These female characters are endowed with stereotypical alpha-male traits. The problem with the persistence of this representation of women empowerment is that it implies that for a woman to be empowered she must be, essentially, a man.
It's an erroneous interpretation of what it means to be powerful. From a writer's perspective, it would be ridiculous to say that writing strong characters meant making characters physically strong.
Women empowerment in narrative happens when female characters make choices, when they drive the narrative, and/or when we see through their point of view.
What it means to write a character-driven story is to put your protagonist in situations where she needs to make choices. In this way, an empowering female character might be one who is weak physically or emotionally. The important thing is that she has agency as the audience watches her make her way through various conflicts. An instance where this suddenly fails is in the climactic scene of Disney's The Little Mermaid. The protagonist in The Little Mermaid is, predictably, the little mermaid, Ariel. Through most of the movie, she's making choices. But, in the third act, the climax of the movie, Ariel becomes Ursula's prisoner and is not able to make any choices. King Triton chooses to take Ariel's place. Prince Eric drives a bowsprit into Ursula's heart. All the while, Ariel just watches on. It's weird and poor story telling for an otherwise good movie.
|This is a good depiction of how Triton is forced to make a decision while Ariel watches on helplessly.|
A third way female characters are empowered in narrative is when they have a voice and perspective, when the audience is seeing their world through their point of view. (Again, the Little Mermaid fails this a bit in that for a while, Ariel literally can't speak.)
There is a discrepancy between how frequently consumers of media see things through male and female perspectives. Girls are coached from a young age to see things through a male gaze. They are to evaluate themselves as a man might evaluate them. They are encouraged to appear pretty rather than to see keenly, to be in front of the camera rather than behind it. Because of this practice in "seeing as men see", I think the prospect of getting into the head of a male protagonist feels more natural to men and women. It propagates the idea that men are the norm and women are slightly off-center. Practice seeing a fictional world through a female character's point of view, I think, can help offset this attitude.
The movie Gravity employs this literally, as the audience is put inside Ryan Stone's (Sandra Bullock's character's) helmet. We see things first-person-shooter style from her perspective.
Back to the ripped badass female character, they can also be empowering. Characters like Starbuck (Battlestar Galactica) and Buffy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) are kickass and physically strong while also making choices and driving (at least some) story line. (While the ones pictured up top, not so much.)