July 6, 2011 at 11:21 am , by Maggie Niemiec
We all remember her as Kevin Arnold’s first love in the 1980s TV show The Wonder Years, but Danica McKellar has reinvented herself. She’s continued acting, but she’s also a best-selling author and role model for young girls. Her books aim to give girls the edge in math class, and her latest book, Hot X: Algebra Exposed, was rereleased in paperback this month. I caught up with her recently to talk about how she went from Winnie Cooper to mathematician, and why encouraging tweens to excel in math class can build lifelong confidence.
LHJ: After The Wonder Years you studied mathematics at UCLA—what led you in that direction? Were you always good at it?
DM: I was actually terrified of math when I was a kid. I really struggled with it. I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed, and if I didn’t understand things right away, I got discouraged. In seventh grade, I had a new teacher who was funny, friendly and nurturing, and that made all the difference. I started to get it, and I realized that if I just relaxed, I could do things I thought I couldn’t do. But when I got to college I was still scared of taking a math class because I thought it would be so much harder. I saw in my head a vision of who would be good at college math, and it wasn’t me. It was a guy. I went for it, though, and signed up for a class. I ended up scoring higher than everyone, and after my first midterm someone in my class tapped me on the shoulder. I thought he was going to ask if I was the girl from The Wonder Years, but instead, he said, “Aren’t you that girl who got the highest score?” It was a perfect moment. Math gave me a sense of self and helped me figure out who I was outside of Winnie.
LHJ: Why did you think only a guy would be good at college math? When I was a kid I excelled at math, but I remember feeling a little embarrassed about it. Were we both subjected to some kind of social conditioning?
DM: I don’t remember somebody blatantly telling me girls shouldn’t do math, but I know that I got that message. I think it’s because we’re bombarded with images from the media that say girls can either be pretty or smart, but they can’t be both. Girls get a lot of makeup, hairstyle and fashion lessons, and they’re told that stuff is important. Girls are not taught how to be smart—they’re taught how to look good. But they can be smart. And they can practice overcoming obstacles and handling challenges through math because it has this reputation for being so hard. The true purpose of my books is to give girls the confidence that comes from feeling smart. That confidence will follow them everywhere they go.
LHJ: What about these girls’ moms? Do they approach you for advice?
DM: Women come up to me and say, “Oh math. I could never do that.” These are smart women, but they just never really believed they could do math. When I talk to them, I find out that someone either told them they wouldn’t be good at it, or they failed once and then gave up. We’ve been told that girls don’t do well in math. So if we stumble on something, we’re likely to see it as evidence of what we’ve believed all along—that we’re no good at it. A lot of women continue to struggle with math, even when they find success in other areas. But I’m one of many women out there who prove that we can be both smart and sexy. I want all women to know that they are stronger and smarter than they think they are.