While your laundry is piled up in a corner waiting to be folded, social media serves up videos of put-together women in idealized versions of homemaking.
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Rachel Bolstad watches cleaning videos when she needs motivation to clean her own home. By searching YouTube for “clean with me videos” or “how to wash dishes”, she finds cleaning routines that calm her down when a task feels too overwhelming.
“It’s nicer to watch a cleaning video than listen to news, or think about work, or listen to my brain telling me how boring and hard cleaning is, and how it takes forever and is so pointless and endless,” Rachel says.
Watching videos like “How can a home get so dirty? | Cleaning for free” — where cleanfluencer Aurikateriiina cleans the home of a man who suffers from depression and struggles to keep his house tidy — fills her with motivation and a sense of empathy. “These videos help me remember that the messiness or tidiness of our spaces is not a moral or character flaw or attribute, rather they are sometimes an expression of how our brain works,” she explains. That particular video from Aurikateriiina, who has amassed more than 1.28 million followers, has 1 million views and counting.
Cleaning and tidying up videos have become a staple of the scroll through social media. From satisfying “Sunday reset” reels on Instagram to unmissable cleaning hacks and tips on TikTok to ASMR videos that claim to be relaxing, this kind of content is clearly here to stay. But what makes them so appealing to a broad audience, and what are the effects of this trend on how we understand house and care-based work?
Housework and carework have been historically gendered fields, and the realm of cleanfluencers hasn’t shifted this reality: This is content that is made by a majority of women influencers, for an audience that is mostly made up of women who cannot afford to hire professional help. Of course, there’s something satisfying about watching someone do the tasks you also have to do in a neatly edited format, but many of these influencers also offer tips and cleaning routines to make tasks more manageable. In a way, these videos can offer support for burned out women who have no choice but to perform unpaid housework.
For cleanfluencer Aurikatariina, who self-identifies as the “queen of cleaning” and has over a million followers on YouTube, her work is all about helping people who struggle to keep a tidy home because of mental health issues. “At first, I just wanted to show everybody how fun and easy cleaning can be,,” she says. “I started posting normal cleaning videos to TikTok summer 2020 and soon after that my videos went viral. I didn’t know that people would like cleaning videos that much.”
What started as a small TikTok account with 19 followers has now become an invaluable public service: Aurikatariina doesn’t only create cleaning content of her own home, she cleans houses of mentally ill people who ask her for help for free as well. She has been responding to requests for a year and a half, always posting the results on her channel, and now she cleans one house a week. Ultimately, Aurikatariina is helping people with their mental load and resetting their environment.
“I believe that your home is a reflection of your mind,” she said “When you don’t care about yourself, you don’t care about your home, either. And even if you care, you are sick and tired, maybe you try to clean it, but it is so overwhelming and you feel like you’re failing. It’s a very hard situation when you are suffering in your home but you don’t have the strength to clean it.”
Cleaning videos function in a similar way to soothe the viewers’ brains. For working women, it’s a break from what Duncombe and Marsden term as the “triple-shift.” While a majority of women in 2022 have paid employment outside the home, they still remain responsible for the majority of household tasks and care for children.
“Watching these videos gives us a sense of satisfaction, even if we are not completing the task,” explains Katherine Blackler, a certified personal organizer and founder of SortMySpace Ltd. “Many of the tasks are quite relatable to things that we either do ourselves or that we know we’ve got to do ourselves. And so I think in that respect, people watch these videos because it is relatable.” When we watch these videos, Blackler says, we get the same sense of satisfaction for the completion of the task, even though we haven’t actually done the task ourselves. “In a way, this is a form of visualization,” she says. “You’re just having it done really easily for you because there’s the instant gratification of visualization.”
The comments of some of these videos reveal varied reasons for watching. One user, after watching an hour-long ASMR cleaning relaxation video, says it reminds them of their mother cleaning when they were younger: “[My mother] always [had] her hair done, makeup, dress, and jewelry while doing housework. Thank you for the lovely video with beautiful music and for evoking such wonderful memories of my mother.” Another user comments that videos like this make housework less lonely: “Work at home can be socially isolating […] but your videos demonstrate that we are not alone, and the work of ‘home’ can be as useful and beautiful as work outside the home.” Some viewers use the videos to simulate company during the mundane work of cleaning and tidying up: “This lovely video was the perfect way to get my busy Monday morning started! (Hearing Bach during the dishwashing was particularly lovely!!!).” For Floss Knight, psychotherapist and CEO of therapy platform UK Therapy Guide, these videos have been especially popular during the pandemic. “Cleaning videos are satisfying to so many people because they turn messy situations into perfect ones—something that is so difficult to replicate in everyday lives,” she says. “As we enter almost 24 whole months of the pandemic, it is natural that so many enjoy scenes of calm control. Many of us are overworked or burnt out, and it is visually pleasing to see a distinct before and after.”
