How does a gangster behave

Why women like gangsters

Some women are fascinated by men who exude a criminal energy and also go otherwise dark ways. #MeToo or not.

On the display behind the steering wheel was an arrow with "Manhattan Beach" above it. As if you just had to drive straight ahead on the autobahn, then you would already have reached your destination. But our destination was not New York, but Italy.

The long drive from Switzerland was ideal for an audio book. In Jennifer Egan's new novel "Manhattan Beach", set in the 1940s, the young heroine feels drawn to a gangster. And while the erotic tension grew chapter by chapter, we drove deeper and deeper into the south, into the home of the Mafia.

The attraction between the confident, independent Anna and the dangerous, married Dexter Styles raised an interesting question. Before they plunge into a passionate affair, says one of the guests at the Moonshine club, where men in suits play cards and carefree women are invited to champagne. He says: "You girl likes gangsters." Is he right?

Before you dismiss the question as a cliché, i.e. defend it, because it does not fit the image of women in the times of #MeToo, I would answer: yes. There are women who are fascinated by men with criminal energy. You are not looking for the sublime soul in a man. Rather, they prefer the virile, which here becomes a synonym for opacity, to the virtuous, sensitive being that the ideal man just wants to be formed into at the moment.

The gangster is not a bad man who despises women. But the beautiful Dexter Styles at Jennifer Egan's has style, good manners, and he knows how to seduce in his dark, taciturn manner. Anna, who was already life-tested at the age of twenty, fights during the Second World War to become the first female diver in the Navy. She is smart and fearless - and yet she falls in love with a gangster. The weakness for ambivalent guys does not only affect naive women, as the darling pretends, another name for gangster bride.

The gangster embodies lawlessness. He is an outlaw who goes through life like a man from the world, but pervades the underworld. He has money, gathers power. This increases his criminal eroticism in contrast to the thieves and petty crooks who populated the sinful city in 1940. Today certain women find lawbreakers no less erotic, precisely because correct behavior is required in every relationship today. You wait at red, put all the scanned goods in the shopping basket, and pay the taxes obediently. If someone does something forbidden, even if he avenges the last parking bus by parking it incorrectly five times, that's already bold. He is rebelling against the system. Sexy.

This is why prison guards fall in love with criminals and help them escape, as in the Zurich case two years ago.

It seems like a gangster takes what he wants. He is risking something most would never risk. Little Anna asks her father how to recognize a gangster. He replies: "It gets quiet when he enters the room." He inspires awe, is an authority. He shows toughness, but often also a human side.

That is definitely what the myth says. Because of course, the picture is also shaped by popular culture. From “The Godfather”, from Johnny Depp as “Donnie Brasco”, from Tony Soprano. Even if it doesn't exist like that: the gangster occupies the imagination.

Fortunately, he stays there when we finally reach Naples.

NZZ editor Birgit Schmid writes weekly about interpersonal relationships in her column “In every relationship”.