The Danica McKellar posts (review; interview) have sparked some discussion that I want to address here. It largely centers on the issue of McKellar’s approach: is it a good one? Or is it trying to replace one Bad Thing (girls’ dislike of math) with another Bad Thing (encouraging them to be, as one commenter put it, “consumerist tools of the patriarchy”?) More below…
Here at Aetiology, for example, Katie commented:
One of the reasons I liked science classes was because they were an oasis from the prevailing shopping/shoes/makeup ethic at my school.
Not every girl likes the same things. I think a diversity of approaches is what’s needed, and just because a book features both shopping AND math doesn’t mean it’s the cure-all to get girls into math and science.
Of course, no one suggested it’s a cure-all. This *is* working at a diversity of approaches–it’s for the girls who are interested in these kinds of things, that may be turned off by many of the examples mentioned in regular math texts (as Danica mentions, baseball, for one). If a girl is doing just fine in math as it is, well, great. As Katie herself noted, she *already* liked science classes in school specifically because they avoided this kind of thing. That’s great. But what about the girls who *are* into the “prevailing shopping/shoes/makeup ethic”? Shouldn’t they be targeted to be interested in math as well? As I noted in the questions, I have my reservations too, but I think it can work.
Others have suggested McKellar’s book will fail because she’s not addressing the cause underlying cause of all of this. Sure, some girls may turn away from math because it’s not “feminine” or because they’ll feel they need to “dumb themselves down” to get a boyfriend (topics Danica addresses in the book). But what about the step before that–*why* should girls care about being “feminine” or getting a boyfriend anyway? Obviously, the book doesn’t even try to tackle any of that, and some commenters have suggested that (as I asked Danica), she’s simply reinforcing stereotypes rather than empowering girls.
My own take on it is that, well, I tend to be fairly pragmatic. While I’d love to have the power to change the world in one sweeping blow, we all know that just doesn’t happen (or does so rarely enough that I can be rather confident I’m not going to be one of the people instigating it). However, we can each make small changes, chip away at a big problem in incremental steps. That’s where I see the value in Danica’s book–showing girls that being smart *and* pretty/fashionable/whatever is just fine, if that’s what interests you.
“Teen-age cool” here seems to be code for “cool as defined by someone else.” I think Zuska and PhysioProf’s point is that even better that co-packaging math and coolness is convincing girls that they’re the ones who define their own coolness. As opposed to, say, some guy, or a female tool of the patriarchy, who decides that accessorizing/cheerleading/having the lead in the school musical is what makes them cool.
And Danica expressly advocates that girls decide for themselves what their own “cool” is. For her, she noted that she thought it was great when people recognized her for being a good math teaching assistant in college, rather than for being “that girl from the TV show”. The message is pretty simple throughout: being smart and having interests in things like fashion aren’t mutually exclusive, and that no matter what stage you’re at in life, developing your brain will open doors to places you may not have even dreamed of–even if you choose to walk through in 4-inch heels.
What I’m tired of is having people being so down on things like “accessorizing/cheerleading/having the lead in the school musical,” as if these are inherently bad things, or done by people who are too intellectually incompetent to be pursuing loftier hobbies. Heck, I was a cheerleader in high school. I was also on the quiz bowl team (and beat out several seniors to earn a spot as a sophomore). I still have people who are surprised that I’m intelligent because, apparently, I don’t physically look the part, whatever that means. I don’t find it empowering to girls (or women!) to suggest that we’re merely “consumerist tools of the patriarchy” because we choose to present ourselves in a certain way, or enjoy certain outlets, including fashion (admittedly not one of my interests, but still). And I think the earlier we can get to girls and teach them that they can be whatever they want to be (including smart and fashionable, if they so choose), the better.