What is a Magical Girl:
For such a simple question, you'd think there would be a very simple answer. While many Magical Girl fans like me have a sort of intuition as to what is and isn't Magical Girl, actually trying to find a hard and fast rule is difficult to say the least.
The question is twofold....what is a "Magical Girl" Series and what is a "Magical Girl" character archetype? After all you can surely have a Magical Girl character inside a non-Magical Girl work....can't you? Well....it's not quite that simple. In that case what separates a Magical Girl from a Magical Girl Homage or Reference or Parody? But let's start off with analyzing the name....
Magical Girl contains two words, both important, "Magic" and "Girl".
Magic is a term for generally any supernatural power, although often separated from "scientific" powers and powers based on human potential like Chi or Spirit, as these are seen as being part of the natural universe, just based on rules we don't understand. However this is a distinction unhelpful for Magical Girls. There are Magical Girls powered by technology (like Tokyo Mew Mew). However I think it's note the dearth of Magical Girls powered by ideas like Chi and Spirit, natural Human potential. Likewise the Technology that Magical Girls wield is generally magic-like being so advanced and often not fully in their control but instead bestowed on them.
"Girl" is a term for a female person. Alright so a Magical Girl must be a girl right....Nooooooooooo. Oto x Maho and Is this a Zombie? both feature males in their civilian forms that turn into female after transforming and are both Magical Girls. Mahou Shoujo Ore features a girl who turns into a Male after transforming. This isn't even getting into more "standard" Magical Boy series like Cute High Defense Earth Club LOVE!
So analyzing it by parts doesn't make sense but there is another way to consider the term "Magical Girl"...in particular considering the terms describing each other. "Magical Girl" would therefore be about Feminine Magic and the magic of girls specifically. This to me gets to what a "Magical Girl" series is. A Magical Girl series is a series about Magic, and consequently power, that is feminine in nature as well as female characters who through their femininity can wield said magic. This gets into the primary difference between Eastern Female Empowerment and Western "Feminist" Female Empowerment, and also why I get confused when Magical Girls series are considered "Feminist" in the west. Western Female Empowerment is about specifically androgenizing power and tropes, based on the Western Feminist Thesis that differences between Males and Females are socially constructed, etc.
Conversely Eastern Female Empowerment is about the celebration and veneration of the things uniquely female specifically. It is almost opposite in that it makes the genders as different as possible but associates the feminine with power, although most Magical Girl works are not in any way disrespectful or demeaning to males and masculinity. You will notice that the Male Figure of Authority in a Western Female Empowerment work is often the villain, while in Magical Girl works is generally a helpful ally. Making your strong central villain a male devalues the concept of associating power with the feminine, which is why Eastern Female Empowerment doesn't do that.
As any form of Empowerment, even just blatant fanservice wish-fufillment empowerment, Magical Girl works have a heavy focus on the idea of transformation or as we call it in Japan "Henshin". The change from the flawed Child Self to the Heroic Adult Self with the series acting as the adolescence. Most Magical Works feature an element of general transformation from the civilian self to the superhero self that occurs regularly, but all of them have in common this Transformation and general empowerment of self, and what makes it a Magical Girl work, is that this empowerment comes from discovering oneself as a girl and later a woman.
If a Magical Girl work is about female empowerment via discovering the feminine power or "magic" within, then what is a Magical Girl Character Archetype? Can you have a Magical Girl in a non Magical Girl Show, as opposed to merely homage, references, and parodies. Well I'd say yes hesitantly. To be a Magical Girl, requires theoretically that one uses a supernatural power of the feminine, as opposed to being a more general "Superheroine". If you have a character in a verse and their power could just as easily be used by a male, and would be used in the same general way, it's probably not a Magical Girl.
To better explain the Magical Girl genre, I want to explain the appeal by also explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the genre.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Magical Girl Genre:
Let me start with the Weaknesses of the Magical Girl, because as much as I love the genre, I do understand there are pretty noticeable weaknesses.
1: The Emotive Problem (The Central Problem):
This is the main problem that most problems come from. Magical Girls are a female genre, which means that when making it the writers tend to appeal back to an old standard that said males liked logic, women liked emotion....this leads to much of the Magical Girl Genre to be based on appeals to emotion rather than trying to change the audience viewpoints....the Magical Girl genre is a genre that is almost intrinsically a female fanservice genre...even deconstructions and parodies work within that framework, explaining why this is not what you ACTUALLY want, making it's out to be a monkey's paw.
