Beauty and the Battlefield

YouTube is one hell of a beast. A video-sharing platform originally conceived to publish slapstick slip-ups – it’s founders citing Janet Jackson’s accidental flash at her 2004 Super Bowl show as inspiration (charming) – over the past 15 years, YouTube has, unequivocally, revolutionised the visual.

This is not a cliché, nor an over-amplification (and, no, I am not being sponsored to say this); the opportunity for anyone with merely an internet connection and the impulse to ‘share’ content with strangers completely changed the nature of visual content in entertainment. YouTube unhinged the bounds of video communications, out of the hands of the few top media executives and into the public sphere, granting self-publishing power to anyone who might desire it.

As the platform began to amass growing audiences around the world, advertising revenue opportunity boomed. Young TikTok devotees might not remember a time on YouTube – it’s rusty, antiquated predecessor – when adverts were sparse, infrequent at best. But, in its youthful days of hopeful singer songwriters and meme culture beginnings, YouTube was an undisturbed abyss. For sure, Gangnam Style’s music video might have asked you to watch a short advert or two. But as for most of the random crap on this endlessly-expanding platform, YouTube was a free-for-all dive into the magical wonderland of limitless content.

Then YouTube grew up, and it wanted money. Advertisement soon proliferated the platform, from the products and services sold before a video’s beginning, to commercial sponsorship of the very content itself. Fair enough. I guess we should have seen that coming. There is not, after all, such thing as a free lunch.

Yet whilst we might accept that free lunch there is not, advertising has in fact trickled down to the cellular level of the very content itself, making it difficult to divorce ulterior motives from non-partisan media. Enter: the make-up tutorial.

YouTube’s beauty world has come a long way. From Jenna Marbles’ iconic make-up impersonations to Jeffrey Star’s terrifyingly amateur days, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest that it is now a whole different ball game. 10 years ago feels like 100 in internet generations. But whereas Jenna and Jeffrey started out as those early YouTube hustlers – making content for unbeknown audiences for the genuine thrill of the new medium, not commercial gain or career moves – the beauty sphere is now much, much bigger.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest woman in United States congress and a fiercely successful one at that. Passionately committed to fighting for equality and human rights for the everyday American public, AOC (as she is known on Twitter; a perfectly snappy stage name) is a beam of hope for those looking for progressive inspiration in a sea of otherwise Republicans and Democrats. Her recent annihilation of congressman Ted Yoho in the House of Representatives – a refreshingly powerful, rhetorical sermon on sexism and patriarchal inequalities – is only the latest in a sequence of events that is earning AOC a spot on the political world stage.

But AOC, millennial, entrepreneurial, cunning as she is, hasn’t stopped at the confines of the electoral system to push her agenda. Unsurprisingly, a Netflix documentary Knock Down The House was made in 2018 about her rise to Congress, which AOC took in her stride. Like any good businessperson, AOC knows her audience, and how to get them.

Yet what came next was something new altogether.

Ocasio-Cortez recently featured in one of Vogue’s celebrity beauty tutorial videos usually reserved for the likes of pop star Rihanna and supermodel Kendal Jenner. Talking through her seven-day work schedule and beauty interest origins, AOC demonstrates which serum, toner, foundation, cream contour, mascara, eyeliner and lip stick gets her through the long working day fighting the Trump administration (queen). Given that she mentions growing up watching make-up tutorials on YouTube herself, it’s interesting to see how seamlessly she adopts the persona of a beauty influencer.

Whether it was AOC’s pitch, or an idea from Vogue’s own editorial board, somehow the video developed into something much greater than make-up trends. It became political. Through elegant brush strokes on her taut cheekbones and carefully poised placement of kohl eyeliner, AOC gracefully slipped into a discussion of female subjugation in the workplace and protection of queer rights (12:10) as if the ties between her political work and the way she applies her make-up need no explanation.

As is the standard formula for these Vogue tutorial videos, AOC is expected to talk to the camera about the minutiae of her daily experiences: her interests, her concerns, the hacks she uses to achieve her “signature red-lip” look. But is this different to, say, Kendal Jenner explaining her skincare routine? Or even to Rihanna sharing her next Fenty enterprise? It seems that when political agenda crosses over into Vogue’s YouTube videos – so crucially close to the inestimably important 2020 US election – something else is at work here.

Is the YouTube beauty sphere now another political battlefield? Will AOC reach vast numbers of young female American voters by momentarily reinventing herself as an internet influencer? Could something like this video, which is so easily watchable, so readily available to millions of American citizens, swing votes? What might have previously been apolitical territory, the make-up tutorial so embedded in popular culture is no longer just selling image, ideals and products. YouTube now holds a portion of the battlefield, and AOC is wasting no time playing around.