- A Critical Look at Danica McKellar's Math Doesn't Suck:How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail
According to the author's website, Danica McKellar's first book is meant to serve as a resource for middle school girls to help them understand math concepts that are commonly confusing. The format of the book caters to the female young adult "non-mathy" audience by including testimonials, horoscopes, and quotes from celebrities. McKellar's subsequent books, Kiss My Math, Hot X: Algebra Exposed, and Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape, take on a similar form. Three of her books are on the New York Times bestseller list, and there are over five hundred thousand copies of these books in print (McKellar, "Math Books"). Since her books have been embraced by a large audience and because educational resources have considerable influence on students' learning, the ways in which these books portray girls can either help or hinder how readers perceive girls' capabilities in mathematics. This review will explore McKellar's use of mathematical contexts for presenting mathematical content and consider how these contexts may or may not limit the ways in which girls are portrayed as knowers and doers of mathematics.
Instead of focusing on the gap between femininity and mathematics as many authors have done, I assert, from a feminist standpoint, that the gap between females and mathematics should be considered by focusing on the role of diversity in mathematical texts. For this reason, I turned to Toyoma Tsutsumi's study of the role of diversity in a widely used third-grade Canadian mathematics textbook. Specific to gender, Tsutsumi conducted both a count of the names of individuals in the textbook along with their gender and an examination of gender roles and possible stereotypes.
While Tsutsumi's text analysis resulted in finding equal quantities of characters with male and female names, the second analysis revealed more complicated issues related to assigning interchangeable roles to different genders without resorting to gender bias. The author recommended that the textbook writers not distinguish items as gendered. In other words, if boys are playing a certain sport, girls should also be depicted playing the same sport. Additionally, Tsutsumi suggested that both male and female characters be seen as contributing to society [End Page 89] through both domestic, caring labor and outside the house, noncaring labor.
Drawing from the work of Tsutsumi, with a specific focus on the role of gender related to diversity, I conducted a mixed-methods, iterative text analysis of Danica McKellar's book. The categories of mathematical contexts and frequencies listed below are some of the results of this analysis (see table 1). The first four categories represent a majority of the mathematical contexts McKellar used. Food/Cooking, Shopping/Sale, Clothes/Jewelry, and Health/Beauty/Body relate closely to Tsutsumi's description of domestic labor and female-oriented activities. Using stereotypical female mathematical contexts for the majority of the book does not promote a diverse sense of what it means to engage in mathematics as a female. Instead, this approach perpetuates existing gender bias related to the kinds of experiences that are deemed valuable for girls to engage in and what it means for girls to know and do mathematics.
The inclusion of sports as a mathematical context to present mathematical content may seem a departure from the other types of traditionally female-oriented activities and interests. Upon closer examination, however, the book offers limited representation of the wide variety of sports girls play. The types of activities in the Sports category include aerobic exercise, dance class, gymnastics, running, running a 5k, swimming, track, and dancing. Beyond showing that females can be athletic, mathematical contexts should encompass many different types of female athletes. Including predominantly female-oriented sports as a context for engaging girls in mathematics does not promote diversity but instead limits the ways in which a diverse population of girls engages with the text and the mathematics. Girls that like soccer, field hockey, or other types of contact sports may not see their experiences reflected in the text. The lack of diverse sporting contexts in the text does...