Now I love this fact about the genre, I love the hyper-femininity of the genre, but I can't deny it leads directly into the biggest problems of the genre, which are its overuse of the appeal to emotion. Things don't have to make SENSE in the genre, so long as it's emotionally satisfying. And yes, watching it is very emotionally satisfying, but it is also is lazy writing in some sense. he Magical Girl Genre is rife with protagonist-centered morality, making up the world-building as you go along, BLATANT deus ex machinas, etc.
It's no revelation if I say most Magical Girl Villains are pretty uninteresting. Magical Girl Anime Villains tend to be complete jokes without any menace, Magical Girl Manga Villains tend to be one-note, and of course in both series you can have villains that are just both. It's like you have one of those "pick two" things. Threat, Depth, Villainous: Pick two. That's not to say the Genre doesn't have any good villain characters. Sailor Galaxia is one of my favorite villains of all time, and you also have characters like Phantom Ace, Michel, Zagato, The Wolkenritter, etc. But for the most part Magical Girls do best when they are fighting eldritch abominations, more dark forces of nature then people.
3: Shallow Action (Subjective):
I can easily imagine a Battle Shonen fan trying Magical Girl Warrior and being disappointed with the fights for a single reason....they are much shorter. Significant fights in Magical Girl Manga only tend to last maybe 10 to 20 pages at most. Really big fights, like at the end of an arc, will last about a chapter. These fights tend to lack tactics for the most part, with both sides just throwing their strongest magical attack at each other and the stronger side winning.
Magical Girl Anime is similar, with a standard monster of the week tending to have a maybe 3-5
minute fight near the end of an episode. The longest Fight in Magical Girl Anime to my recollection was the Sol Senshi fighting Sailor Galaxia at the end of Sailor Moon which lasted about 4 episodes (halfway through 196 to halfway through 200). These have only slightly more tactics then their Manga counterparts. Despite the drastic variety of powers Magical Girls have they rarely use it in any complex way in fights, which I can very well understand causing a more fight-happy fan from Battle Shonen or even something like Superhero Comics or High Fantasy or whatever to be disappointed by.
However fans of the genre like me do tend to appreciate the inverse that these very short, rather simple battles provide which is sheer emotional intensity. The longer a fight is, the harder it is to maintain any intense emotion over the entirety.
When the mindwashed Captain of the Guard Lafarga attacks a helpless Umi and Fuu causing Hikaru to take the attack for them before, despite being bloodied and bruised, charging him declaring her that even at the cost of her life she will not abandon them creating sword blows with Lafarga so powerful as to sweep the battlefield with powerful wind....
or when twin brothers Gackto and Kaito engage in psychic battle, Kaito fighting to protecting his love and his adopted people unwilling to believe that only one sentient species can exist and Gackto angrily fighting thinking Kaito has abandoned their people leaving them to die for the sake of another people....
or when Kishi launches a surprise attack and engages in a teleport duel with his own Overlord the Planet-Destroyer Deep Blue because despite her mean-ness his affection for Ichigo was true after all....
You just can't maintain that intensity of emotion through long in-depth battles. That's why Magical Girl fans like this combat form, though it may be relatively disappointing to a non-fan.
Strengths of Magical Girl Genre:
The Magical Girl Genre does things that other genres have seemingly great trouble doing, often from similar sources that their weakness come from. In general Magical Girl works....
1: The Merging of the Personal and the Universal:
When we view of talk about other works of similar natures to Magical Girl works we need to distinguish between the "Magical Reality" and the "Mundane Reality", even if the work takes place in a separate universe with its own rules like High Fantasy or Far Future Science-Fiction. By this I mean that basically any Non-Realistic Fiction Universe is distinguished by being Essentially "Our Universe...+ These Elements". And at first glance it would seem that this is the ONLY way of doing it....after all you can't very well create a universe without new elements or it would just be our universe, right?
Well maybe but Magical Girls do sort of have a way of skirting around that....In Magical Girls works, the actual magic while important serves as more a connector between two real forces, the realms of the mundane and the realms of the universal. Because of their emotive nature, Magical Girl works I would argue have more in common with poetry then they do with literature. Indeed Magical Girl stories often carry much in common with the epic poetry of the classical age.
Magical Girl works are at their best generally when they are merging the realms of the personal and the universal, extrapolating the natural beauty of the human condition and human drama onto the greater workings of the universe...
When Chibiusa is harassed in her mind by a Grim Reaper representing Death and her own fear of the inevitable failure and death after the trauma of witnessing her City and people being destroyed , and
Sailor Moon asks Chibiusa to believe in her, giving her the strength to defeat the monster, we are witnessing a dramatization of the process of the traumatized coming to believe in people and their ability to help them again, that tragedy need not be as inevitable as it seems if people believe in each other's abilities.
