Tess Trueheart versus Breathless Mahoney: The Age Old War Between Virgin and Whore

Glenne Headly had many roles before her untimely demise on June 8th, but perhaps one of the most unwittingly political ones was her interpretation of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip character Tess Trueheart. As Dick’s steady dame, she often finds herself endangered by the villains he comes up against, just one of many testaments to her patience and virtue. That one of the villains in question is curvy, saucy blonde Breathless Mahoney (Madonna in the film incarnation)–modeled originally after Veronica Lake–speaks to just how little Gould deviated from the age old interpretation of the whore. Which is to say, if you’re opinionated and attractive as a woman, you are automatically, somehow, peccant. And, accordingly, nefarious. Breathless Mahoney, of course, is no exception to the cliche. This is precisely why men of “good” and “solid” stock do not do anything in the long run with a Breathless Mahoney type. They end up marrying the Tess Trueheart in their lives instead.

Because who wants a ratty old slore in a too-tight velvet dress in the end? When instead a man could have someone more “gently used,” shall we say? The Tess Truehearts of this world are, of course, a bit easier to come by in their basicness, which is why men so often treat them ill for the period when they’re briefly riveted by the whore. But, lo and behold, they always seem to have the epiphany that they’re better off turning back to the loving, obsequious arms of the “good girl”–the true heart.

A whore’s heart, after all, is roughly the size of the Grinch’s, is it not? You might say it’s barely there. If it was, how could she possibly sleep with so many men, and so callously? A woman with witty returns to questions like, “What, no grief for Lips?” that entail a smile and the reply, “I’m wearing black underwear” couldn’t possibly have feelings or genuine emotions of any kind. Or so the Dick Tracys of the world would like to tell themselves, never looking beyond the armor of snarkiness to see that it merely needs to be broken down.

And yet, with the so-called “whores” that men momentarily become enamored of, so much of the attraction is based solely on the knowledge that they are disposable. That they’re accustomed to being treated as single-serving bedfellows. So, to them, it’s easier to discard the Breathless Mahoney carelessly when he’s “done” as she is deemed the bloodless one, whereas the Tess Truehearts are too effortlessly bruised to leave behind in the dust. Tess gets praise like, “You’re one in a million.” Breathless gets mockery over how she dresses. And in the end, the male rejoinder to her most iconic catchphrase, “I know how you feel. You don’t know if you want to hit me or kiss me. I get a lot of that,” is simply to walk away after doing a little bit of both. She’s the type who can make it alone, after all. Tess Trueheart–the virginal, slipper-bringing sort–needs to be taken care of. Deserves to be in exchange for her moral rectitude.