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About six months ago, my Twitter feed started getting confusing. I couldn’t tell the NFTs of cartoon women apart.
World of Women, which is a collection of illustrated portraits of women, was one of the earliest and splashiest—the one with a film and television deal. Women Rise, which is a collection of illustrated portraits of women, expressed in its “roadmap” a commitment to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Boss Beauties, which is a collection of illustrated portraits of women, was the first NFT set to be displayed at the New York Stock Exchange (whatever that means) and then announced a partnership with Barbie. Flower Girls, which is a collection of illustrated portraits of women (with flowers growing out of their heads), raises money for children’s charities. And Fame Lady Squad, which is a collection of illustrated portraits of women, turned out to be orchestrated by men and had to be rebooted under new leadership.
normalize being a ✨girl in crypto✨ who like’s fashion, getting cute nails, ordering over-the-top cocktails, & is still better than any male in the industry 💅
— crypto besties (@cryptobesties_) March 22, 2022
Five years ago, women might have purchased empowerment in the form of a boutique fitness class or admission to a women-only social club. Now they can do so with NFTs, or “non-fungible tokens.” Today’s girlboss is discussing cryptocurrency investments in an exclusive Signal group chat, while other “blockchain baddies” congratulate themselves on being so early to investment opportunities that still baffle much of the population. Some women-focused NFT projects give money to nonprofit organizations that benefit women; others supplement their NFTs with “utilities” such as educational courses and access to real-world events; and still more seem primarily designed to “empower” women by making them as common a sight in the crypto world as hideous monkeys and pixelated little dweebs. But most of them rely on the general idea that buying an illustration of a woman (or girl or lady or babe) will provide you with access to a forward-looking online community.
“I think that some of these projects can be really exciting; they can come about from solidarity and collaboration,” Amy Whitaker, an assistant professor of visual-arts administration at NYU’s school of education, told me. NFTs are a way of recording property, so they have potential for economic transformation; wealth could be redistributed without the slog of pursuing government intervention. At the same time, she said, some of the projects seem to be co-opting feminist politics to make money. “It’s a time in the world where one has to be absolutely clear-eyed about what is a symbolic gesture and what is structural.”
Given that all of these projects are promoted in the same feeds, and that many draw on similar aesthetics, “clear-eyed” discernment can be a challenge. They are “a bit cookie-cutter,” says Christiane Paul, an adjunct curator of digital art at the Whitney Museum and a media-studies professor at The New School. For example, Women and Weapons, an “NFT Collection of 10,000 diverse, beautiful, and badass women” that promises to donate 5 percent of its profits to the Malala Fund, depicts a set of Sims-esque characters with mixed-and-matched design elements—colorful hair, facial piercings, brass knuckles, cat ears, nunchucks, etc. Compare that to 90s Babes, a set of NFTs of pretty women holding up Beanie Babies, disposable cameras, and other relics, which “celebrates our history as agents of change”; or to Miss O Cool Girls, which claims to be the first NFT project “celebrating + supporting girls + what it means to be a female of the future” and comprises pictures of “the realest girls w the realest traits” (cartoon characters with perfectly round heads, a variety of fashion accessories, and skin tones in a confusing range of human shades and hues of purple). If sincere players and con artists are working the same room here, they’re using the same words and the same images, and their consistently good branding makes it hard to tell one from the other.
Legit dumped my bf because he wouldn’t stop shitting on me buying nfts and I just hit a breaking point.
Kinda sad ngl but I refuse to be with someone who I can’t talk to about my hobbies / passions (aka nfts) without being ridiculed.
Nfts changed my life he’s ngmi ✌️
— OpenCiara 🌊 (@openciara) March 31, 2022
Where are the (living, breathing) women in the blockchain world? According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, men in the U.S. are about twice as likely as women to say that they’ve bought, traded, or used cryptocurrencies. They’re also significantly more likely to say that they’ve heard “a lot” about them. This was the impetus behind the creation of Boys Club, a collective for women and nonbinary people who are interested in learning about crypto. “I get that it feels fringe-y now,” Deana Burke, a co-founder, told me. “I want women sitting at the table being witness to this and deciding whether or not they want to be involved.” Boys Club, which calls itself a “no bro zone,” recently launched a podcast and started hosting monthly talks on crypto-related topics at a restaurant in Brooklyn.
Women-led crypto projects make a point of downplaying the lingo around blockchain technologies, which can leave a novice bewildered by opaque references to “lambos,” “shills,” and “FUDders.” (The women do take part in some inside jokes, and have appropriated terms such as degen, short for “degenerate.”) They are also developing their own norms around the buying of NFTs, and many participants emphasize the tokens’ value as long-term investments, as opposed to quick cash-outs. “You see whales with a lot of [ether cryptocurrency] buying and flipping,” Leah Sams, the artist behind the Power of Women NFT project, told me. “Those are people I’m not really interested in.”
