We need female action heroes to be positive, inspirational figures because there's a whole lot of us who want -- and have been waiting for decades -- to see more female protagonists distinguished by their heart, courage, and smarts -- i.e., role model attributes -- instead of their cup size. It's easy to lob the accusation that female action heroes will never be truly "feminist" because they'll also always have to be beautiful. But Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk in The Avengers), and Andrew Garfield (the new Spiderman) are pretty attractive too, and no one is accusing their hotness of diminishing their heroism.
Moreover, the conventional attractiveness of today's action heroines can serve an important purpose. Body image issues are unavoidable in any discussion of female role models in a visual medium like film, and female action heroes can go a long way in showcasing the wonder and might of female physical power by going against the grain of Hollywood's current standard of beauty which implicitly prizes physical weakness via the super-thin bodies of most most young actresses. In the end, having pretty women in commercial film is inevitable. Having actresses lend their pretty faces to make muscles on female bodies more appealing (i.e., the Michelle Obama effect) is awesome.
It must be granted that many of today's action heroes are largely immune from the moral scrutiny that accompanies the arrival of most action heroines on the big screen. People love Iron Man for being a self-absorbed grumposaur, but Katniss Everdeen has Manohla Dargis, arguably the country's most important female critic, wringing her hands about how the actress who plays her might be too curvy. But a playful superhero figure like Iron Man comes after decades and decades of "role model" action heroes like Superman, Spiderman, and Captain America. Iron Man, Hancock, and their snarky ilk are counterreactions to the square, goody-goody "role model" heroes of yesteryear. Hence, contemporary male action heroes are, in a sense, excused from having to be role models, since so many other characters already fit that niche. But with female action heroes, we're still at square one. We don't already have a Superman, a Spiderman, or a Captain America, so we need to start with the first step of creating "role model" heroines.
Inkoo Kang is a Boston-based writer and regular contributor to Boxoffice Magazine whose work has appeared in Movieline, Pop Matters and Screen Junkies. She reviews stuff she hates, likes, and hate-likes on her blog THINK-O-VISION.