“Girls Can’t Do Math”

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Look at this picture and ask yourself if it is funny, or if it is … something other than funny:

Post his on facebook you are not my friend
What do you think of this picture and caption?

I have about five friends, if you count people that I care a great deal for, that are very important to me, and that a) I am not married to b) am not otherwise related to and c) am not stalking. OK, maybe four. The point is, I recognize the difference between real life meatspace friends and Facebook friends.

Having said that, I have some friends on Facebook (and maybe Google+ friends?) whom I don’t know in meatspace but who I do think of as friends because we have regular, positive interactions. Just the other day, I had a long talk with Claudia about life. Gwen is always there to support a progressive idea when the arguing starts. I asked for a favor just a little while ago and Aseem immediately came to my aid. These are people I’ve never met before but I consider friends anyway. Funny how facebook works.

But since I am a facebook slut, and shamelessly use facebook to promote my political agendas and my blogs and stuff, I have ended up with a LOT of “friends” on facebook … over 4,000 … and many of them are people I don’t interact with, or people who may not even be active on facebook, or in some cases, people who are not even people but still count on the Tally of Friends. And, as I understand it, once you hit 5,000 friends, you can’t have any more. For some reason, whatever Facebook is, and whatever a Facebook friend is, you can’t have more than a certain number which happens to be a nice round number, according to the people who make up these rules at Facebook Central. Why 5,000? Because people who are in charge of made up realities tend to be utterly arbitrary in how they spec out those realities. Think playground. Making up the rules of some new game you are making up. That’s what Facebook is.

Anyway, with 4,000 plus friends, I realize that at some point I may have to tell people they can’t be my friend, but instead, they must Worship We as Public Figure. Facebook already gave me the Public Figure page. There are about five people who “like” it. The rule is, I can have 5,000 Facebook Friends but I can’t have 5,001 Facebook Friends, but I can have 5,000 Facebook Friends and 1 person who “likes” me as a public figure. I don’t understand any of this.

So, although I don’t understand it, I think I know what to do about it, and it relates to the photograph above and not just because it is all about math.

Here’s the thing. When I had 2,000 friends, if I noticed that one of my friends posted that picture, I’d confront them. I’d say “hey, do you know that although one might see that photograph as funny from certain perspectives, it actually reifies the myth that girls are bad at math, supports the idea of female inadequacies in some arbitrarily defined area as innate, and urges the objectification of young women in an inappropriate and repressive manner” or words to that effect. And we’d have a conversation, and I would spend some energy on that, and there may or may not be a good outcome.

When I had 3,000 friends, if I noticed that one of my friends posted that picture, I’d probably not approach them in the same way, but rather, I’d be a bit more aggressive. I might say something like “Hey, you dick, this picture damages women, and girls. Who do you think you are trying to meme-out your misogyny?” and then there would be a fight, and Bob, and Jaf, and Aseem and Gwen and a bunch of others would jump in and if the person who posted the picture didn’t give up right away we’d kick his ass.

But now, I have 4,000 plus friends. So when I see that picture, I unfriend you. Bye. I wanna make room for others.

And that is why when I decided to write this post, I couldn’t find a copy of this picture. I had unfreinded the three or four dickheads who had posted it. Summarily. No questions asked, statements made, or fights started. Making room for people I’d prefer to have as my friends.

Thanks, Aseem for finding that picture for me a mere 45 seconds after I asked for it!

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39 thoughts on ““Girls Can’t Do Math”

  1. I recently borrowed a post for Ada Lovelace Day, and I tagged it with “Ladies, urge your daughters to pursue STEM careers.” The majority response I got back (from women, not men) was “Why is that the ‘ladies’ responsibility?” I really didn’t know what to say. I mean, sure, I know lots of fathers who want their daughters to go as far as they can, in whatever direction they desire, but some of them are blocked by mothers with (shall I say it?) old-fashioned views of what is appropriate for women.

    Add to that the fact that women who want to have families are at a disadvantage in STEM fields because career paths in such fields often involve obscene hours which preclude bearing and raising a child.

