A clean house

The economics of CleanTok and making domestic labor public

February 28, 2024

“No matter how hard you scrub,” says Roo’s voiceover on her bathroom deep clean video, “the bathroom will be dirty again in a week.”

For a few months, I’ve been adding every “CleanTok” video that has come across my “For You” page on TikTok to my bookmarks. They tend to follow a pattern: All of a sudden, a room requires a full-on scrub. Every corner soaped up and rinsed; every box, bottle, and storage container lifted and bleached. Often, the video has been sped up and edited with deliberate cuts, and there are multiple angles of the washing action while the voiceover explains what’s been done. Is there satisfaction or merely curiosity in watching someone else clean their house? Are we looking for the inspiration to get up and scrub the grout of our own tiles? Roo’s bathroom cleaning has been viewed 1.5 million times.

Women account for over 50 percent of social media users and over 60 percent of social media professionals. The only algorithm I can speak for is my own, but fashion, beauty, and the general aestheticization of domestic labor tasks provide the bulk of the content I see on a daily basis. The former categories, as supportive of conspicuous consumption and being generally escapist in nature, I understand; the latter, I am simultaneously fascinated and confused by. (There’s certainly consumption here but no escape.) They stir in me an urgency to figure out whether I’ve been cleaning all wrong, whether my house smells. I find myself wondering about unnoticed corners filled with dust, or mold lurking in places I’d never thought to look. These videos inspire in me an inadequacy that no makeup video could. I am, after all, a child of the ’90s who was raised by Janeane Garofalo and Daria: the Kardashians hold no sway over my vision of myself. But my home and how clean it is? As a married 38-year-old woman without kids and a job most people don’t understand is actual work, this is where I can freak out!

It could have something to do with being personally struck by the feeling that nothing will get done—not my writing work, not the housework—unless I can split myself into two people. When I’m in the throes of writing, I can usually, must usually, train myself to ignore any mess, any errant hairs on the bathroom floor or dust on my desk. Working at home invites this: When I look up from my laptop screen, what I see are all the other things I could be doing to keep a tidy home, to prep dinner, to decorate better. Much of the time, to quell the anxiety before I feel ready to return to my work, I scroll through social media, where I’m increasingly confronted with other people doing the domestic labor that taunts me. 

Working at home invites this: When I look up from my laptop screen, what I see are all the other things I could be doing to keep a tidy home, to prep dinner, to decorate better.

I’d never been a tidy person, but this has changed in my late thirties. As a child, the only real cleaning tasks my mom would give me would be to wipe down the wooden furniture with lemon-scented Pledge and clear off the dinner table. Maybe I would empty the dishwasher. On boring summer days when I got a burst of energy and goodwill, I’d vacuum and wipe up the kitchen of any evidence of my frozen-pizza adventures so that my mom would arrive home from work to a clean house and a fresh pot of coffee. Once I lived on my own, I’ll admit that I was very into what a Swiffer could do—wet and dry!—and my time running a microbakery had me washing so many bowls and whisks that a doctor told me I was prematurely aging the skin on my hands. 

Now, I’m making up for lost time and a seemingly lost education in precisely how to scrub the grout. As a food writer, there are traditional domestic tasks that provide me with creative and intellectual stimulation, but I can’t fight the desire for the wall where I set most of my food shots to be absolutely pristine or make a joke when it’s not. I can also no longer pretend every apartment is just a pitstop along a robust life’s journey; this one, which is floor to ceiling white, has been home for nearly four years. And so I have finally come to understand the mental health implications of a house that’s not spick and span: In short, it makes me angry. 

The aestheticization and monetization of the mundane duties of domestic labor make sense for the current cultural and economic moment. During the pandemic, it was mainly women who left the workforce to attend to family life—nearly 2 million, by one count. Many custodial parents who were pushed out of the workforce have taken to social media as a way of finding community, and influencers have been there to monetize: Nik’s Side of CleanTok has 2.5 million followers; Lori of @nowitsclean boasts 1.7. Often, these cleaning and domesticity influencers are using a combination of Amazon affiliate links and brand deals. According to CNBC, there’s potential for creators with over a million followers to make $250,000 from one branded post. These influencers feel part of the long, storied tradition of “mommy blogs,” which first took off in the aughts, where writers chronicled the ups and downs of married life and parenting, at times striking revenue gold

Feminist geography, as a discipline, has chronicled the ways in which unpaid housework and its gendered division of labor can be both disrupted and monetized through online documentation—and how that monetization can bring it into the neoliberal marketplace, where popular creators pursue brand partnerships to sell various cleaning or cooking products. It is creative labor on top of domestic labor to make all of this content, to manage and execute brand partnerships, but it’s also a kind of artistic expression that manages to, in a backwards way, obtain the ever-elusive wages for housework Marxist feminists such as Silvia Federici have sought. Yet it uses capitalism to do so, rewarding the same people who reap the most in traditional professional worlds: the white, the cis-gendered, the heterosexual.

