"Hello Combabes, and welcome to my channel! Today I'm going to show you how to do this classic look, and also tell you why the housing system is completely fucked."
This is how Clementine Boucher aka YouTuber 'Combabe Clem' opens one of her more popular videos, but they all have the same vibe. Whether she's doing a make-up tutorial that's also an education on how to do a rent strike, or taking about the scam of lean-in feminism whilst doing K-beauty product reviews, Combabe Clem is using the mass appeal of beauty vlogging as a vehicle for leftist political discourse.
Challenging the serious, masculine aesthetic often attached to leftist politics, Boucher – who studied politics and philosophy to postgraduate level and also organises with the activist group Rent Strike – uses her channel to combine real beauty tutorials with anti-capitalist and feminist theory. Among her videos are: "WHY YOUR SKIN CARE IS BULLSH*T || My beauty routine ft. depression and collective care" and "PAINT YOUR NAILS AND GET EMPOWERED! || Beginner nail tutorial ft. empowerment under capitalism."
The objective, she tells me, is "to get people to enjoy the videos that wouldn’t normally watch politics, while sharing profound political ideas."
As the political divide grows larger and more extreme on all sides, we spoke about what the left needs to do to attract support, why beauty tutorials are one way of doing that, and the role of glowing up in the revolution.
VICE: Hi Clem. 'Combabe' is a great word. What do you mean by it?
Clementine Boucher: It's the combination of ‘comrade’ and ‘babe’. Feminists have been using it to feminise the word ‘comrade’, which can be used in a very rigid, patriarchal way. ‘Combabe’ challenges that by softening the word, and opening the movement up to women and non-binary people.
Make-up and political education are unlikely allies. Why did you decide to unite them?
I used to watch beauty tutorials a lot, and there was one that was the impetus for my own channel. It was about covering bags under your eyes, and the YouTuber was like, “Put on a mask, put on concealer, blah blah blah.” And I was like, “Bitch! I just came from a 12-hour shift talking to people that I hate. Why can't I just abolish work?”
I wanted to create a channel to challenge the idea that we have to ‘conceal’ things we don’t like, instead of attacking them at their roots. While the rest of beauty YouTube offers individualised ‘solutions’, I wanted to tap into that same (massive) online audience to talk about structural, feminist change. My approach is like, okay: I’ll show you how to put your make-up on, but you’re also going to learn how to fight for progressive change. Abolish work, strike, build your union!
How does doing someone's make-up while interviewing them about radical politics change the dynamic?
It makes it makes the conversation more intimate. There’s a candidness in doing someone’s make-up, and I touch people’s faces, which can make the chat less tense. One interviewee said that closing her eyes when I did her eye make-up helped her talk more freely. Making sure people are comfortable when I interview them is really important to me.
Some of the political topics are really difficult, but in doing the person’s make-up at the same time, I want us to remember that we’re just bodies and emotions existing in the world. I want to take that into account, because even if people are "experts" they’re still people with feelings. I don’t want to perpetuate the masculine, patriarchal, capitalist idea that because you’re talking about a topic you have to detach yourself from it.
Beauty tutorials usually promote neoliberal ideas around 'self-optimisation' or shallow versions of 'self-love'. How do challenge this?
Capitalism says, ‘Go buy a face mask, go buy a bath bomb!’, which might make us feel better for an hour or two, but does nothing about the source of our pain. I want my videos to highlight that capitalism itself is what’s making us depressed. I want to show that, while make-up can be fun and even make us feel good, in order to address the source of our pain, we need to connect with each other, not to individualise our problems. It is that connection that helps build strong movements and collective care.
Feminists who are 'against' make-up are often trans and sex worker exclusionary, too. What's your take on where feminism's at on the left?
It’s very divided. There are big struggles to make feminism more accountable to whiteness in the movement, and sex worker and trans struggles are amazing – I wish they had less of a fucking hard time. The so-called ‘radical feminist’ side is just anti anyone who is not biologically or temperamentally ‘suited’ to what they think being a woman is, and what they think being a liberated woman is.
What about make-up's role in feminism?
The radical feminist analysis is that anything that has been created by the patriarchy is against women’s essential freedom. But deriding women for wearing mascara does nothing to fight patriarchy. The only way to destroy the system is to take what it has forced on us and unpick it. We need to locate what exactly is wrong about make-up, so we know what exactly should be rejected.
There's definitely there is something really awful about the way that makeup has been used to mean ‘empowerment’ for women in capitalism: put your make-up on, feel good because you look good and knock down that glass ceiling! Make-up as a tool for empowerment, I think, only happens in specific cases where you actually resist structures that would oppress you. For a trans woman, wearing make-up might mean not being harassed in the street. Or wearing make-up might be an act of rebellion if you belong to a group that is not ‘supposed’ to.
A lot of people haven't had access to feeling beautiful in society because of their ethnicity, their gender, their disability. It can be part of a political struggle to take make-up and say: “I’m beautiful, I don’t want any of your racist, patriarchal, ableist shit.”
How do you approach the negative sides of the beauty industry?
I want to put the emphasis on the structures and material conditions that oppress people. So I wouldn’t want to abolish make-up, but to look at the material production of make-up. The make-up industry is incredibly exploitative of people and the environment in the Global South. That’s really what’s not ‘empowering’ about make-up, that’s the oppression of make-up that we should be fighting.
The right on YouTube has gained a lot of traction. What do you think the left could do to turn the tide?
YouTube is a great opportunity to get more, diverse voices out there to millions of people. But on the left, we need to understand how to use the platform well. Too much of left YouTube is inaccessible, hour-long, jargon-y ‘video essays’ by white men. There’s a place for that kind of reflection, but it can be self-righteous and patriarchal; you’re not empathising with the person watching. There’s a reason why there’s a certain demographic watching these videos and not the rest of the population.
We need to be making videos that acknowledge that people already know about their own lives. We already complain about our rent, our debt, about what it’s like to be a woman in this world. From there, my videos just give you a little bit more to think about – without trying to get you to read Hegel or anything.
The left needs to be making more humorous, light content, to connect with new audiences. If there’s something nice to look at, it becomes much easier to stay on the channel. What about a left cooking channel, or lifestyle blog, or satirical comedy sketches? For me, it was about finding the compromise between really radical, anti-capitalist feminist ideas and actually being approachable.
What role can glowing up have in the revolution?
In my Twitter bio I’ve written, "We want bread – and glowy foundations, too!" as a play on the political slogan "We want bread and roses, too!" In the revolution, ‘glowing up’ might mean that as well as surviving and having basic rights, we want vibrant lives. Of course we do! We want abundance, to have fun, to live together, to share joy, and to care for each other! Imagining how beautiful life could be gets me excited about politics.