May 24, 2022

Gwyneth Paltrow, Mila Kunis are pushing women to invest in NFTs

Gwyneth Paltrow and Mila Kunis joined a Zoom in January to encourage 5,000 women in the audience to break into the male-dominated world of crypto.

“We have watched a lot of these bros get together and earn a lot of money,” said Paltrow, sporting a black turtleneck, sun-kissed glow and a disarming smile. “We deserve to be in this space just as much.”

Kunis had recently launched a cartoon series with her husband, Ashton Kutcher, that uses NFTs, a digital deed often used to sell digital art that exploded into a $25 billion market. “We are so conditioned as women to be risk-averse,” Kunis said. “I want to take risks and I want to see what happens.”

The two-hour event resembled a pandemic-era PowerPoint party, where friends share slide shows on random topics, and LuLaRoe, the multilevel-marketing company that convinced women to bulk-order brightly colored leggings by promising sisterhood and financial independence. It was hosted by BFF, a community co-founded by Brit Morin, a press-savvy start-up founder and half of a Silicon Valley power couple, to launch collections of NFTs.

Morin closed the event by offering everyone in the audience a free NFT of a friendship bracelet that is trading for at least $3,000 on the secondary market, with 7.5 percent of those sales going back to BFF. The friendship bracelet unlocks early access to purchase BFF’s official NFT collection when it launches in April.

Will NFTs transform the art world? Are they even art?

From start-up capital to investment opportunities, women have long had limited access to tech riches, a pattern that is now repeating itself in crypto spaces. Twice as many men invest in cryptocurrency as women, according to a 2021 CNBC poll. A Quinnipiac University poll from March found that 43 percent of women had heard of NFTs, compared with 61 percent of men, while 20 percent of women said they heard or read a lot about cryptocurrency, compared with 38 percent of men.

But welcoming more women into the fold comes with clout, and BFF is not alone in capitalizing on it.

NFT projects promoting gender diversity in crypto, several donating some profits, have won social media followers, Hollywood deals, corporate sponsors and celebrity fans. Boss Beauties, an NFT collection of “beautifully diverse, empowered women” has deals with Barbie and Neiman Marcus. Eva Longoria bought two NFTs from the CryptoChicks collection, which celebrates “the unique, diverse beauty of all women around the world.” World of Women, an NFT collection devoted to “representation, inclusivity, and equal opportunities for all,” partnered with Reese Witherspoon to develop the characters for movies or TV.

Critics, however, see in some NFT projects the revival of the girlboss, an archetype of self-serving feminism from the 2010s, personified by start-up founders who positioned their ability to break into the boys’ club as progress for the greater good. 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.

“These projects are very clearly centering mostly White women or mostly women who already come from a lot of privilege,” said Adrienne Young, a social media strategist who helps women of color learn about crypto and NFTs. “It felt like buzzwords for people to eat up so they felt good about supporting a women-led project.”

Like the girlboss, these NFT brands mix hustle culture with the language of social justice, blurring the line between community and commerce, and dangling empowerment as a customer acquisition strategy.

Randi Zuckerberg, the older sister of Meta’s chief executive, told the BFF crowd that six months ago, she was just like them.

“I was skeptical, I was confused. Fast-forward to now, I now own more than 100 NFTs!” Zuckerberg said, comparing NFTs of digital art to collecting designer handbags.

The pitch for gender inclusivity is a much softer sell than seen in celebrity TV ads and sponsored posts. But these women-focused projects also hinge on the same logic that drives the rest of the crypto market: FOMO, or fear of missing out.

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Crypto skeptics say these efforts overpromise the financial upside and gloss over the risks, propping up an overhyped market rife with scams and hacks. Meanwhile, crypto enthusiasts are dismayed by the way high-profile projects have ignored the work of existing diversity efforts and allegedly taken ideas from young women of color without credit.

“If you’re new here, the first thing you say is, ‘Oh my god, I want to bring more women in! I want to create this project that creates money and economic power for women,’” said Faith Love, an artist and community manager at MetaMask, a crypto wallet company owned by ConsenSys, who asked to be identified by her first name for fear of harassment. “People go insane for it. At this point, it’s just bait.”

BFF is sincere in its efforts to empower women, said spokesperson Rakia Reynolds. In a statement, Reynolds said the term girlboss refers to “instances where women-centered empowerment efforts, especially related to tech, have allowed bad actors with toxic traits and supremacy-formed intentions to block access and take up space. BFF is trying to achieve the opposite of this.”

Women-centered crypto groups have largely focused on NFTs, a concept that’s easy to grasp and allow investors the chance to support artists.

But they’re also buying into an unpredictable market that some theorize has already peaked. Most NFTs don’t sell and only a small group of people are responsible for the vast quantity of NFT trading, said Mason Nystrom, an analyst for Messari Capital.

Typically, for artists to get any traction, NFT projects need hype from influencers and celebrities and strategies to pump attention, like giveaways. World of Women’s first collection sold out in a day after entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk promoted the NFTs.

Investors, meanwhile, trade based on early insider information, or “alpha” intel, on which projects are about to mint or which ones seem like fraud. “The boys are getting loaded rich doing this stuff,” another founding BFF member, entrepreneur Moj Mahdara, warned on the January Zoom. “It’s all through inside secrets, it’s all through friendship groups like this.”

Mahdara, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, told The Washington Post they were part of an alpha chat with Vaynerchuk and others and saw how the men moved fast to make money together as a crew.

