Anyone who has been a child TV star, a lingerie model for Maxim and inspired the name of a hip-hop band knows more about appealing to mainstream America than this humble scribbler. Even so, Wired's Q-and-A with Danica McKellar (best known as Winnie Cooper on "The Wonder Years") about her new book, "Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math and not Break a Nail," had me gnashing my teeth.
The book targets the middle-school girl who loves to shop, bake and wear makeup while avoiding those lowly common denominators and unreciprocated reciprocals. One has to give McKellar extra credit where credit is due, she's more than proved herself a worthy mathematical role model for today's girls. As has been well documented -- approaching ad infinitum -- the actress went to UCLA, graduated summa cum laude in math and even co-authored a published proof. Since then, she's become an advocate for girls' math education, speaking before Congress on the subject and (according to Wired) working as a substitute teacher.
Call me a cranky old crone, but the book sounds like it walks a fine line between endorsing inane stereotypes and using them to lure girls into learning their numbers. Designed in the form of a teen magazine, the book has horoscopes, testimonials and perky word problems about shoe shopping. In response to Wired's question about whether girly-girl references to baking and expensive clothing reinforces gender roles, McKellar says: "What do you think? If I'm teaching girls that do love to make cookies and do love fashion -- that they can use math as a part of that -- you think that's me saying, come on girls you belong in the kitchen, you belong shopping? Or, do you think it's me showing them how math is part of all their life, even the part they thought it had nothing to do with?"
Later she offers an image of how a girl might realize the value of math: "Picture yourself clicking down Wall Street in your heels with your designer bag, and you're going to need a really great job to support that shopping habit of yours, aren't you? Well, yes."
Well, I don't know. Can you really motivate girls to use their minds via their Miu Miu ostrich satchel fantasies? Should we even try to? Don't get me wrong, I hope the book is a giant hit, spawning a rash of mathematics-and-manicure slumber parties the likes of which the country has never known. I hope the girls go on the Web site, take the "Do You Hide Your Smarts?" quiz and realize that as McKellar puts it: "Smart is sexy." But I have my doubts. When it comes to educating girls in something as unsexy as math, trotting out sexist formulas may seem practical, but it's impossible to calculate what else we're subtracting.