Rapunzel: The new math heroine?

Yesterday, the Women in Film Foundation announced the recipients of the 2012 Film Finishing grant. There were two narrative films and seven documentaries awarded the grant, but the film that caught my attention is an animated short called “The Etymology of Zero.” In this short, Rapunzel is a princess with a useless superpower (she can grow her hair really fast), which makes her very attractive to princes. She is more interested in studying math than getting married, so she locks herself in a tower and grows her hair at a rate proportional to the prince’s climbing, so that he will never reach her and can leave her to prove her theorems. The movie is based on a play written by Katie May.

Now, I don’t know about you, and of course, the movie isn’t finished, but I can’t wait to see this. More importantly, I can’t wait to show this to my students. One thing I love about mathematics in fiction is that it gives a sense of excitement to mathematics that isn’t so easy to convey with just the mathematics. This is partly why I think Flatland (the book and the movie) are so successful. You have your heroes dealing with mathematics and somehow it is easier to understand why someone would care or find it so exciting. This can also be seen in the ratings success of the TV show Numb3rs, which was criticized by some mathematicians for being inaccurate, but did succeed in bringing a math superhero into primetime television (who knew that could be done?).

What I particularly like about the idea of this movie is that the math superhero is a princess. I don’t remember seeing very many princesses that are, above anything, smart (although princesses have been changing into more courageous and active protagonists in recent films). I guess Hex in the Flatland movies is an example of a female math heroine, but I can’t think of any more. The general, stereotypical assumption, is that math is not for girly girls. In fact, we all remember hearing about these annoying t-shirts and “math is hard Barbie”. The default is that being pretty and being smart are mutually exclusive, so having more movies with heroines who are both of these things is a step in the right direction. Of course, ideally, being pretty would not be important at all, but we all know that’s probably never going to happen.

Nothing that I’m saying here is very serious. Mainly, I wanted to share my excitement over these news, and write about about mathematics in fiction. There are several websites listing movies and TV shows involving math. I have shown movies, episodes of Futurama, and episodes of Numb3rs to my students after some stressful event (like an exam), or at the end of the semester. Once I had my students read some short stories involving mathematics and write a response as their final project for a class, and most of them seemed to enjoy it (although I was surprised to hear from some of them that they hated reading and writing and that is why they preferred mathematics! — quite an unexpected twist for me).

So, as usual, I now turn it over to you. Do you have other fictional math heroines I don’t know about? Any suggestions for good representations of mathematics in movies? Are you as excited as I am for this to be finished? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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2 Responses to Rapunzel: The new math heroine?

  1. Avatar Daniel Díaz says:

    Hi Adriana, I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and I have to say that I love it, though I’ve never commented here before. I’m not the one who likes to comment too much, perhaps because I don’t think I have something interesting to add. Anyway, I want to add my opinion here this time.

    Currently, I’m doing my Math major, and all my friends comes to me each time they discover some book or serial or anything related with Mathematics, hoping that I will find interesting whatever they want to show me. The truth is that, almost in every case, I don’t find anything attractive in what they show me. Once was Numbers, the TV show you mentioned. Other time was Flatland, a movie you also mention here. To add one you didn’t mention: the book “Foucault’s Pendulum” by Umberto Eco. These are all histories about how awesome Mathematics can be… in a fantastic setting. And here is where I lose my interest. For me, Mathematics are not like Sorcery. For me, they are like a game, a real game, with very hard puzzles to solve. And, since I have a passion for hard problems hence my passion for Mathematics. Mathematics make me think, they make me use my brain, they force me to well understand concepts and think about their meanings, their interpretations. And this is why I find Mathematics “per se” so great. My doubt is if these fantastic histories promote the interest for fantastic mathematics instead for the real mathematics topics. (Please, note that I’m not saying I’m against them.)

    By the way, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences here.

    • Avatar Adriana Salerno says:

      I know exactly what you mean, and I understand your position. I also agree that mathematics is beautiful on its own. The problem we have these days, however, is that many people (the not-yet-converted) feel that mathematics is dry, boring, and not at all related to real life. Sure, fantastical settings don’t add to the “reality” of mathematics, but they may be a way to hook people who are not like you or me. I don’t think people will become mathematicians after they see Flatland (although I do know some people who say that book was what got them into mathematics in the first place) but maybe the non-mathematicians will understand our excitement a little better. I also think some of these settings (like the princess story) will help eradicate some of the (inaccurate) preconceived notions people have about mathematicians. Does that make sense? Thanks for commenting (and reading)!

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