Paltrow and Mahdara started their own “alpha chat” group on the encrypted messaging app Signal in early 2020, after questions about crypto and NFTs started to bubble up on a separate Signal chat about beauty and wellness. The group, called Crypto Collaborative, has about 25 people, including Witherspoon and Longoria.

What is an NFT, and how did an artist called Beeple sell one for $69 million at Christie’s?

NFTs have a special appeal for celebrities because they represent a new kind of source material for storytelling, just like graphic novels or books, said Adam Friedman, an executive at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the Hollywood talent agency that represents Paltrow, Kunis, Kutcher, Zuckerberg and Witherspoon.

CAA has its own NFTs investments, including funding OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace in the world, valued at more than $13 billion. Friedman said early in the crypto boom opportunities for celebrities were mostly “cash grabs,” so CAA advised clients to wait. The female celebrities now championing women-led projects are doing so out of a genuine interest in empowering women, he said.

“If these high-profile women can help onboard a bunch of young women who otherwise may not have paid attention to the space, that’s a win,” Friedman said.

The girlboss concept shares the same core idea as Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book “Lean In,” said Frankie Mastrangelo, a sociology researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University. Both encourage women to grab a seat at the table by striving for money and power within an inequitable system, without questioning the root causes that might prevent someone from being in the room in the first place.

The girlboss just added trendier aesthetics, Mastrangelo said. “Instead of Sheryl Sandberg’s pantsuit, we’re in a leather jacket.”

But in a rush to signal inclusivity in a male-dominated market, some women-centric art ends up feeling oddly flat. CryptoChicks was started by three Russian men and a female Russian artist. Its NFT collections are a form of generative art where the artist draws a base character and features, then uses a computer program to spin out thousands of unique combinations. This method allows for a diversity of skin colors, which has made buyers excited to support the projects. But it has also led to an infantilizing sameness in some of the designs, with nameless women characters whose backstory is limited to a “Future CEO” T-shirt.

The end result, Mastrangelo said, is that the characters share a standardized Instagram aesthetic, with all individuality filtered out.

Controversy within crypto circles arose after Kunis described BFF in an interview as a “a way better, cooler” free version of a well-known crypto social club called Friends With Benefits, which has a Black co-founder and a diverse membership. In a viral clip, Kunis also claimed that BFF also had “way less money laundering” than its competitor.

“Gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss,” Medha Kothari, a crypto investor and co-founder of she256, a nonprofit seeking to bring more women into crypto, wrote on Twitter in response to Kunis’s video. The alliterative phrase, popularized on social media during the pandemic, has become an anti-slogan encapsulating criticisms of millennial White feminism. Kothari told The Post she was mostly joking, but stressed that in the early phases of this new technology, it’s important to listen to underrepresented voices so the industry doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

“We like Mila, no bad blood. And we’re big fans of the “Friends With Benefits” movie,” said Alex Zhang, mayor of Friends with Benefits. Kunis and Longoria did not respond to requests for comment. Witherspoon and Paltrow declined to comment.

BFF and CryptoChicks have both been accused of borrowing ideas from less prominent creators. CryptoChicks has received complaints about plagiarism from two female artists. After claims arose that one of the images in CryptoChick’s original collection was traced from the work of Brazilian illustrator Amanda Costa, the group parted ways with the Russian team but has not compensated Costa, who started her own NFT project.

In a statement, executive Elissa Maercklein wrote, “Crypto Chicks was proud to support Costa starting her own NFT project.” Costa told The Post that the only help CryptoChicks has given her so far was a couple of tweets.

In February, BFF was accused of copying the idea of the NFT friendship bracelet, among other things, from Crypto Besties, a similar group run by two young women of color, who spoke to Morin and her co-founder before their launch.

BFF’s Reynolds said, “We would never borrow ideas from another organization.” Crypto Besties co-founder Jaiya Gill told The Post that the two groups had agreed on a plan to collaborate.

The BFF Zoom event from January promised to answer whether NFTs “were all a scam.” But there was little discussion about volatility.

A few minutes into the Zoom conference, Morin pointed to an NFT collection that sold for $69 million at Christie’s, telling the crowd, most of whom reported having little knowledge of the industry, “This is the type of wealth that’s possible for people that are participating in this new ecosystem.”

Comments from audience members, watching the presentations on YouTube Live, careened from celebratory to confused. “Truly feeling part of history right now =))” wrote one user. “They’re going to explain everything,” assured another. Moderators responded to some inquiries, while others went unanswered. “What gives that monkey that value? what makes it worth $500k?” one woman asked about the Bored Ape Yacht Club, a popular NFT collection by Yuga Labs, which recently raised $450 million in venture capital.

Cleve Mesidor, a former Obama appointee who founded the National Policy Network of Women of Color in Blockchain, said telling women they’re missing out ignores the fact that women are often the head of household, managing finances for children and parents. The best way to get them to take risks is to fund financial literacy and skills training, and put access to capital in the hands of leaders of color, she said.

Still, listening to the founding BFFs talk on Zoom it’s clear that even well-connected women have been denied the kind of tech money available to men like, say, Ashton Kutcher, an early investor in Uber, Airbnb and OpenSea. (Paltrow was also an investor in Uber.)

In that way, the crypto girlboss stretches the logic of feminism even further — framing female celebrities pulling up to a table with precious few seats as a sign of progress as though they’re going to share the secrets of their wealth with you, their new best friend.