(MADOKA SPOILERS) When Homura goes back in time over and over again to save Madoka, obsessing over her and fighting off the feeling that she might not be able to save her at all, which builds up the Magical Power in Madoka to the point that her wish allows her to become an abstract concept and change the rules of existence, what we are seeing is a dramatization of the personal become the impersonal based on need, the way a person can become an impersonal law if that is what they are needed to be by a dear one.
When we see Star's history of constantly trying to seize new experiences and adventures contrasted with Marco's history of doing the same thing over and over and finally Father Time's history of doing the same thing in isolation for all eternity, what we are seeing is the human drama played out even with the abstract concept of Time as well as the human problem of falling into a stagnant rut played out on the cosmic scale, also perfectly showing why a person Star is needed, even on a mundane scale to introduce an element of change and prevent stagnation.
Magical Girl Works at their apex are about the relation of the human elements with the universal elements, both of which being real tangible things in our world, with the magical elements acting more as a mechanism to relate these two things. In this way Magical Girl works can allow for great scope, and the growth of wisdom in both character and viewer, all the while remaining human, understandable, even relatable.
For whatever reason, there seems to me no genre more prone to innovation, to a vast variety of elements, styles, and themes then the Magical Girl genre. Magical Girls really really do not rip each other off. Even when they use the same elements they use them in entirely different ways. "Being a princess" is a common element for instance. It's handled nothing alike in Sailor Moon, Mermaid Melody, Sally the Witch and Star versus FOE (Sally the Witch and Star versus FOE seem similar at the start but Star seems to be growing in almost the exact opposite direction).
There is almost nothing I can think of that just doesn't exist anywhere in the Magical Girl Genre. It's such an expansive genre, where the works can be so very different. Even things you think are in every work just aren't. There aren't transformation scenes in Cardcaptor Sakura for instance. On the other hard Cardcaptor Sakura has Mon elements to it, Magic Knight Rayearth (and to some extent Nanoha) have Mecha Elements, Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne has Theological Elements in it, Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt stars primarily a Psychopathic pair of a Nymphomaniac and a Sweets-obsessed Goth and is heavily inspired by western cartoons, Ai to Yuuki no Pig Girl Tonde Buurin involves the Heroine turning into a Superpowered Pig in a Cape. This is a genre that heavily encourages creativity and innovation. There are no 2 Magical Girl series that are really alike. There are HENTAI Magical Girl series that are more innovative then certain really well-known anime series airing now, and also have better endings (Mahou Shoujo Erena ends with basically an Evangelion rip-off but you get the idea).
This is connected to a bigger reason, but the reason why this genre has so much innovation is because people need a certain level of passion. I don't mean this in an arrogant "other genres are filled cash-grab soullessness". What I mean is that regardless of talent, making a proper Magical Girl work requires some level of emotional investment from the creator. Magical Girl works are works that are heavily emotional and as such take a significant emotion to properly write, direct, or animate, if only because the emotions of the character will necessarily rub off on the creator.
Because of this, the emotional investment leads to a person trying to make their work different, influencing it with their particular personal style....this leads to a more innovative work. None of this is necessarily good, it's perfectly possible that emotional investment could make a worse actually worse than generic if the writer's tastes are poor or they are not talented in expressing what they want, but in my personal opinions it's quite enjoyable to see such a wide versatility and innovation.
3: Interconnected Complexity and Simplicity:
I want to go back to my comparison to Poetry made earlier. Poetry as a medium often has a "less is more" mindset, as often it is one of the mediums with the shortest amount of time to tell a story then other mediums, As such it is often built so the themes are layered rather than separate, with lines containing more symbolic depth than other mediums which can be done do the fact that poetry is allowed more freedom to jump around in space, time, and mood.
Magical Girl works seem to me to accomplish the same effect due to its nature of connecting the personal with the universal....it can layer itself giving messages about psychology, society, daily life, and the universe at large all at once. This is due to the fact that it is a genre so good at connecting things through the idea of "magic" and "emotion".
Magical Girls are works that are Female Empowerment of the Eastern Model, by associating power with the feminine, this being the idea of magic. As a Consequence of this it become a highly emotive work with various strengths and weaknesses, often having relatively simple conflicts (and consequently villains), but layering those conflicts with depths of emotions and connection to greater impersonal archetypes and concepts. Because of its emotional depth it causes a highly personal effect that allows for great innovation and appeal to a wide audience myself included.