It is creative labor on top of domestic labor to make all of this content, to manage and execute brand partnerships—but it’s also a kind of artistic expression.

There are more than just the monetization and aestheticization paths for domestic labor online: There is also the theory path, pursued by people like the writer Joanna Walsh, who created the hashtag #theoryplushouseworktheory to chronicle doing daily domestic tasks like ironing or mopping while listening to work by cultural theorists. The Turkish blogger Elif Doğan used the hashtag #invisiblehousework to make visible her own labor, and through doing so came to write books such as Motherhood Is Not Always Rosy

“Some of the posts under #invisiblehousework aim to complicate the home-work boundary by quantifying domestic tasks,” writes Nazlı Özkan of Doğan’s Instagram presence in “Envisioning Domestic Labor on Instagram: Changing Parameters of Visibility under Neoliberal Digital Capitalism.” “The quantification aims to highlight the resonances of domestic work with paid organized labor at workplaces.” Of course, this is likely a less lucrative way to mine one’s unending domestic labor for content (if my wages as a writer are any indication). 

Yet if there’s no escape from cleaning and cooking, we can at least use the time to think, and to think about what it means that there’s no escape. For me, the situation is literal because home is where I work. Indeed, I’m now writing my second book in four years, which has required much more concentration at my desk than when I was a freelancer flitting about New York City working on five low-stakes assignments at once. Though my husband manages the Roomba from his phone, does all the laundry, and cleans up the dishes (and we often divvy up other leftover tasks), he also has a nine-to-five job that allows home, for him, to be a space of near-pure relaxation. It can’t be that for me, a situation compounded by gendered expectations and anxieties that I thought I’d been immunized against. So often in popular culture the domestic is not in conversation with the intellectual and the creative, but positioned solely as its opposite: an obstacle to thinking and creation. (I have an ongoing list of lines where women writers wave away cooking or cleaning as an insignificant nuisance.) When I am at my desk wanting to split myself in two, I am indeed doing so because I want to quiet the devil on my shoulder who whispers in my ear that I won’t think clearly until everything is tidied up and organized. I want to quiet that devil because he’s right, and every “CleanTok” video makes him more powerful.

So often in popular culture the domestic is not in conversation with the intellectual and the creative.

There’s an endless litany of usually gendered anxieties and insecurities that influencers can play into, either because they’re not aware of them or because they’ve seen an opening in the popular niche. Sara Peterson in her book Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture writes, “Even liberal Instagram moms tend to tout devotion to children and home as a type of resistance, when in fact this aligns them with advertising that has historically deliberately portrayed the labor of caregiving and housework as a combination of joy and feminine moral duty.” By being beholden to the same old market forces as women’s magazines once were, individuals on social media repeat the same old tropes. There’s simply nothing new here, no matter how nice it would be for social media to have a truly revolutionary potential. 

What would a real domestic labor revolution actually look like? The bind here is that one does want a clean house; one does want well-cared-for children. Similar to wanting to look young or wear on-tread clothing, that these desires are all coded as feminine is the knot that needs untangling. How to untie desires for beauty and calm from the patriarchal notion that these are women’s wants and women’s jobs, especially when they’re not just for women’s benefit? Perhaps showing all the work and monetizing it is a step in that direction: No longer pretending these are easy, intrinsic tasks without financial value can make them important.

Making the labor of these desires visible can help subvert the demand that work coded as feminine be invisible, despite social media’s corporate ownership and drive for profits. These are the shackles of neoliberal digital capitalism, and we still don’t have wages for housework.

The answer, for me at least, is to get the hell off CleanTok.

Performing domestic labor in a sanitized and aestheticized package for a social media audience—as popular and lucrative as it could potentially be—ultimately seems to add more pressure to viewers who are mostly women—a group expected to complete the tasks and to enjoy them. I’m now going to say, I hate cleaning; I love having cleaned and let that be that. The answer, for me at least, is to get the hell off CleanTok and push the algorithm to serve me more dogs and Copenhagen style girlies. It’s also, maybe, to allow myself more of a mess.

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