The wonder of Danica McKellar

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You know how, like, in junior high, or, like, in what we now totally call middle school, um, well, anyway, like, when there is a really cute girl and, like, she’s also way smart, and you just know that she can’t stay totally cute and totally smart all at the same time, and usually she has to sort of pick if she’s going to be smart or if she’s going to be cute, and not just cute but popular cute, which is different than just cute cute? Ya know? Well, what do you know, a totally smart girl we met in junior high is still totally smart and totally cute and it’s totally cool. I mean, totally.

Danica McKellar, little Winnie Cooper of The Wonders Years fame, is now an author (as previously discussed here on AfterEllen.com). Her book Math Doesn’t Suck is scheduled for release this month, just in time for some fun back-to-school reading!

McKellar, now 32, is trying her darnedest to get middle school girls to grasp the idea that being cute and cool and smart are not mutually exclusive and actually make for great companions in a female soul. An article in Newsweek (on stands this week) has given McKellar quite a publicity push. McKellar and her math book are generating some buzz online, too — math has not looked this good in years.

In the Newsweek article, McKellar observes,

“When girls see the antics of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, they think that being fun and glamorous also means being dumb and irresponsible … I want to show them that being smart is cool. Being good at math is cool. And not only that, it can help them get what they want out of life.”

Preach it, Mini Cooper! I mean Winnie Cooper! I mean Danica! (See how being dumb is annoying?) But it’s the idea that being smart helps you get what you want out of life that needs to be driven home. OK, so it may look like stupid people can get what they want out of life, especially if the stupid people are world leaders and elected officials, but that only seems to work for stupid men! Oh, all right, fine. I am kidding. Sort of. OK, not really, but let’s move on, because that’s not the point.

The point is we are speaking about girls’ perceptions of themselves. As grown women, we get that smart is sexy. Smart is hot. Smart is cool. As young women, many of us didn’t get it, and many young women still don’t get it. McKellar is targeting girls in middle school because that’s such a crucial time in a young girl’s academic and psychosocial development. Danica’s trying to encourage them to remain confident enough to risk failure, because that’s what being smart is in a middle school structure. Being confident enough not to be embarrassed about asking questions in class, confident enough to risk being wrong, confident enough to risk not looking cool by actually caring. Goodness, middle school may be The Wonder Years, but it sure isn’t the wonderful years.

McKellar admits in the Newsweek article that she too began to struggle with math around the seventh grade, and that’s why that age group is the focus of the book. She credits a teacher with helping her through her struggles. She went on to actually major in math in college. She even coauthored a mathematical physics theorem (the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem) that was published in the Journal of Physics. Go to her website, DanicaMcKellar.com, find the link to “mathematics” and read the theorem for yourself. Warning: It may give you butterflies. Be still my smarty-pants-girl-loving heart!

Her book will undoubtedly not help middle school girls coauthor physics theorems, but it does offer practical ways for girls to avoid homework mistakes and reduce anxiety on test days. Within the pages are positive thinking pep talks, and the book even profiles three other beautiful women who also happen to be mathematicians. Hey, if some girls perceive that being good at math and science will somehow make them less attractive in some way, then I say use the “mathematicians can be hot!” approach to dispel that myth or fear.

The issues surrounding girls and math and science are very real. Just Google “math and girls” or “science and girls” and see how many academic discussion papers, articles, discussion groups, clubs and suggestions there are trying to deal with this issue. Danica McKellar is clearly doing her part to help expose young women to the joys and usefulness of math, and it may just be her biggest role ever — and she doesn’t even have to act smart! She just is smart.

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