In her 2018 video “FALL CLEAN WITH ME MARATHON,” YouTuber Amanda (aka This Crazy Life) opens by directly addressing her viewers. In an upbeat tone, she says, “I know you guys love the super long cleaning videos because it gives you all the cleaning motivation you need.” And so for over 100 minutes, we watch as she cleans out closets, vacuums under couches, and does the dishes. This video has over 1.6 million views.

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Clean with Me” is a small but incredibly popular genre of online video, especially beloved among mommy bloggers and lifestyle influencers. These videos watch as women (and they are almost exclusively women) clean their brightly lit beige homes, often playing out at two or three times normal speed. Many have voiceovers that mix upbeat motivational speeches, product endorsements, and self-pitying denigration. These videos express the implicit tension of social media engagement: the deep need to connect versus the pressures that come with sharing the intimacies of one’s life on a global stage. 

The appeal of “Clean with Me” is clear; these videos operate in a similar vein as ASMR, hydraulic press videos, and even pimple popping, being viscerally “satisfying” to watch. But they also have the personal and voyeuristic touch of lifestyle blogging. The biggest stars in this genre are “authentic,” a catch-all term encompassing quirky personas who are also honest enough to share their struggles. “I love being a mom, but…” is a common refrain. Expressions of stress and frustration are integral to a relatable brand, and audiences don’t seem forgiving of anyone who fails to nonetheless express an infinite well of gratefulness. 

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This authenticity hinges heavily on illusions. The women dress up to create “dressed-down” appearances. They wear designer sweats with matching pink gloves and full faces of makeup as they clean their toilets. Their various McMansions are basically indistinguishable, and all seemingly have a charcoal-colored L-shaped couch (spotted here, here and here). For the most part, they are cleaning and recleaning spaces that are already spotless by nearly any standard. The repetition of their routines guarantee their houses are never “dirty,” merely “cluttered.” Real dirt and grime would undermine the illusion that they have a handle on their lives. 

It’s integral to understand that this genre seems almost exclusively American (there are a handful of notable exceptions from the UK and Canada). These women’s lives seem catered to appeal to an American housewife type that holds to traditional values, though updated to account for “efficiency” culture. These women embody a new kind of housewife, one who has chosen to stay at home with the kids, but will still contribute monetarily to the household. Many have a side business (if nothing else, their time-consuming miniature social media empires), and their husbands often work in real estate or the military. If those men appear on camera, it’s most often as background decoration. It’s unclear whether they are unwilling participants, or if their presence just aesthetically disrupts these intimate feminine spaces. 

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Another key to the genre’s appeal is the use of double and triple speeds. It springs from a practical need; a video of someone cleaning in real time would be too long and mundane. Scored to upbeat royalty-free music, sequences of women speed-cleaning countertops give the viewer a kind of boost, in the same way a workout playlist might push you to run a little faster. It also maintains the grandest illusion of all: that the work these women are doing is brisk, easy, and rewarding. The women often invite viewers to clean along with them, but realistically, how could they? At their heart, the videos expose inadequacy. The audience literally cannot keep up. 

And the participants themselves become crowded with guilt, their videos littered with self-flagellation for their perceived failures. The weight of perfection becomes crushing. It doesn’t take long for the veil of ease and aspiration to fade away. They become portraits of people held to impossible standards, trapped in a social media hell of their own creation. Clean with Me videos are Sisyphean portraits. We know that by the next day, there will be another load of laundry and another sink full of dirty dishes. In the realm of perfection, these basic facts of life become failures. The need to clean becomes both a source and a balm for one’s sense of insufficiency. 

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This genre exposes a greater truth about our use and engagement with social media, particularly its illusion of connectivity. These women who work from home and take care of their children are often isolated from the adult world. While just a few decades ago, their labor was invisible and ignored, the internet offered an opportunity for them to connect with women like them and share the work involved with being a stay-at-home mom. Yet it often seems that the more success these women gain, the lonelier they become. Isn’t that fundamentally true for all social media engagement? We feed into it to feel connected, and yet the deep well of insufficiency only grows. Our lives no longer belong to ourselves and our loved ones; they belong to the social media machine.

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.