Every Wednesday night, a small group of University of Virginia students gathers in the Rotunda to study a centuries-old tale.
The course they are taking, “The Beauty Behind the Beast,” is one of four student-led seminars selected this semester as part of Student Council’s Cavalier Education Program. The course examines similarities and differences between original and contemporary versions of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale.
The course’s instructor, third-year economics and anthropology major Saskia Feldman, first joined the Cavalier Education Program as a second-year student, participating in an eight-week pedagogy seminar in which she drafted a syllabus for her potential class and applied to have it included on the fall course registry.
The other student-led courses in the program’s fall lineup include, “Baby Makin’ in the USA,” “How Do Artists Make Money?” and “Fighting Domestic and International Poverty.”
Feldman has split “The Beauty Behind the Beast” into three parts. In the beginning, students will learn about the foundations of a fairy tale by reading various scholarly articles, as well as the earlier, literary versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” or “La Belle et la Bête,” written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 and later abridged and republished by Jeanne-Marie le Prince de Beaumont in 1756.
“While Villeneuve used the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ narrative to explore ideas of marriage,” Feldman said, “Beaumont’s decision to make Belle a merchant’s daughter, rather than royalty, reflects the French mood prior to the Revolution as public resentment toward the aristocracy was growing.”
The second part of the class will focus on the 1991 Disney animated-movie version of “Beauty and the Beast,” and the addition of, or changes made to, individual characters and their role in the larger plotline.
Finally, students will examine Disney’s 2017 live-action movie adaptation and the changes that these characters have gone through once again.
In choosing a class topic, Feldman knew she wanted something that would be fun and also resonate with students.
“I’ve always loved Disney,” she said. “I’ve always been fascinated by the way a story is told and the way Disney takes these dark fairy tales and ‘Disney-fies’ them.”
According to Feldman, the class will be looking at what it means to “Disney-fy” a story, and explore why it is done.
For instance, in earlier versions of the “Beauty and the Beast,” there is no singing furniture, nor does the Gaston character even exist. He first appeared in the 1991 movie. The older versions of the fairy tale tell a very different story. Sometimes Beauty – or Belle – is the daughter of a fairy, and at other times she has evil siblings who turn to stone at the end of the story.
Students taking the course will be taking on the big themes of the story – the combination of flat and dynamic characters, sacrifice, symbolism, love and family – all of which are dealt with differently in each new adaptation.
“With the new movie coming out, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was so current and so controversial – especially with its character choices,” Feldman said. “I think we’ll consider if changes, such as choosing an outwardly feminist actress to play Belle, or having an openly gay character, were choices that were made just for this new movie – or perhaps had been alluded to in the earlier versions, but never expressed so obviously. I thought it would be a timely piece and that people would want to take the class because of that.”
Through the Cavalier Education pedagogy seminar, Feldman learned about facilitating class discussions, commanding a room and making sure that students get the most out of classes that they are enrolled in.
“When I came to tour UVA, they talked about the flash seminars students used to teach, but I didn’t think I knew enough about one subject yet to be able to do it,” Feldman said. “Then I heard about the Cavalier Education Program, which helped you design a class, and watched two of my friends teach their own classes. I would sit in on the classes and know that I wanted to do this one day.”
So far, students in “The Beauty Behind the Beast” said they have enjoyed the subject, as well as the experience of being taught by a peer.
“I chose to take this class after reading the syllabus,” fourth-year student Hunter Johnson said. “I wanted to learn about the many different versions of the story that exist. After the first week, I realized that familiar Disney version was very different from the original story.”
Another fourth-year student, Janet Johnston, chose to enroll because the 1991 Disney movie was a childhood favorite.
“I have taken classes from graduate students, but never from an undergraduate, especially one who was younger than me,” Johnston said. “Originally, I thought it would be strange being taught by someone younger than me, but it’s been really fun thus far.”
Feldman said she does not have plans to continue teaching in the future, but considers the experience to be important to her personal and professional development, and encourages anyone else who is interested in teaching a class to do it.
“Student self-governance is something that UVA really prides itself on. It gives students the chance to take hold of their education and change it,” she said. “In terms of my UVA experience, it’s really enriched what I came into UVA thinking I was going to do.
“While I don’t think I’ll be teaching in the future, I wanted to be in charge of my education, and I feel like this has helped me do that. It has allowed me to explore a subject I am passionate about and wouldn't have been able to explore in my regular classes.
“Moreover, teaching is a unique experience that has improved my ability to think on my feet, and my confidence has grown.”