I read an article over here today (or I guess, technically, yesterday) about "girl cooties" in sci-fi and fantasy. Basically, the genre has a small, specific fan base and catering to that fan base means your female characters go one of two ways: super feminine or men with breasts.
Both are annoying in their own ways.
The super feminine archetype can make me actually put down a book. It's happened in the past. I'm thinking of David Eddings in particular. Followed the series for a couple books, but the one and only significant female character wanted nothing more than to follow around the men she traveled with cooking and cleaning for them, and giving long, motherly lectures on how this is something she specifically should be doing. I think the breaking point was when a major female villain was introduced. This woman literally died from vanity. Literally. Her only significant action in the entire story was looking at her own reflection. Seriously?
Equally annoying are the stereotypical manly women. I once read an article about writing that said "If your female characters can be described as 'more comfortable with a sword than a frying pan,'" you're falling into a trap. Yeah, that might be cool and all, but it's probably also going to come across as cheesy. It's the Michelle Gonzales of character design. Michelle Gonzales is an actress. But she only plays one character. In every movie or show she's in, she is ALWAYS "generic tough cop/mercenary/soldier." She's in "Lost" as a cop, "Avatar" as a soldier, etc. etc. etc. And while it's cool to watch her kick ass, her character is completely flat and boring.
So where is the middle ground?
"Firefly" attempted (but failed) to find the middle. One of the main female characters is a tough, bad ass ex-soldier who for no conceivable reason occassionally bursts into sermons on "her role." That "role" includes popping out as many children as possible (despite living among crooks on a spaceship flying from one ridiculously dangerous scenario to the next) and letting her weapon-incompetent husband walk unaided into perilous situations so he can prove he has balls. It comes across looking almost like two different characters.
But there are good examples out there, women who are real people and not one stereotype or the other. I'll offer Suzannah from "The Dark Tower" series. She loves her man, likes looking good and is better at cooking than the men with her. But when it's time to fight, she fights. There are no sermons about staying behind or playing it safe because she's a woman. And when she does something like cooking, she often gets help from the men with her. It seems totally in character for her to be both feminine and kick ass.
There is one huge problem with her as an example though. She's Stephen King's creation. And Stephen King is allowed to break whatever rules he wants to at this point.
The original article I read pointed out that the sci-fi/fantasy reader demographic is narrow and specific. If you're not Stephen King can you break those gender rules? Can you offer something that isn't one stereotype or the other? Giving people hyper-feminine women who know their place is, I'm sad to say, a pretty safe bet. Even if it irks some people, most will probably glance over it. But if we as writers aren't satisfied with these hollow stereotypes as our only character options, can we successfully navigate the risk of creating women who are real and have depth, without giving them "girl cooties"? I sure as hell hope so.