Politics & Policy

From Wonder Years to Wunderkind

Danica McKellar helps girls with their math.

Danica McKellar grew up before our eyes as the girl-next-door Winnie Cooper on the ABC show The Wonder Years. Now, almost 15 years after the hit series ended, McKellar has matured into a woman not unlike what we might have expected her iconic TV character to become.

It is, strangely enough, the public’s identification of her with Winnie Cooper that led McKellar to develop the love of mathematics that has resulted in her first book, Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail.

After years of being recognized and praised for her role as Winnie Cooper, McKellar struggled with identity and self-esteem issues. “I felt that everyone just thought of me as her [Winnie Cooper]. I got so much praise for it, and started to wonder, ‘Well, gosh, what if I didn’t have that? Who would I be? What would I have to offer?’” After The Wonder Years, McKellar attended UCLA, majored in mathematics, graduated summa cum laude, and even published a self-titled mathematical-physics theorem. Her successes in mathematics served as self-validation, proof that she could find achievement and admiration outside of acting.

In 2000, McKellar testified at a House subcommittee hearing on the importance of women in mathematics. She called for a math PR campaign targeting young students to “steer kids away from the fear of ridicule for being nerdy.” Her research indicated that “middle school is the time when girls decide they can’t do math; or that they don’t like math; or that they don’t identify with math,” and her book was written with this audience in mind.

A publishing house contacted McKellar after a 2005 New York Times article described her academic accomplishments during her sabbatical from acting. It was clear to the publishers that McKellar was of a different breed from other Hollywood types. They wanted her to write a book on math, and allowed her almost full creative control. In order to determine what areas of math to include, McKellar sought input from middle-school teachers to discover the most challenging areas for their students.

McKellar explains these complicated topics in a conversational style, using shoes, clothing, and pizza to illustrate fundamental concepts. For example, one chapter has lipsticks acting as variables in a “free gift with purchase” word problem. McKellar has been accused of reinforcing gender stereotypes with such material–but she argues that all she’s trying to do is to help girls see the applicability and usefulness of math in everyday situations. (Trying to determine how many pairs of Via Spiga pumps can fit in my closet is a problem I only wish I had.) By using such a distinctive approach, McKellar seeks to challenge the perception that math is generally a guy’s subject–and also to make the point that such traditionally “girly” things (lipstick, shoes) don’t deserve their negative associations. “People say, oh, have you dumbed down the math by using these girly examples? Well, no, unless you believe there is something inherently dumb about being girly.”

McKellar’s effort largely succeeds, but she occasionally lapses into patronizing. In a chapter entitled “Do you still have a crush on him?” she teaches the concept of the greatest common factor (the largest divisible number that two numbers share), or GCF. She begins by asking readers to think about their “crushes,” and enumerate their respective qualities. Are there some factors in common? (Great smile? Similar eye color?) Well, how many? “Let’s figure this out. If nothing else, it’ll help determine what your ‘type’ is.” The GCF now becomes the “Greatest Crush Factor.” Unfortunately this elucidation doesn’t effectively convey what the greatest common factor represents mathematically, or its important properties that are fundamental for comprehending other math concepts.

One of the stronger parts of the book is a discussion of the expectations girls have to cope with. McKellar relates a personal anecdote from her ninth-grade science class. After a test, the teacher—impressed with her performance–kept McKellar after class, and told her: “You just seem so outgoing and you wear such brightly colored earrings. I just didn’t think that you would be very smart.” McKellar then exhorts her female readers not to fall prey to others’ low expectations, especially expectations that are based on deeply ingrained stereotypes stemming from one’s appearance: “Girls think they need to dumb themselves down to be attractive or valued, because they are told that girls are complimented for being cute and pretty. So, when they are getting praised for that, they are not being encouraged to develop their talents. I want to say, look, if you are going to dumb yourself down, you are going to have to keep dumbing yourself down, because that’s what you’ve established. And then you’ll start feeling badly about yourself, and you won’t know why. And it is because you’ve done it to yourself.”

Given the current inundation of Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans, McKellar genuinely wants to change the way girls view intelligence and, more importantly, themselves. The message from the media today is that glamorous equals reckless and dumb. She counters with a dose of reality: “I want them to know that there are a lot of really smart actresses out there—Claire Danes went to Yale, Natalie Portman went to Harvard. There are a lot out there, and I would like to start raising awareness of that. If you want to be a fabulous young woman some day, you need to be smart. And guess what, if you are fashion-crazed, that’s fine, but you’re going to need a great job with a killer salary to support that shopping habit someday.”

McKellar hopes to revise the girly image of dim-bulbs with a new formulation: Smart is sexy. And that’s an equation we all can understand.

– Erica Stalnecker is assistant to NR’s editor.

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