The Best Thing You Can Do For 'Math Girl' Is Leave Her Alone

Mathematicians agreed that she was right to question why we need algebra, but Gracie Cunningham is just trying to vibe.
September 10, 2020, 1:00pm
Gracie Cunningham asking if math is real.
Image: Gracie Cunningham

You're a 16-year-old girl who's into theater and works at Wegmans. You're trying to live through COVID-19 and go to college. You have a TikTok account that's somewhat popular, but nothing to write home about. You post a video without thinking about it much. Suddenly, everyone on Earth has decided that you're the stupidest girl in the world. Gracie Cunningham would prefer to go back to how things were, but it doesn't seem likely.

If you've been on Twitter over the last month, you probably know Cunningham as "math girl." In a casual TikTok video, she does her make up and asks, how do we know that math is real? It's at once the kind of question you ask when you're high and the kind of question that drives high level mathematical theories.

Cunningham has had a TikTok go minorly viral before, but it was nothing compared to what happened with this one. Cunningham said that she posted the video, not thinking much about it, and then went to sleep. By the time she woke up, it was already more successful than any other video she has made. Over the next few days it would surpass five million views. At first, she didn't know where the attention was coming from. Then, browsing Instagram, she saw a post on a meme account that was a screen capture of a Tweet featuring her TikTok. The person on Twitter who had downloaded her video had captioned it "this is the dumbest video I've ever seen." That account has since been suspended, but not after that video, with the caption, was circulated thousands of times. Cunningham's TikTok video now has 1.3 million views.

Cunningham told me she thinks the only reason people treated her like she didn't know anything is because she's a girl. She saidshe's used to this, and for the most part, it's because she's blond, and people think blond girls are stupid.

"When the video first started going viral and everyone was calling me stupid," Cunningham said over a Zoom call, "I was talking to my friend and I was like, if it was some guy in his basement talking about this, nobody would have an issue."

Academics who teach high level math, as well as engineers and other professionals who use those theories, agree with Cunningham's assessment. One white british man in his 30s recorded himself saying the exact same thing as Cunningham did in her TikTok, just to see if it would sound "smarter" to other people.

Harvard PhD student Kareem Carr used Cunningham's TikTok as a way to answer abstract questions about math in a spirited, easy to understand way:

Sean Carroll, a physicist at CalTech, further backed up Cunningham, saying her questions were important and "can and should be addressed in a decent algebra course." In the replies to that tweet, the screenwriter for the upcoming worm-fest Dune said that Cunningham seemed like a "thoughtful person ready to have her mind blown by a well-prepared math teacher."

Cunningham had a Twitter account but said that she only used it occasionally. When she logged back in and started responding to the criticism of her video, she gained 30,000 followers virtually overnight. The fact that you can say "the math girl" and people know that you're talking about her is a fact that still stuns Cunningham.

Cunningham appreciates all the support she's received, especially from professionals and academics that use high level math, but she said that she hates math. Right now, even the positive attention is alienating for her. Cunningham doesn't have any desire to be a mathematician or engineer. She wants to survive COVID-19 and go to college. Instead of being able to have fun online and retain her identity, anything she posts will add to the story of the persona of Math Girl, which she never asked for.

"My mom was talking to me and she's like, you should make it a series," Cunningham said. She's also posted TikTok about the nature of time and the weird way that no one in movies seem to say "goodbye" when they hang up the phone.

"But anytime I post something like that, people are like, you're just clout chasing," she said.

Being Math Girl has thrust Cunningham into the spotlight in other ways. At one point, a group of people looked through her old TikToks. In one, she asks how we know history actually happened—how can we tell what has happened in the past if we're only aware of our subjective present? New attention on that video lead some people to believe she was denying the reality of slavery.Cunningham said that even after she addressed the controversy of that video, people were sharing photoshopped images depicting Cunningham being racist in direct messages with other users. The idea that people would believe something like that about her made her anxious, because she also knew that that kind of disinformation is hard to combat.

"I've struggled with mental health issues, like my whole life," Cunningham said. "It made it 10 times worse to have like this public presence wall. I had a panic attack for like an hour that night cause I was so freaked out. There were like five, ten accounts that were just tweeting about me nonstop."

When you go viral, it isn't actually you that goes viral. It's a snapshot of yourself, from a fleeting moment in time. Watching that version of yourself become the version of yourself that everyone else sees and knows is an alienating experience, almost an out of body experience. The narrative arc of Math Girl may be triumphant, with mathameticians defending her from the sexists who called her stupid. But Gracie Cunningham is still here, and now she has this part of herself that people will continue to refer to for the rest of her life. It's a weirdness that expresses itself in particularly strange ways, like Shark Tank's Mark Cuban following her on Twitter.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, you should let me guest on Shark Tank.' And he was like, 'I'll talk to the producers,'" she said. Cunningham had only asked to be on as a joke, so getting a serious response was surprising to her. "Why? I haven't done anything!"