If History Is a Guide, Edward Snowden’s Girlfriend Can’t Win

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 14 2013 11:19 AM

Edward Snowden's Girlfriend Can't Win

A scandal finds its sideshow.

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In this handout photo provided by the Guardian, Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong.

Photo by the Guardian via Getty Images

Every scandal needs a sideshow that threatens to eclipse the main attraction, and the case of Edward Snowden proves there is no national security restriction to that rule. Here we are, in the thick of some of the most important revelations about the way civil liberties conflict with the brute use of power. And yet what's transfixing at least a good portion of the Internet is the blog-post diction and muscle tone of one Lindsay Mills, 28, whereabouts unknown. Call it human interest, or call it tabloid journalism, but there's a giant audience for it: We are curious about what it is to love (and perhaps leave) someone notorious.

She is, or was until recently, Snowden’s girlfriend. She shared a house with him in Hawaii until mid-May. And shortly after the Internet discovered her name, on Monday, it began digging up everything else she’d ever put online. The spoils of the dig were a blog called Lsjourney (since taken down) to which she contributed maudlin accounts of life with the man she called “E.” (Sample: “This week I’ve had a strong urge to have a date night—try to bring back a little normalcy to our rocky time out here.”) There were also a lot of pictures. Sexy pictures. And so began the race to classify Mills as either tawdry or tragic.

I wish we’d all knock it off. There’s no good way to be the center of a media maelstrom you did not choose for yourself. How do I know? Well, just look at the options.

There is, first of all, the Good Wife. This image has always been sold to women as the best choice. Traditionally, being the Good Wife was about just accepting—i.e., ignoring—whatever wrong a man inflicts on you. But I think Hillary Clinton actually had a point when, in her attempt to play the part long ago, she said that she herself was not “some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” In fact, the key to Good Wife-ism these days is not really loyalty to your man, not in an age when divorce is hardly a scandal. If anything, the loyalty will only make others wonder if you’re a fool, as Huma Abedin was recently reminded.

So you can leave him, but there’s a catch. You have to remain publicly silent about your suffering, which in women is invariably read as “dignity.” Think, for example, of Jackie O., who will forever be thought of as dignified for never really spilling about her marriage to JFK, though God knows she would have been entitled to it. If we no longer want our women to stand by their men, we still think that people—and women especially—ought to keep their suffering to themselves. (Not, of course, that we won’t enjoy the odd television or celebrity magazine interview, if they decide to give it; as long as they seem appropriately reluctant to comment directly then a Good Wife can remain a Good Wife.) Self-expression, for women, is still seen as sordid. The price of dignity is bottling the mess up, without complaint.

Some women rebel by going Full Tabloid. Probably the best example of this is the late Tammy Faye Bakker Messner. Restraint was never her strong suit, and she was already a rather, er, demonstrative public figure before she became the subject of scandal. But where some people would have retreated, embarrassed by the press furor when her husband was first caught paying off his mistress and then embezzling money from his ministry, this was not her chosen route. When Jim Bakker was on trial—Messner herself was never indicted—she appeared on the courthouse steps singing hymns that went, “On Christ the solid rock I stand.” Then she divorced him, wrote tell-all memoirs, and starred in a documentary, leaking eyeliner and snot by the gallon. She went Full Tabloid. Yet the whole display of emotion backfired. Everyone started debating mascara and shopping rather than the more important, and frankly interesting, intersections between religious evangelism, and, um, fraud. Somehow Tammy’s (legal) misdeeds became more interesting than Jim’s (illegal) ones.

In recent years, a few women have tried to split the difference. Elizabeth Edwards, for example, suffered in silence until some reporters, and her husband’s former aide, revealed that she had been, as the Washington Post would later put it, “shrill, angry, and controlling.” At that point she felt compelled to respond, giving interviews to Oprah and Today, complaining that, “I do still need to break through the media-imposed image. I'm not just the cuckolded wife. ... I hope the next time I'm on television, it's to talk about some policy that I really care about." It seems doubtful that, after going Tabloid, she could have succeeded—that we would have let her succeed—but six months later she was dead of cancer.

The upshot for Lindsay Mills is that this game is rigged. One is tempted to say that all someone like Mills can do is be herself, but then her self pole-dances on YouTube and writes florid blog posts and we just can’t stop ourselves from getting excited. People (we people) would like nothing more than for this young woman to go on television and cry her eyes out. That might explain why attempts to reach out to her are put so chummily—why the Cut’s Maureen O’Connor offers her breakup advice and Jezebel’s Katie M. Baker says her life “sounds like Twilight fan fiction,” before calling her “inarguably bewitching.” (Be careful, Lindsay! These are the offerings of frenemies.)

So let’s try something else. It’s funny that this doesn’t go without saying, but there is a person at the center of this morass. A person who is in a very serious situation. Not a character in your amateur screenwriting project. Yes, she’s a bit theatrical. And maybe, like a lot of other people in this culture, she will ultimately prove interested in the crass pursuit of fame. But let’s not decide that for her.

“My world has opened and closed all at once,” she says in that blog post everyone’s making fun of. “Leaving me lost at sea without a compass.” Giggle all you want, but there’s no disputing that it’s kind of true for Lindsay Mills this week. And not because she herself decided it should be that way.

Michelle Dean is a writer and recovering lawyer in New York. Follow her on Twitter.