Zoë Van Tieghem: on Her First "Relationship", Lesbian YA Fiction, and Her Synesthesia
On acting: I've been acting all my life. My parents were in theater - my mom used to be an actor and my dad is a sound designer and composer for theater. So, I grew up under the tech tables of Broadway shows and I was always around it. When I was about 6, I decided that it was what I wanted to do professionally. My parents asked me if I was sure and made it clear that I shouldn’t feel obligated to do so. Though I started acting and it stuck. It's in my blood - I can't really help it. I think part of them was relieved that it was what I chose to do, even though I’m sure they’d fantasized about me being a doctor or something of the sort. I love theater - the connection to the audience, the adrenaline - the fact that every show is truly a once in a lifetime experience for the cast and the audience. But I also respect film, and see that as something I want to be in.
On subtle sexism: I think that misogyny and sexism are so ingrained in our society, and in many ways so subtly that we don’t always catch it right away. For example, the assumption that women are more fragile, or the fact that some languages which have a strict male/female conjugation - if there is a large group of mixed gender, the group takes on the masculine conjugation. Or its more obvious, like when I get yelled at from a car to smile, to which my response is usually “I’m sorry your penis is so small and you’re so embarrassed about it that you feel the need to do this”. I should probably stop doing that though, because one day I will get hit by a car. Which is also the problem! Men continue to hold the monopoly of violence - and because I don’t answer them, they think they have an excuse to hurt. I have a friend who did not get into a car with a strange man, so he ran her over. Complete powerlessness.
On Synesthesia: I have this thing called Synesthesia. The way that I have it - numbers, letters, people, words, people’s names, days of the week, months - all have colors. Its lexical synesthesia. So when I see something written I see colors and patterns in addition to what’s actually written, which made it really hard to do math when I was in school. People’s voices have colors and shapes. I see a series of patterns “behind my eyeballs” when I listen to music. It’s hard to describe - it’s like describing sugar to someone who has never tasted sugar. I don’t really know what not having it is like - so I can’t say if I like having it. It’s just there with the rest of my senses - they’re really tangled up. I found out about it after my mom and I watched a video about this guy who could recite a crazy amount of numbers in pi because each number had a color, a shape, and a personality. So I said “yeah, duh, I do that.” My mom didn’t believe me for a while. Then it came up years later and I realized that it’s not normal for most people to mix up four and seven because they’re the same color. I have a really hard time remembering people’s name sometimes, because they’re the same color as some other names. Like “I remember his name is either Jackson or Steve because they’re both orange”.
On her eating disorder: It was never about losing weight. It became about losing weight later. Because I went through puberty early, I really thought that I have to shrink because I was being targeted and called out for the overnight development of my body. I also had a lot of anxiety - and it physically prevented me from eating. So at one point, I just stopped. It was pretty bad for a while and I still struggle with it, but in a different way. I’m aware now. But it was probably like an eight year uphill battle.
On her orientation: I usually say I’m pansexual or bisexual...I feel like I’m 80% into women...and 20% into men, but why would I want that if I have the option not to be?
On the future: I want to start my own theater company one day. Most importantly I want it to be diverse - there are so many companies that are almost all exclusively white. I want to spend my life telling stories about people who don’t see their stories very often. I have a name and a kind of game plan but it’s still a secret.
On being taken seriously: I’ve had male teachers who have disregarded my comments in class in a way that they don’t with male students. And we’ve all had a good mansplain. But I’m lucky to have a father who has always valued my opinions and took me seriously.
On femininity: I think of Victorian women for some reason. I have this image of girls in petticoats walking around with books on their heads...books that they weren’t really allowed to read. Gentility and softness and calm and beautiful are the things that come to mind. There’s a fine line of “the no-makeup-makeup look” which takes you 20 minutes to put on. Effortlessness that takes a massive amount of effort.
