The evolution of NFT thirst traps

(Commissioned for the public by the Makeup Museum)

Happy Hanukkah!

As we wrap up 2020, a uniquely chaotic year, I’m thrilled to debut this multimedia newsletter edition with #BeautyStories. It’s a non-fungible token (NFT) inspired by New York’s Makeup Museum. Special thanks to the anonymous feminist artists behind Buterin Sisters for contributing to distribution (and the animation visible on Rarible). You can buy the #BeautyStories NFT here.  

It coincides with the museum’s book launch today. For those who prefer paper to digital collectibles, the Makeup Museum and L'Oréal USA worked together to publish the (analog) book “Beauty Stories from Around the World.” To participate in this global series, post your own photos on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #BeautyStories.

I’m thrilled to complement this anthropological book with a digital collectible, thanks to help from my subscribers. It was you, dear readers, who voted on a Twitter poll for me to write an essay about the trend of thirst trap NFTs.

Special thanks to @Nogoodtwts and @g3nology, who were among the many who used tools like Strike to fund this production. To complement this collaborative work of digital art, we’ll dive into a brief history of crypto thirst traps. 

What’s a thirst trap?

Urban Dictionary defines it as a “sexy photograph or flirty message posted on social media,” usually with the intention of inspiring unrequited desire. 

The term has a negative connotation, implying the creator offers a vain and deceitful “trap” for a viewer driven by loneliness. However, this implies a sexist dynamic that dismisses both the artistry of self portraits and the beauty of affection that demands nothing in return. It’s typical patriarchal bullshit to overlook the craftsmanship of self-styling through fashion and cosmetics. Luckily, educational venues like the Makeup Museum are now chronicling the evolution of beauty and media.

As it turns out, evocative portraits of beautiful women are as old as time. Yet images with passive female subjects, encouraging viewers to fit cultural norms or desire consumer products, aren’t deemed “traps.” For just a few examples, the Renaissance painting by Titian, Venus of Urbino, was part of a broader narrative harping on unrequited lust for mythical perfection. Publications like the Secreti del Reverendo Donno Alessio Piemontese in 1555 told Italian women to achieve this Venus-like beauty by using hair-removal and anti-wrinkle creams, according to historian Bethany Hughes, author of Venus and Aphrodite

Mass media eventually allowed diverse women to become beauty icons, such as when Dorothy Dandridge graced the cover of JET Magazine, in February 1956, then later became the first African-American to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. These days, women use mobile devices to snap photos showing how they view their own beautiful bodies. Women consumers have more power over public beauty narratives than we did in previous publishing eras.

Just like Gal Gadot, the Revlon brand ambassador who plays Wonder Woman in the current film franchise, my NFT interpretation of the character includes gold armor and the Lasso of Truth. Most historical versions of the costume feature a high-cut bottom that exposes the lower body from hip to knee, so I followed suit.

Beyond costuming, Wonder Woman’s understated beauty aesthetic generally involves nude lipstick. As such, my NFT interpretation of the goddess and beauty icon Wonder Woman, was made using products like Revlon’s WW84 Wonder Woman edition of nude lipstick.

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman has been portrayed by different actresses and artists throughout the years, yet retains a unique status among beauty aficionados. 

Doreen Bloch, founder of New York’s Makeup Museum, said Wonder Woman is the comic book world’s most recognizable beauty icon, adding that a November 2020 survey with 250 respondents indicated 70% of Sephora shoppers consider themselves Wonder Woman fans. 

“Beauty rituals require action on the part of the consumer, so there is a force that is inherently ‘in charge’ or action-oriented about beauty,” Bloch said. “Wonder Woman is an emblem of beauty because the audience views her as someone with a strong sense of agency, making her one of the ultimate beauty and self-empowerment icons."

Over the years numerous companies, from MAC to Revlon, marketed Wonder Woman-branded cosmetics to selfie-savvy fourth wave feminists, to the point where some critics believe “empowerment” messages lost all meaning. The nude lipstick I’m wearing in this selfie NFT is called “Raise Your Fists.” It’s kitschy as hell. But I’m an informed consumer who signed up to enjoy a little cheesy fun. In this selfie I’m literally a journalist wielding a metaphorical Lasso of Truth.   

Empowerment means “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's own life or claiming one's rights.” There’s nothing entirely exploitive or sexist about monetizing desire. Whether a thirst trap is “empowering” or not depends entirely on how it was made, and why. Framed by this context, a thirst trap is just a normal person (without Gadot’s management team and fame) using selfies deliberately. 

Any implication that a luxury makeup ad is respectable but a selfie is inherently “thirsty” plays into the patriarchal trope of the respectable woman as a muse rather than as her own artist. Thanks to this NFT experiment, I’m now among roughly a dozen women artists offering Ethereum-based, collectible selfies.

What do you think about the idea of transacting with digital art?

I personally don’t see much added value in the crypto ownership aspect, at this stage, because few people know how to read blockchain data. On the other hand, this NFT provided a fun way for the Makeup Museum in New York to engage with crypto fans. I originally met Bloch while reporting a journalistic beauty story, and wanted to explore aspects of her work that didn’t make sense for that newsy piece. The way I avoid conflicts of interest, between media consulting partners and journalistic sources, is once they’ve worked with me on a newsletter edition I don’t report on that company anymore. Hope you all enjoyed reading about this collaboration! 

In addition to being open to commissions for future newsletter topics (reach out for more details about rates and options), I’m launching a Digital Salon for educational fun with other writers in 2021, despite the pandemic. (Sign up here to learn more!) Plus, I’ll help foster the Association of Crypto Journalists and Researchers, a nonprofit trade group for reporters. Lots more coming down those two pipelines in 2021.

Until next time, have a happy holiday season!