Cinema and Media Studies Kathryn Bigelow
Christina Lane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0083


Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director with the 2009 film The Hurt Locker, which also won for Best Motion Picture as well as numerous international awards. This distinction catapulted her Hollywood career and made her one of the most historically significant female directors to date. Even before this success, Bigelow had garnered substantial scholarly and critical attention given her kinetic and visually excessive style, her intense cinematic reflexivity, her tendency to work in genres stereotypically defined as masculine, and her refusal to subscribe to easy ideological oppositions. Existing scholarship is heavily weighted toward the relationship between authorship and genre, especially studies that make a case for her status as auteur, through claims that she revises or transcends generic conventions. After spending her young adulthood as an abstract expressionist painter immersed in the New York art world of the 1970s, Bigelow turned her attention to filmmaking. Having become disgruntled with the elitist tendencies of high art, she saw potential in commercial cinema as a mass medium. According to Hamburg and Zahedi 1989 and Smith 2003 (both cited under Interviews), she viewed film as a social tool powerful enough to enact genuine change in the world. While enrolled in Columbia University’s graduate program, she completed the short film The Set Up (1978), which consists of two men fighting in a back alley alongside an audio track of two semiotic theorists who analyze the violent images. Bigelow’s graphic, contradictory, and often ambiguous approach to violence has been the subject of much debate, especially in the context of gender and racial politics. Moreover, some find it interesting that her initial motivations for filmmaking engaged social critique because, as her career has progressed, she—and her films—have become more inscrutable in their treatment of gender, race, technology, and nation. The two films that have garnered the most extensive coverage are Blue Steel (1989) and Strange Days (1995), both of which experiment heavily with point of view camerawork. At various stages of her career, Bigelow has also been a highly public and controversial figure. She has been judged negatively by feminist critics because she is opposed to being defined as a “woman director.” She also faced intense political scrutiny upon the release of Zero Dark Thirty, accused of possibly endorsing torture interrogation tactics and facing a potential investigation by the US Intelligence Committee for allegedly gaining access to classified documents.

Reference Works

The number of reference works on Bigelow indicates her historical, cultural, and artistic significance. In many instances, the works are quite similar; they offer a survey of her films and biographical details relevant to her career. The entries included here offer more depth. Kemp 1999 and Tasker 2010 are notable for theorizing Bigelow’s status as a female director. Foster 1995 furnishes extensive information about Bigelow’s professional strategies for survival in a male-dominated industry. Hurd 2007 examines many of her films in depth, providing a useful model for close textual analysis. Ransley 2002 provides a useful survey of her work.

  • Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. “Kathryn Bigelow.” In Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary. Edited by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, 41–43. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.

    Covers Bigelow’s filmography through Strange Days. Is particularly informative about strategies for getting her films produced within a male-dominated studio system and the concrete obstacles she faced. Provides details about interactions with male producers and directors who were supportive of her cinematic vision.

  • Hurd, Mary G. “Kathryn Bigelow.” In Women Directors and Their Films. Edited by Mary G. Hurd, 40–47. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

    Introduces Bigelow and her films up until K-19: The Widowmaker. It supplies biographical information on the director as well as valuable excerpts from interview material. Best suited for undergraduates.

  • Kemp, Philip. “Kathryn Bigelow.” In The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera. Edited by Amy L. Unterburger, 40–42. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1999.

    Astutely summarizes the director’s career through Strange Days, with a critical examination of her style. Places Bigelow in context of other women working in Hollywood.

  • Ransley, Hannah. “Kathryn Bigelow.” In Contemporary North American Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide. 2d ed. Edited by Yoram Allon, Del Cullen, and Hannah Patterson, 50–51. New York: Wallflower, 2002.

    Looks at Bigelow’s visual style over the course of her career leading up to K:19: The Widowmaker.

  • Tasker, Yvonne. “Kathryn Bigelow.” In Fifty Contemporary Film Directors. Edited by Yvonne Tasker, 54–60. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Examines the significance of Bigelow’s attention to images and visual excess over narrative structure. Emphasizes the filmmaker’s ambivalence about her status as a female director and finds a feminist angle in her “capacity to underline the limitations of thinking about certain kinds of genres as ‘masculine.’” (p. 56).

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