Girls Just Want to Have Sums: Mathematically-Gifted Women in Television/Film

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Girls just want to have sums. Or is it fun? Actually, why can’t it be both? Stereotypes plague math – difficult, boring – and girls who love math – they don’t exist. But several female television and film characters are defying both stereotypes.

One of the most recognizable characters is Lisa Simpson from the long-running The Simpsons. In fact, the intellectually-gifted second grader’s interest in math inspired a 2006 episode titled “Girls Just Want to Have Sums.” In the episode, Lisa’s school is segmented into two separate schools – one for boys and one for girls – after a sexist comment by Principal Skinner. Lisa’s initial enjoyment of the girls’ school quickly vanishes during her first period math class. Instead of asking the class to calculate math problems, the teacher asks the girls about feelings and smells – “How do numbers make you feel? What does a plus sign smell like? Is the number 7 odd, or just different?” – and refuses to teach math as “something to be attacked, something to be ‘figured out’” as that’s how men view math. Unable to live without her favorite subject, Lisa disguises herself as a boy named “Jake Boyman” in order to attend the boys’ school. She later wins an award for her outstanding performance in math and unveils her identity at the awards ceremony, announcing “I’m glad I’m a girl, and I’m glad I’m good at math!”


Another recognizable math-loving character is Cady Heron from the 2003 film Mean Girls. While Lisa Simpson pretended to be a boy for her love of math, Cady pretends to be bad at math for her love of a boy. Not only is Cady gifted in math but she genuinely enjoys the subject. She likes that it’s “the same in every country.” But to get the attention of her crush, she pretends to be bad at math and asks him to tutor her, even though he could probably use some tutoring from her. As her grades in math decline, her popularity and social status rises. Later, she’s forced to join the North Shore Mathletes as extra credit to raise her failing grade, rediscovers her love of math as she competes in the Mathlete Championship and even wins the her crush’s heart by being her regular, math-loving self.

Not only does math play important roles in plot development for these two characters, it plays a role in character development. Lisa Simpson and Cady Heron are not characters defined by math skills; they are well-rounded characters with other aspirations and dreams. Loving math is simply one aspect of their personalities, and even though they both experience conflict in pursuing math, their interest in math eventually wins out.

Lisa and Cady also aren’t alone as math-loving girl characters. Below is a brief list of female math superstars from television and film:

  • Proof (2005): Catherine (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) is the daughter of a brilliant mathematician. The character must prove her work in mathematics, a proof of a theorem, as no one believes it’s her own work.
  • Ice Princess (2005): 17-year-old Casey Carlyle (played by Michelle Trachtenberg) is a physics “geek” pursuing a scholarship to Harvard University. She decides to practice ice skating as a summer project and finds she can apply physics to the sport.
  • Futurama (1999 – 2003, 2008 – present): A physics graduate student for most of the series, Amy Wong (voiced by Lauren Tom) earns her PhD. in Applied Physics from Mars University in the sixth season.
  • Angel (1999 – 2004): Winifred “Fred” Burkle (played by Amy Acker) is a physicist and part of the Angel Investigations team. Her knowledge of physics and mathematics are an asset to the team. In the episode “Supersymmetry,” Fred publishes an article on superstring theory.
  • NUMB3RS (2005 – 2010): Amita Ramanujan (played by Navi Rawat) is a mathematician and professor at the California Institute of Science. She uses her expertise as a consultant for the FBI.

So tell us, what’s your favorite portrayal of a gifted female mathematician?


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.