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Today’s movie princesses want more than a prince

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LOS ANGELES — For modern movie princesses, looking pretty and marrying a prince isn't enough.

Take "Mirror Mirror," where Snow White rescues her prince from an evil spell, or "Snow White and the Huntsman," where she becomes the hunter who avenges her father, marries none of her suitors and confidently runs her kingdom alone.

Further upending the Cinderella syndrome at a theater near you this weekend is Pixar's first ever female protagonist, the feisty Scottish Princess Merida of "Brave," who demands to forge her own independent future. She's also a far better shot than any of her would-be princes.

This new breed of big-screen princess not only reflects the independence — and athleticism — of young women today, but also Hollywood's increasing willingness to tell their stories.

The success of "Bridesmaids," ''The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Hunger Games" showed us that audiences respond to well-drawn heroes, regardless of their gender, thus setting the stage for the classic literary convention of the princess to get a modern makeover.

"It is time for a new paradigm," said "Brave" producer Katherine Sarafian. "We've got an opportunity to make more characters that are relatable to modern girls" and audiences at large.

These empowered young princesses point to a gradual undoing of the so-called Cinderella syndrome or Cinderella complex, a theory developed in the early 1980s that says that, like Cinderella, many women seek something external — such as a rich and handsome prince — to change their lives and harbor a deep desire for dependence.

"It's not enough for women in the 21st century just to sit around and wait and be pretty," said Karen Sternheimer, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. "An empowered heroine encountering a challenge reflects the whole mythology of individualism. What's new is the means of achieving success. It used to be through beauty or marriage only. That hasn't gone away, but now it can also be through a skill or encountering a challenge that traditionally we've heard in stories about men."

In developing Princess Merida's story in "Brave," Pixar writers and artists thought more about character than gender, Sarafian said. They considered Merida's motivations, her frustrations and what makes her brave.

"If you focus on her being a girl, it's easy to get stuck in the trappings and rules and what a princess movie dictates," the producer said. "We strip out gender, princess, fairy tale and just focus on character."

Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald, is a headstrong teenager in 12th century Scotland with a mane of fiery red curls and a temperament to match. Though her mother lovingly prepares her for her royal role, the young princess is more interested in sword fighting, archery and riding her horse through the forest. When she blatantly defies an ancient tradition, she jeopardizes the future of her family and the kingdom.

"The story is not about the circumstances surrounding her," Sarafian said. "She makes the core decision that throws things off.... and it's not something else really saving her. Even though there is a little magic in the story, she is really the driving force."

And she does it all in a dress.

"Merida is not trying to pass herself off as anything other than a girl," the producer said. "She just wants to be her own person."

Rupert Sanders, the director of "Snow White and the Huntsman" released earlier this month, said the heroic journey of his princess (played by Kristen Stewart) makes her "almost the female Luke Skywalker."

The princesses' desire to shape their own lives rather than rush into marriage reflects a real trend of women marrying later or not at all, Sternheimer said. It's also a concept familiar to teenagers today, who often think about work and college before wedding bells.

But the stories of these empowered princesses still adhere to some less-than-empowered ideas. Princesses still have to be beautiful and attractive to men, and the stories' central conflicts still pit women against each other.

"They're empowered, but they still have a nemesis and she's female," Sternheimer said. "The battle between women is so central in pop culture. Any 'Real Housewives' franchise is a battle between women."

"I think it's a challenge to feminism," she continued. "Obviously feminism can't really work because women can't get along."

But at least at the movies this summer, everyone can see they can be powerful, independent princesses.

"My hope is that it's not just a moment; It's the new phase of things that become a new reality," the "Brave" producer said. "My goal is for it not to be exceptional. Let's get to the place where it's like breathing, where we take it for granted, like women voting, and boys and girls will come to the movies for good stories, regardless of gender."

AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen is on Twitter: www.twitter.com/APSandy .