    I completely agree with the idea that we need more women in the STEM fields. I just wish I knew how to approach this problem from a social angle without getting bogged down in a fruitless discussion of the limits and legacy of patriarchy.

    Please, drop the rhetoric and take your daughters to the planetarium. Please?

  2. I found it funny at first, but only (I hope) because I had said that exact thing in highschool; 2nd year algebra quadratic polynomials (I can still see the eldritch horror-equations in my head, I had to look up the name just now).

    I hate math, and it hates me.

    Well, actually, my exact phrasing was “Fuck this shit…”, but my point still stands. I see that image and feel sympathy for the young lady.

  3. I have mixed emotion about this picture. When I first looked at the picture, I didn’t notice that there was math on the board. I looked at it as a teenagers overreaction to a minor problem. “He/She turned me down when I asked him/her to the dance. Oh. my. god. my. life. is. over!”

    I found it mildly amusing while also mildly disturbing. Kind of like the black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I also found her a little over the top like the accountant who wanted to change jobs and become a lion tamer.

    When I noticed the math it annoyed me more but I looked at it more as a girl embarrassed in front of her class more than a reinforcement of the myth that girls can’t do math. I’ve seen a lot more sexist statements on tee shirts. I don’t consider it anywhere near as bad as tee shirts that say stuff like of course I can’t do math, I’m a girl.

    Would this picture be as offensive if the blackboard behind the girl had a question from a different subject, Spanish, French, Art, English, History, Science etc.? Was it offensive because it was math or because the girl felt her only choice was to use her body to make money rather than her mind?

  4. I don’t have mixed emotions about this picture. I’m angry and sad. Okay, that’s as mixed as it gets.

    I just wish I knew how to approach this problem from a social angle without getting bogged down in a fruitless discussion of the limits and legacy of patriarchy.

    The only way to win is to fight on every front. Sure, take your daughters to the planetarium. But you can’t stop there. You have to speak out when you see sexist crap like this. You have to tell your sons that girls are just as good at math and science. You have to make sure that the teachers at school are not dissuading girls from following their interests in math and science. Likewise from diminishing the status of arts and humanities (this feeds into the idea that those are “girls’ subjects” because they’re “easier” or “softer”). You have to help to make it easier for parents to pursue careers by advocating for and voting for decent hours and child care options. It’s all connected.

    Was it offensive because it was math or because the girl felt her only choice was to use her body to make money rather than her mind?


  5. More of this crap? Seriously?

    I aced Calculus I, II, and III. I fell in love with linear algebra. I even enjoyed Abstract Math (beginning Logic, sort of). And then I had to take a break from uni to work and take care of my daughter.

    No matter how many times I mention this, I’m an individual and my success with math is not representative of my gender as a whole. However, when one girl is bad at math, that means that all girls/women are bad at math. When a boy is bad at math, he’s just one individual and isn’t representative of his gender. When a boy is good at math…no one notices? I don’t know.

    I do know that I’m sick of this meme. My daughter is incredibly smart and is learning algebra/geometry early. Idiots who draw crap like this can suck it.

    My daughter also plans on being a MythBuster when she grows up. I hope she makes that dream come true.

  6. Most of the girls I went to school with were better than me at math.

    Of course I kicked their arses at technology but thats not because I’m a guy, its because I’m a sad lonley nerd with no life.

  7. Honestly, the first thing I thought when I saw this was, “That’s exactly how I feel about maths.”

    Okay, the demotivator itself. Sexist? Yeah. Stereotyping (Girls = bad at math)? Yup.

    But the part that annoyed me the most was the assumption that a woman’s “default job” (i.e. last resort to fall back on “job”) involves sex.


    Because women can’t get any other job without five degrees, two of which are in super-advanced maths…


  8. Would this picture be as offensive if the blackboard behind the girl had a question from a different subject, Spanish, French, Art, English, History, Science etc.? Was it offensive because it was math or because the girl felt her only choice was to use her body to make money rather than her mind?

