You know how it is. The first bottle of wine is miraculously transformed into a second, the conversation is flowing like a hillside stream, the stars are just coming out on a beautiful summer evening, and before you know it, you’re confessing embarrassing secrets from the deep, dark past.

Last week, Lani and I had a conversation just like that. Fortunately for the content of this post, we ended up discussing Terrible Movies of the 1980s.

In the course of the discussion, we covered movies we love (Back To The Future and Planes, Trains and Automobiles for me, Say Anything and Romancing The Stone for her), movies we’ve never seen (Tootise for me, Blade Runner for her) and eventually wound up at the strangest films we could recall from our miss-spent youths. Somehow, we eventually tumbled into the subject of movies in which our hero falls in love with someone who isn’t human. That mermaid movie, Splash. And the mannequin one — Mannequin, right? I had a vague recollection of Daryl Hannah being a ghost, but Lani didn’t — sure enough, High Spirits is a thing, as was Weird Science. There were a rush of such films in the 80s, and very few since. Why?

We resolved, upon that very instant, to investigate.

We began by revisiting Splash, the 1984 movie in which little-boy Tom Hanks falls in love with little-girl Darryl Hannah while drowning. We discussed the film at length on StoryWonk Sunday, but we spent most of the time marveling at the fact that the prologue was both enjoyable and necessary, and somehow skipped over the fact that Madison is a mermaid. We followed Splash with 1987’s Mannequin, which was bad. Really bad. Allow me to elaborate: Kim Cattrall is an Egyptian princess. The Gods — for no good reason — send her bouncing through time, inspiring famed artists in the animated opening sequence. She then takes the form of a mannequin for no good reason, and only comes to life when she’s alone with Andrew McCarthy for no good reason. Then, at the end of the film, she’s no longer a mannequin because… you guessed it. No good reason. It’s literally a deus ex machina ending, and it’s awful. Also, she’s a sexy mannequin for most of the film, and that, if anything, is even weirder than a mermaid.

We were going to continue. We still might, though we’re a little gun-shy.

This story isn’t new, of course: we can go all the way back to Pygmalion to see stories of lonely guys looking beyond the strictest definition of their own species for smoochy times. In both films, we see a young man who is missing something vital from his life; that something appears in the form of a nubile woman in a state of undress. They immediately fall in love, and the rest of the story sees them overcoming obstacles — including, in both films, a discarded ex-girlfriend of the Real Woman variety — to be with their magical, non-human soul mate.

TV Tropes wraps these non-human romances up with other fantasy characters and files them under Magical Girlfriends, but I think there’s a clear difference between, for example, Samantha Stevens — human and magical — and the much-dreamed of Jeannie — non-human and magical. Human characters share a common cultural context simply by virtue of their humanity; Jeannie, Madison and Emmy are something fundamentally other.

It is that otherness, I think, which explains the appeal of these stories. The usual social conventions are suspended because our heroines are not a part of our shared society — they can pursue or be pursued, they can have sex on the first date, they can declare undying devotion within minutes of meeting our heroes, and they don’t come loaded down with all that inconvenient baggage real women have, like wants and desires that don’t focus entirely on their lover, or the desire for self-actualization and independent agency. The hero is their entire world, and that’s just the way the hero likes it — the fact that their Magical Girlfriend status is often accompanied by a voracious sexual appetite and a relaxed attitude toward clothing is a bonus.

That’s not to say, by the way, that there are no Magical Boyfriends. The gender-flipped version of this story has become remarkable popular in recent years: if he weren’t an immortal vampire and thus exempt from the constraints of polite society, Edward Cullen wouldn’t be the brooding watcher in the dark, he’d just be the creepy guy who hangs outside your house and goes through your mail. Because Angel and Spike exist outside the norm, they can love more passionately, more profoundly, than any mortal man. Compare Buffy’s relationship with Angel to her relationship with Riley, or, in fact, to any other relationship in the series. Even Willow and Tara are — by comparison, and to those who value the intensity the Magical Boyfriend brings — anaemic. It occurs to me that Anya is an interesting inverted example of the Magical Girlfriend, in that her non-human status actually makes her less desirable as a soul mate, but that may be a thought for another time.

So there are good Magical Girlfriends, and bad Magical girlfriends. What separates the two? The films approach the same idea from very different directions, but the real reason that they fail is the strength of the craft. Splash is tight, efficient and vibrant, while Mannequin is a ridiculous mess; Buffy and Spike are well-matched, emotionally scarred and acutely aware of themselves and each other, while Bella and Edward are superficial and brittle.

The key, as ever, lies in understanding the story you are telling, and making narrative decisions with purpose — or, failing that, just throw in a rad ’80s soundtrack, and some gratuitous nudity.

(image via HDW)