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“Too pretty to do homework,” or, “why I still can’t divide fractions”

By September 2, 2011 6 Comments

In the past two days, JC Penney has come under fire for selling a shirt in the girls’ section that said “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” Change.org put up a petition demanding that JC Penney pull the shirt from its stock and apologize, and within 24 hours the company had done just that.

There’s still this shirt for sale, though: “My best subjects: boys, shopping, music, dancing.”

These things aren’t new. Women’s rights activists have been paying attention to gender gaps in education for decades, and ever since Teen Talk Barbie told girls that “math class is tough!” way back in 1992, the watch for dolls, toys, and clothes that tell girls that learning is for boys has spread into mainstream culture. So now, in 2011, why are these shirts still being made? We don’t really think that it’s cute for girls to want to shop instead of doing their homework, do we?

In light of these questions, I’ve been thinking about my own experiences with gender and education. For instance, while reading and writing have come to me almost naturally since I was a toddler, I’ve always considered myself bad at math. And who knows, maybe I am bad at math now—I haven’t taken a math class since high school. I purposely picked a college where I wouldn’t need to take math because I thought I was so bad at it. But looking back, there is no possible way I was bad at math as a child or even as a teenager.

Sure, I didn’t like math. It wasn’t fun like reading and it took me a long time to do my homework, but I got good grades all through elementary and middle school. In 8th grade, I even tested into advanced algebra without much of a struggle. But I got Cs in that class, because hello: math is borrrrrinnngggggg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contrary to JC Penney's belief, I was actually not good at any of these things as a child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t want to focus on homework when I could have been dancing with boys duh. I don’t want to say that it was seeing a shirt like the ones for sale at JC Penney that made me hate math, but certainly the idea of math being “for boys” was something that permeated my surroundings when I was 13, and probably contributed to me not caring about algebra.

When I actually did buckle down in high school, I got a B+ in pre-calculus honors—but I still didn’t recognize that math was something I was good at. Even when I managed to knock out a 600 on the math portion of the SAT with no prep, I told everyone, including myself, that I just “wasn’t good at math.”

What the hell was I thinking? I feel like someone should have stuck their head in and said “no, actually Melissa, you are pretty alright at math. In fact you might be great at it if you put forth a little more effort.” So why didn’t they? And why didn’t I realize that a 600 on the math SAT is nothing to sneeze at?

I don’t want to over simplify things, but I really feel like my being a girl played a big role in the fact that nobody was pushing me harder, and why it took me 22 years to realize I might be good with numbers. I had other strengths, so why would I bother with math, something culturally designated as Not For Me? These t-shirts and the attitudes and assumptions they display play right into that.

Wearing one of these shirts will not make a girl drop out of school in favor of becoming Justin Bieber’s backup dancer. But the shirts do contribute to a real divide in what’s expected of girls and boys in the classroom, and subtly help create environments where girls are pushed away from “harder” subjects in favor of reading, writing, and other subjects seen as more “girl friendly.”

But that’s just me. What do you think? Have you had experiences like mine, or were your (or your children’s) educational experiences totally different?

–Melissa