On the perfect woman: It isn’t something that exists, but there are things that I think are good qualities in women...but more importantly in people. Authenticity is really important -that’s how you really connect with someone. Intelligence. A woman who can really take care of herself - I often find myself in relationships where I have to really take care of the person - and it’s a bit crippling sometimes.
On her first "relationship": I struggle to call it a relationship because it was illegal. I was 11 and he was seven or eight years older. So that was...complicated because I was too young to know what a relationship was so I thought that whatever was happening was normal and that was what people in relationships did, but I didn’t actually want any of it. I wanted to seem chill and cool with a boyfriend. And I had a crush on him - but he took advantage of it. That was my first sexual experience which wasn’t normal, good, or healthy - but I didn’t know about it at the time. There were many realizations about it later. Of course it was abusive and manipulative - at that age you don’t know how to say no to things that people in some kind of authority tell you to do. So he put me in situations where it would be difficult for me to say no, and I wouldn’t. I felt scared at the time more than anything, and confused. I just thought I was being dumb for not wanting what I thought I was supposed to want. So I put it on myself - because what 11 year old knows what to do with a dick pic? (I received my first at my friend’s Bat Mitzvah). It went on for a few years, it was a long period of time. The recovery period was even longer. I think that at this point I’ve come to terms with it. I think I’m also aware that it’s a larger issue, and something made him think it was okay, and that’s what I’m trying to go after. And there were people who I think were aware of it and didn’t stop it and that is sometimes more sickening than the sexual acts themselves.
On standards for women: I remember in high school it was really popular to be anorexic, coked out, and half-dead almost. Now, it’s huge ass, tiny waist, big boobs, thin legs...visually it evolves, but never into anything truly achievable or real. The submissive woman is the ideal woman in many places. I don’t think I fit into what society defines as a perfect woman, because first of all, I’m not straight. But I do try to please people a lot - but I won’t go back on the things I believe in to do so.
On fetishization: I get the “you’re too pretty to be a lesbian” sometimes. I pass as straight, but the assumption that I’m straight is annoying. A lot of the time it comes up even with my male friends that it would be hot to watch me and another girl - there is a fetish aspect to it that really denormalises it.
On women on TV: After the election, it's so obvious that a fire has been lit under everyone’s ass in terms of empowering women and representing women, so people have been portraying women fighting for themselves a lot more - which is great. Yes, partially it’s because they know that it’s popular right now and these big companies know they can make money off of it - which is sleazy, but it’s better than making money off rape scenes like before. Female characters in TV have become more multidimensional - for example - Viola Davis’s character in How To Get Away With Murder - everything about her: her backstory, her emotions, her being bi just as something she is...not as a huge fetishized, negative or comic event. Whereas before - there were characters like Donna Reed who were much more one-dimensional.
On girl vs. girl competition: I did when I was younger. I’ve had a friendship, like most girls, which was based only on competition on who could be more fucked up. Who was skinniest, who got more fucked up. And most of it wasn’t even true! But in the entertainment industry when you go to auditions girls really are against each other, but you can't really make it about the other people and what they’re doing if you’re going to be successful. The people who glare at you in the waiting room won’t get the part - so I make sure I do the opposite and smile and say hi...though it’s sometimes totally sarcastic.
On health education: My mom was really good at teaching about my body, but I don’t remember learning about it in school. But there are people who think that they pee out of their vagina until they’re 30. Those of you reading this who think you pee out of your vagina - you don’t! Get a mirror! Figure it out! But in a school environment, the female anatomy is really not taught. Things like “clitoris”, “vulva” or “vagina” are considered bad words and we are taught not to say them from a really early age. People are taught other more “appropriate” names but it distances you from that part of your body, and no part of your body should ever feel foreign to you.
On books or films which changed your opinion on being a woman: I went through a phase of lesbian YA fiction. Even though that’s a weird thing to say - it made me feel less alone. I saw that there were people that went through the same thing and survived it. I watched a lot of Ginger Rogers movies when I was younger also, and those really taught me strength and grace because she really knew what she wanted and how to get it.