As I come back to write this article after vigorously sweeping my living room and bathroom, wiping the sweat dripping from my face, I note how easy some cleanfluencer videos make cleaning look. A cleanfluencer would probably cut the camera before it became obvious that housework is physically demanding labor. But at the same time, taking a break to focus on making my environment cleaner, taking care of my surroundings, gives me a boost of motivation to sit down and write.
For sociologists Emma Casey and Jo Littler, who wrote a paper on the rise of the cleanfluencer and its implications for women who do housework, these videos and their effects are a result of a stressful neoliberal culture that is reframing housework as a kind of therapy for women. The stressful life of the contemporary woman, they argue, is compounded by two factors: neoliberal capitalism and patriarchy, which trap women and anyone who does housework into double or triple shifts of paid work, unpaid housework, and unpaid care work.
By analyzing the content of UK-based cleanfluencer Mrs. Hinch, Casey and Littler found that the cleanfluencer is a recent development of media content that persuades and disciplines women to do housework, particularly in a precarious world where many things seem out of our control. “There’s a way of speaking to followers that acknowledges the shared sense of stress and anxiety that everybody suffers,” Casey explains. “But here is an accessible promise of a solution. We’ve all got smartphones, we all have access to Instagram. You know, if I can do this, then you can do this, too.”
Casey and Littler point out that the primary audience for these videos are women who cannot afford to hire cleaners to help with the bulk of the housework, and that much like the happy housewives commercials in the 1950s, this content “softens” the idea of housework. While your bed might be unmade and your laundry is piled up in a corner waiting to be folded and put away, the video you’re watching shows a woman who is very well-put-together effortlessly vacuuming her room, restocking her pantry, prepping her meals, and whatever else a good little house worker should be doing. And the therapeutic offer of cleaning videos is gendered and classed: Men are very rarely featured in this kind of content, and there’s an insistence that if you organize your housework properly, you’ll find it as effortless as the cleanfluencers you watch.
“Cleanfluencers exploded in popularity during the pandemic,” Casey emphasizes. “It was a way in which housework was almost in some ways being reinvented, but in other ways, being reproduced in very familiar tropes, particularly around women taking responsibility for household chores in a cheerful and uncomplaining way.”
Littler points out that this isn’t the first time women have been promised a better life—if only they fall in line and do the chores without complaint. “It’s a repackaging of the promise of happiness, satisfaction, calm, and order,” she says. “Importantly, it’s a solution to those feelings of anxiety and stress. But of course, the solution is a very neoliberal solution, the solution is cleaning, cleaning with a smile, and not overthinking and not complaining, and not nagging. So it’s a sort of contemporary way of repackaging the earlier sort of promises and myths around house housework and the supposed appeal to women.”
The cleanfluencing field also contains some contradictions: While feminists have historically emphasized that cleaning is unpaid housework that should be compensated, the cleanfluencers who reach a certain level of fame are actually well-paid for their housework content. Mrs. Hinch’s net worth stands at almost $2 million. Though this is a small minority of cleanfluencers, it demonstrates the individualised and unequal dynamic of the economy.. “A lot of people are very overloaded in terms of their everyday tasks and working too much because of the precarious nature of neoliberal capitalism,” Littler said. “So these accounts offer good information sometimes, and also a magical sense about how it can be resolved.”
According to Silvia Federici, the invention of unpaid housework demanded the erosion of collective communities that did housework together. In Caliban and the Witch, Federici describes pre-capitalist communities where laundry and cleaning in general were collective tasks, during which women would talk to each other and socialise, thus leading social lives outside their homes and families. The modern isolation of housework, where each household is expected to be maintained by a matriarch, might also have something to do with the explosion of cleanfluencing.
Perhaps what we are longing for is a collective mode of housework rather than the daily exploitation of our labor. These videos, in addition to providing visualizations of clean and tidy spaces, can also provide the sensation that we are not alone in our struggles at home. But to come up with a solution for the overloaded lives women and femmes are forced to live, we must think outside the box of neoliberalism, capitalism and patriarchy. While cleanfluencer videos might be a good solution for now, their satisfaction is finite and the next load of laundry we need to do, unpaid, is just around the corner.
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