    Is one really worse than the other?
    Oh, and the stuff on the board being Science would have about the same amount and type of Unfortunate Implications.

  9. Thanks for the compliments Greg. 🙂 I too find this offensive on several fronts. First off, I am offended that it is being represented as a girl-meme. I’d just bet you will never find a picture like this with a boy on it, unless of course said boy is black (in that case, it would be replaced with something like “I’ll just go sell drugs/commit a crime”). I’d be just as offended if there were any other subject on the board–representing this girl as just a dumb blonde…no need for an education, you can get by with your body/looks instead. It is just plain denigration.

  10. Not funny at all: straight up sexist bullshit. As in fuck yourself sideways with a rusty razor blade. And not only because what’s actually on the board in the background is random nonsense.

  11. It wouldn’t be quite _as_ offensive if it said “Screw this shit, I’m going to be a corporate lawyer”. Still very bad though. Apart from anything, the juxtaposition of a young schoolgirl and the word “stripper” is never a good sign. As it is, it looks like it was put together for maximum misogyny. So yes, it’s a good litmus test for dickheadedness.

  12. Francisco, yeah, I was going to put that cartoon in there but decided not to, but that’s exactly right (and what others above said)

    Would it be worse if it was not math on the board? Math is the key issue when it comes to girls giving up in academics in school … Having some other academic discipline up there would be like a Jim Crow cartoon with a black man eating a cantaloupe. “A cantaloupe is kinda like a watermelon” … It would be just as bad, just not as well done an attempt at being bad.

  13. bad Jim … I was wondering if it was random nonsense.

    It wouldn’t be quite _as_ offensive if it said “Screw this shit, I’m going to be a corporate lawyer”.

    That would be a whole different message. It would still imply the innate inability to do math by girls, so in that way it would be just as offensive.

    But, it does give me an idea ….

  14. I do not know the context of the picture, but I do know that humor is often offensive to make a point about some real bullshit. I see the clear stereotypical sexism surrounding the JC Penny (I think) shirt with the girl saying math is too hard she’ll have her brother do it. Here, it is less clear to me. Yes, the sexism is overt, but the tagline ‘I’ll just be a stripper’ made me think the point isn’t to demean young women and say they aren’t good at math, but to point out the stupidity of those who have the viewpoint that women are only good as sex objects.

  15. Lorax, It thought of that, good point, and it may well be where it all started.

    But I confirmed (indirectly and weakly, but good enough for my purposes) the likely sexist nature of the actual posting on facebook walls by pursing the posters’ walls. Let us just say they were not filled with anti-sexist stuff.

    Sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk yesterday. Hope you enjoyed the talk!

  16. I read this joke more as “God, this is hard work, why should I bother using my brain when i coudl just take my clothes off for a living” – if anything, it is ridiculing a male-chauvanist society which objectifies women to the extent that stripping is actually a viable career alternative for intelligent women, who could be using their brains for something worthwhile, but instead take the easy route of pandering to male chauvanism because of the easy money to be made from doing so and the perceived lack of opportunities elsewhere.

  17. Well, seeing as my mother has a degree in math, and has always thought, if she needed a hobby after retirement, she’d take up doing people’s taxes, I’m probably the last person ever to think that the ability to do mathematics would be carried on the Y chromosome.

    I lack your popularity but I have a modest following of people who buy my hand knitting patterns and so I generally don’t have the luxury of unfriending people who post things I don’t like (I made an exception for the chiropractor who posted a video claiming that vaccines were unnecessary and chiropractic would prevent disease. This was during the period that swine flu was going around.) I probably alienate enough people with my atheism and skepticism. I don’t need to alienate more customers by unfriending them.

    If I find someone is posting things I have issues with, I generally mute them (I guess it’s now called “unsubscribe’) so I don’t have to notice how much they annoy me.

  18. I’ll be completely honest, my very first initial reaction was a chuckle. Yes, it’s hideously sexist and anti feminist and certainly inappropriate. If someone posted it to Facebook I’d point those things out immediately.