But efforts to ease women’s entry into the world of crypto slip easily into pandering. On Instagram, the basics of the blockchain are laid out in pink text on top of, for no obvious reason, photos of Rihanna and Hailey Bieber. Informational slide sets come in fun colors and with titles like “Gorgeous gorgeous girls make magic with their money.” Some NFT evangelists already sounded like they were recruiting for a multilevel-marketing organization—with crypto positioned as “Mary Kay for young men.” Now that the pitch is aimed at women, this similarity is even more plain. (In place of the faux-intimacy of multilevel-marketing recruiters messaging strangers on Instagram and calling them “hun,” crypto enthusiasts are rather liberal with their use of the word bestie.) In addition to “empowerment,” women-oriented NFT projects promise “financial independence,” echoing the pitch that MLMs have been making to women for decades.
“At SheFi, we believe that financial freedom is feminine,” says Maggie Love, the founder of an educational platform with a stated mission of “onboarding more women into the new financial economy.” “We believe that women can start to unlock opportunities across all areas of their lives, including overall health and well-being, when they are financially empowered.” Like many of the founders I spoke with, Love wanted to avoid associations with the “girlboss” trope, saying that it was outdated and antithetical to projects founded on community. She was equally uncomfortable with descriptions of her project as “feminist,” partly because she feels that word carries a girlboss connotation itself. Other founders said that feminism may be relevant to their work, but it isn’t central. “If it’s useful for people to put us in a box, if that’s how people can make sense of Boys Club, is by calling us a feminist thing, like, sure,” Burke said. “But I think it’s limiting.”
To the extent that these projects are materially changing the lives of women, explicit references to feminism may not really matter. Lily Wu, a co-founder of the project WOW Pixies—which uses a decentralized autonomous organization to pool resources and invest in NFTs created by women—says her organization helps women experiment with the crypto space without having to go it alone. Members of the WOW Pixie community share a vault of NFTs, along with the perks that come with ownership: The group’s Curious Addys NFTs give them access to educational resources; its Meta Angels NFTs have a lending function, so they can be loaned to anyone who’s curious to see what it’s like to join an NFT-based online community. The collective gets income from monthly royalties on some of its NFTs, and is using that money to invest in projects that community members pick out and research, as well as to develop its own brand. Community members who contribute to this work can earn ether. “At the end of the day, it’s about putting more money into women’s hands, and that can translate into independence and power,” Wu told me.
Other founders talk about “Web3”—the proposal of a future in which online life is tied to the blockchain—as an opportunity to level the playing field. Although it was mostly men who got rich off of the previous iteration of the social internet, and mostly men who have historically gotten rich in general, maybe it’s not too late to create a different outcome for this one. “What do we have to lose by being on the front lines of this new innovation where women can go directly to their audience?” asked Randi Zuckerberg, a co-founder of a Web3 platform called The Hug and the sister of Mark Zuckerberg. “I think anyone who’s sitting and being skeptical is sitting in a massive place of privilege, which means that the old system works for them.” (Asked if her significant personal wealth might affect her ability to comment on systems of inequality, Zuckerberg said she has surrounded herself with “a diverse team and advisory board.”)
But critics point out that many of the women at the forefront of this movement—including Zuckerberg—are already extremely rich. In a recent story for The Washington Post, Nitasha Tiku described the “girlbossification” of crypto, citing instances in which wealthy, famous women pushed hard to get their fans involved. “Despite the upbeat rhetoric from celebrity investors, some people say efforts marketed as financial inclusion are replicating the same power structures that kept marginalized women from making real money off the last tech boom,” Tiku wrote.
The story was shared widely on Twitter by Web3 participants who are excited about the possibilities they see in crypto, but wary of the people at the top. One such participant, Dax Paramanathan, a data scientist with an NFT from the gently scary Shades Of You collection as her Twitter profile photo, told me that she has yet to see evidence that women or people of color are going to get ahead. She takes particular issue with the acronym WAGMI, popular in crypto spaces, which stands for “we’re all going to make it.” “Of course we aren’t all going to make it; that is an unrealistic goal,” she told me. “What worries me is that the people who do make it are predominantly the people who always make it.”
Still, if the Web3 world is coming, there’s no sense in letting men design it alone. “We need diverse leaders in this space to help shape it into what we want it to become,” Paff Evara, a co-founder of the newly created Take Up Space collective, told me. In theory, those leaders would then come up with something that we haven’t seen before. That is to say, something other than digital trading cards of cool-looking ladies. “Selling an image of a bored ape or a babe … I don’t see a huge difference,” said Paul, the digital-art expert from The New School.
Pretty witches. Pretty women soldiers in the Ukrainian army. Pretty minimalist drawings of pretty girls with no eyeballs. Pretty “women from Venus.” Can’t women be trusted to recognize what might benefit them without the condescending marketing? I’m a woman; I care about women’s economic equality. I take myself and other women seriously, so how could I possibly invest in a scene in which women tweet about “fellow baddies” building “empires,” and dress their digital avatars in “JPEG Morgan” hoodies? I can’t get excited about Shonda Rhimes buying a picture of a sexy bomb. (Sorry, I meant a digital record that serves as proof of ownership of a picture of a sexy bomb.)
Many of the women in Web3 I spoke with for this story were disappointed by the suggestion of these doubts. It seems to them that women in crypto are being judged more harshly than the men, and that women’s entrepreneurship is somehow inherently suspect: When women do it, it’s worse. I can understand that argument, but I don’t think it’s correct. Expecting women-led projects to do better and more isn’t holding them to an arbitrary, sexist standard. It’s holding them to their word.