Recent Portrayals of Mathematically Talented Women in Hollywood

Popular culture can reveal, reflect, and even shape how society views mathematics. Popular culture can be a powerful way to engage the public but care must be taken because stereotypical representations of mathematicians can actually be discouraging to students (see Impact on Students below).

Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Serenity Strong women characters have mathematical talent in Joss Whedon's television shows and movie. See Mathematically Talented Women in Hollywood: Fred in Angel, PRIMUS, XVII(1), March 2007, pp. 103-116.

Futurama Amy Wong is an engineering student at Mars University, who is currently doing her internship at the Planet Express Interstellar Delivery Company, New New York, but she rarely contributes to the scientific discussions. She is very social and fashion conscious. See Klein's Beer: Futurama Comedy and Writers in the Classroom, PRIMUS, XVII(1), March 2007, pp. 52-66.

Ice Princess The main character is a physics "geek" who discovers that she can apply science to figure skating. Unfortunately, the movie does a poor job of representing a balance in career options and a social life. For example, she must choose between physics at Harvard and skating. There is no mention of Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist in skating, who managed to skate and graduate cum laude from Harvard, nor any mention of postponing Harvard for a year.

Mean Girls The main character struggles to balance her mathematical talent with social pressures and her attempts at being popular, and she pretends to be bad at math in order to impress a boy.

NUMB3RS A graduate student woman received her PhD with the main character as her thesis advisor, and they are pursuing a romantic relationship, even though she has decided to remain at the school as a student to receive a second PhD in a related field. They have not discussed the fact that this could affect her future career and would violate faculty guidelines at some institutions. For example, what happens when she needs a letter of recommendation (in the case they have a bad breakup, in the case they stay together, etc.)? Gary Lorden said, "I think it would be great if they made [Charlie and Amita's relationship] more of a collaboration and less of a beautiful assistant sort of thing." Also see Complex NUMB3RS, FOCUS, the Newsletter of the Mathematical Association of America, May, 2006.

Proof The main character is a woman struggling with the possibility of becoming a mathematician. When she shows work to a friend, people question whether she was really the author. In addition, this movie offers a fairly stereotypical representation of mathematicians as those who must battle with obsession and insanity in order to do great mathematics.

The Simpsons While Lisa Simpson is definitely not portrayed as the most popular girl in school, she is a mathematically talented character that my students find very likable. The episode Girls Just Want to Have Sums (original airdate April 30, 2006) explored the topic of women in mathematics. Also see related quotes

Science Soap Opera Fails (Lara Croft, Ally McBeal or Missus Beaton? A lesson in social engineering by Mark Ballard)

Impact on Students

All consuming images: How demeaning commercials that elicit stereotype threat can restrain women academically and professionally. Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., Quinn, D. M., & Gerhardstein, R. (2002). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1615-1628. Abstract: Women in quantitative fields risk being personally reduced to negative stereotypes that allege a sex-based math inability. This situational predicament, termed stereotype threat, can under- mine women's performance and aspirations in all quantitative domains. Gender-stereotypic television commercials were employed in three studies to elicit the female stereotype among both men and women. Study 1 revealed that only women for whom the activated stereotype was self-relevant underperformed on a subsequent math test. Exposure to the stereotypic commercials led women taking an aptitude test in Study 2 to avoid math items in favor of verbal items. In Study 3, women who viewed the stereotypic commercials indicated less interest in educational/ vocational options in which they were susceptible to stereotype threat (i.e., quantitative domains) and more interest in fields in which they were immune to stereotype threat (i.e., verbal domains).

Mathematics : a dilemma for feminists. Lynch, Julianne, Gilah C. Leder, Giliah C, Forgasz, Helen J, in Transforming the Disciplines, (2001), MacNabb, Elizabeth L et al. (eds.), New York: Haworth Press. The authors discuss how examples of exceptional women mathematicians like Noether can be detrimental.

Media Influence and Gender Equity in Mathematics Education. Shelby P Morge, preliminary report.

How we see ourselves Latterell, C. M. (2005). Mathematics in Michigan, 44(1), 2-4. A small study showed that "math majors like the negative portrayals of themselves, but, at the same time, some people did not major in math because of these portrayals."

Gender differences in math ability: The impact of media reports on parents Jacobs, J. E. & Eccles, J. S. (1985) Educational Researcher, March 1985, 20-25.

Reporting on the Impact of Media Reports: An Accurate Reflection? Camilla P. Benbow, Educational Researcher, Vol. 14, No. 9 (Nov 1985), p. 30.

We know that many students perceive mathematics as a discipline that is done by others rather than people like themselves. The "others" may be the smartest students (Oakes 1990), boys (Meyer and Koehler 1990), or specific ethnic groups (Moody 1997). Who? How? What? Patricia Wilson and Jennifer Chauvot, Mathematics Teacher, Vol 93 (Nov 2000), Issue 8.

Mathematically Talented Women in Hollywood

PRIMUS Publications on Popular Culture and Mathematics


The voices of women making meaning in mathematics. Buerk, Dorothy. Journal of Education, Boston, 1985, v167 (n3):59-70. Abstract: Presents popular views of mathematics as absolute and not person-made from the perspective of women. While these views are inconsistent with the practice of mathematics, they tend to predominate among women who, in general, have tended to avoid mathematics. Research on women's reasoning is used to present a new perspective for understanding women's avoidance of mathematics. Recommendations for teaching to enhance meaning-making are included, and strategies for teaching mathematics developed with math-avoidant students are offered, including providing time to experience and clarify a problem before focusing on a solution; using the historical perspective to help students become aware of the person-made quality of mathematics; and acknowledging and encouraging alternative methods and approaches, approximation, guessing, estimation, partial solutions, and the use of intuition. PsycINFO Database Copyright 1986 American Psychological Assn, all rights reserved.

So long as teachers hide the imperfect processes of their thinking, allowing their students to glimpse only the polished products, students will remain convinced that only Einstein--or a professor--could think up a theory.... Women have been taught by generations of men that males have greater powers of rationality than females have. When a male professor presents only the impeccable products of his thinking, it is especially difficult for a woman student to believe that she can produce such a thought. And remember that in the groves of academe, in spite of the women's movement, most of the teachers are still male, althought more than half of the students are now female. Women students need opportunities to watch women professors solve (and fail to solve) problems and male professors fail to solve (and succeed in solving) problems. They need models of thinking as a human, imperfect, and attainable activity. Belenky, Mary Field, Clinchy, Blythe McVicker, Goldberger, Nancy Rule, & Tarule, Jill Mattuck. (1986). Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. HarperCollins, Basic Books.

Dr. Sarah J. Greenwald, Appalachian State University

Thanks to Chris Goff, Cathy Kessel, and Andrew Nestler.

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