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Danica McKellar’s Fun Little Bites of Mathy Goodness

Danica McKellar, who has actual math degrees in addition to being an actress, is trying to get girls interested in math.  She’s starting a webseries! Math Bites!  I’m suspicious of this.  Increasing the participation of girls in science and math in the face of stereotype harm and the president of Harvard is an excellent goal, but in my experience, strategies for this tend to degrade insultingly into PINKIFY ALL THE THINGS.  A quick internet check on Ms McKellar does not allay my suspicions since she has written books that appear to be inviting girls for a come to Cosmo moment with math.   Note that I have not read any of these, so I am totally judging them by their covers, and I am very judgmental about these covers.



Rather than get verbosely judgy about these covers, I watched the linked Pi Episode of Math Bites so I can be verbosely judgy about it instead.  It’s cutesy.  It’s very cutesy.  Sure, Pi is an easy topic to get cutesy about with an obvious and tasty double entendre, and Ms McKellar does actually explain well what Pi is.  With graph paper graphics no less.  I could wish for more modern examples of what Pi shows up in (the double helix structure of DNA is a fun example) since a lot of math students will claim that they will never need math in their lives. (My sister is a professor of mathematics.  I hear all her complaints about students who are in college, yet don’t seem to be interested in learning things.  Or at least, not math.) But as far as one concept goes, it seems well-presented enough.  There are also really fun moments; I enjoyed the waltz of the Sugar Pi Fairy quite a lot.

Screenshot from 2014-01-14 08:42:13

Waltz of the Sugar Pi Fairy!

I have an objection, however, and it is that the series seems definitely aimed at the popular girls of school.  It’s been awhile since I’ve been in school, and frankly, I was homeschooled from fifth grade until college, so take this for what it’s worth, but I am under the impression that school, primary through post-secondary, is a very tribalistic society and it’s very hard for those outside the socially approved tribes to have a respected space.  What I’m getting at here is that I’m afraid that Math Bites is willing to throw the unpopular nerd girls under the bus in favor of the popular girls who like looking pretty and cheer leading and don’t like learning.  I can see why, since presumably the unpopular nerd girls are already good at math, but my 9-year-old self, mocked in school for knowing stuff and also acne, is sulking because she doesn’t see why more attention is being paid to those who have turned vapidity rather than accomplishments into social standing.

Danica McKellar demonstrates math with popular girl activities.

Danica McKellar demonstrates math with popular girl activities.

Not that there’s anything wrong with looking pretty (provided it’s not the end goal of existence and we aren’t judging people on it or lack thereof) and cheer leading as things, mind you. Well maybe cheer leading.  I sort of have an objection to that in concept and while I respect the athleticism involved, there have got to be better venues for it.

At the same time as I feel Math Bites is ignoring the kind of girl I was, I know it’s also more nerdy than would necessarily appear to non-nerds, because I ran it by a friend of mine who doesn’t like math.  She’s extremely smart, don’t get me wrong, and currently working on a PhD in English and Women’s studies, but she doesn’t like STEM, and she said that Math Bites is more nerdist-y than what she likes.  So it’s possible that the series hasn’t really figured out its audience.

There are redeeming nerdist-y features here, Felicia Day makes an appearance.  Felicia Day represents all things good and wonderful on the internet.

Screenshot from 2014-01-14 08:42:55

Bad Horse bless Felicia Day.

Despite the wonderful Felicia Day, the show has it’s anti-nerd problems.  Danica McKellar strongly implies that people who memorize digits of Pi need to get a life.  She also acts embarrassed about liking and participating in songs about Pi, even the very wonderful Waltz of the Sugar Pi Fairy.    Then, of course, there’s Ms McKellar’s SCIENTIST costume:

Screenshot from 2014-01-14 08:43:37

Science! We can tell by the outfit.

Attention people of the television!  It is possible for the women of STEM to do their thing in outfits which are NOT a lab coat, glasses, and hair in a french twist (or sometimes bun).  This is something I find personally annoying, and it’s such a staple of costuming!  This is how the television woman scientist dresses, never mind that women do their hair in different ways, don’t all have vision problems and might wear contacts if they do, and WHY DOES ANYONE NEED A LAB COAT FOR MATH?

I’m definitely not sold on this show as a good thing.  I’m not ready to write it off quite yet, because the Waltz of the Sugar Pi Fairy (and Felicia Day), but I’m not sold.  I want this to be good.  I want to support it.  I know, well second-hand, the problems of teaching math because my sister comes home and complains about how her (usually female) students are so terrified of math and convinced they can’t do it that they won’t even try.  Or they just complain it has no application in their lives.  We need math as a good thing in popular culture.  I want anime along the lines of Hetalia, but that teaches me about math rather than history.  I want something like my favorite anime cooking show (yes, this exists as a genre) Yumeiro Patissiere, only with math, so we can learn the value of friendship and the feelings of joy and love in doing our math.   I realize that anime is a bit of a niche market, but zombie television and movies are really popular.  Why can’t one of them address the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse? Someone is going to need to have the calculus necessary to rebuild the bridges.  And the everything else.  Zombie survival is all very well, and a necessary step 1 to restoring civilization, but step 2 is going to require scientists and engineers.

That having all been said, I’m really not the target audience for Math Bites here, so what do you think?

Featured image is a screencap from the Pi episode of Math Bites.

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

1 Comment

  1. January 15, 2014 at 8:41 am —

    I’m disappointed to see that this is another (apparently) poor attempt to get girls into math responsibly. Disappointed, but sadly not surprised.

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