    Yes it’s a cruel joke, but it’s still a joke. I guess that makes it even more evil, using the power of humor to oppress is one of the worst things you can do in my opinion.

  19. Bored now.
    Give me a hard one next time.

    I’m of the mind that part of the problem with and power of racist/sexist humor is that a lot of them are funny even with the racism and sexism removed. It gives cover to the racist bits (“Admit it, you laughed!” “It’s just a joke”), and most people don’t bother to think through a joke, and indeed there’s a cultural disdain for trying to analyze a joke.

    I think there’s probably a universal sentiment here, that dark little moment of self-loathing “Fuck it, I quit”, which we’ve all had in relation to a problem. It’s the “girls suck at math” and the “Stripper is an acceptably degrading job for women” aspects in our culture at large that make this a problem.

  20. Before I even read the real caption, this is what I wanted it to be:

    How many times do I have to explain it?

    (If it’s unclear, that’s supposed to be what she’s thinking.)

  21. I’ve been thinking about these even more and I think that the message is more insidious than just “girls are bad at math.”

    What is says is “girls who are bad at math are better off being strippers.” Absolutely no one tells men that if they struggle with math (many perfectly intelligent people, male and female struggle at math) they should be strippers. It underscores the mentality that there are sexy or brainy girls and brainy girls are girls who do math really well and sexy girls have no intelligence and are just men’s playthings. It says that a girl that doesn’t fit a strict criteria for smart should be relegated to a career that the joke maker deems inferior.

    And herein lies the second problem. In an environment where women still stand to earn less than their equally qualified male counterparts, where jobs for women with less education don’t always offer the sort of flexibility and pay that can allow a single mother to raise a child or children, (children who are 50% some guy who may or may not be around to help), where “welfare mother” is considered an insult of the highest order, being a stripper may possibly be the best option a particular woman can find. However we might feel about how the industry and customers treat strippers, it is men who primarily frequent these establishments. They are the ones who have decided that it makes more sense to invest in their own entertainment than in teachers’ salaries, job training programs and women’s shelters. And while I have no issues with strip clubs or with individuals frequenting them, if they do so and then turn around and disparage the women working there, I think they need to take a good hard look at themselves.

  22. back @Greg

    Right, I was commenting on the picture and caption meaning, not how jackasses on the internet/facebook use it. I’ve had to delete some fucknut right-wing ‘friends’ simply because I did not want to see yet another posting on how Obama is Satan etc.

    Sorry I didn’t say hi after Prothero’s talk, needed to hurry home and take advantage of the weather and my son.

  23. It makes me sad and frustrated. Sad for a young woman that might read something like that, and frustrated at the profound ignorance of people that would write something like that.

    The antidote? I’d go with VIHart’s blog: vihart dot com.

  24. In 9th grade I discovered algebra. Loved it and was very good at it. My BS was Math, had a year of graduate work.
    Could not understand how people could not like/understand it.

  25. I agree, half of my high school class in advanced math were female. As were half my classmates while doing B.Sc. Math, then half my colleagues as a math teacher in high school.

  26. Y’know, I really, really hate maths. It’s something that I really don’t like to do, not because I don’t try at it, but because it seems as though when i learn it, the words go in from one ear, and leave from the other! A tip for those who suck at maths would be to carry a notebook with you to your maths class, and note down two or three examples of each topic, and don’t forget to add titles. From there, go onto the internet to find ways of solving them if you’re still unsure of how you came across the answers in your book. A final measure would be to use the program called MathsWatch- It’s really great and gives you the best way of sorting our your maths! Good Luck and eat those exams!

  27. Wow everyone here whining and complaining needs to get a sense of humor and realize that it’s just a joke… sheesh. Besides it’s been scientifically proven that girls are worse at math so get over it

  28. Both men and women face similar but different dilemas in life. Women can often find relatively higher paying, low skill jobs by commercializing their sexuality/looks. Men can find relatively higher paying jobs by commercializing their health/life expectancy in jobs such as working in coal mines etc. In a way, that cartoon really sums up how taking the easy route of not applying one’s self scholastically can be a tempting choice for some.

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