to do the majority of, we should get credit and maybe even compensation for it. That’s another pleasure of Brady’s and other #cleantok videos: She makes visible the work of cleaning and organizing that is otherwise invisible and underappreciated.

Her videos require a lot of work. She told me that sometimes they can take up to a full day to film and edit, and to keep getting served via TikTok’s algorithm, she has to post frequently — ideally once a day, but she doesn’t always meet that goal.

She films with one hand because she feels her followers appreciate a more natural and relatable aesthetic, though her efforts are somewhat aspirational in the level of tidiness achieved and the abundance of products stocked up on. “Some people find me to be unrealistic, but for the most part, people like me because I’m realistic. I shop at Walmart. A lot of my décor is from Walmart or Amazon.” she said.

Brady told me that she produces the videos herself and that to monetize her content, she also does all of her own affiliate marketing, communicating with advertisers and interacting with commenters; for her, this is the start of a new career. Right now, she said, she makes more per month than her husband does. (She says he’s very tidy, too, and that he cleans their bathrooms and folds laundry at night while watching TV.)

If she’s being well compensated for bringing entertainment and comfort to her viewers while she parents, I’m thrilled. I hope more and more creators doing this kind of work will get paid, and I think it’s important that creators of color get paid on par with their white counterparts. And even though I still don’t know what half the stuff Brady puts in her laundry is, I bet it all smells incredible.

Want More on Cleaning and the Momternet?

  • Kathryn Jezer-Morton has written several must-reads about the evolution of influencer moms over the past two decades. This one and this one are my favorites.

  • Two other cleanfluencers I love: @quenwilliamss, who does cleaning hacks that are particularly helpful to me when I’m in sloth mode. And @thefoldinglady, who finally taught me how to fold a fitted sheet, those infernal things.

  • Meg Conley, who writes a newsletter about domesticity called Home Culture, addressed the complicated politics of depicting household labor on social media.

  • In 2016, Taffy Brodesser-Akner profiled Marie Kondo for The New York Times Magazine.

  • In 2019, Jolie Kerr (of “Ask a Clean Person” podcast fame) wrote a guide for The Times titled “How to Keep a Clean (Enough) House With Kids.”

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