The summer after I went off birth control, Hollywood outdid itself with 9/11-invoking, machismo disaster porn. And, in defiance of my years honing a feminist, Nicole Holofcener-loving palate, I loved it. If there was a giant robot, a genetically engineered alien villain with super powers, or an Obama caricature firing a rocket launcher on the White House lawn, I loved it.
Weekend after weekend, cities were decimated, millions of people died offscreen—even Superman killed somebody. Thinkpiece after thinkpiece asked why—out of all the things that could act as the tentpole of a multi-billion dollar industry—we wanted to re-live the worst moment of the last decade. But the onscreen destruction of cities was, unfortunately, the only bloody monthly release in my life that summer.
My husband and I started “trying”—the TMI-est gerund of all—and I went off the pill cold turkey. My doctor warned me that it would take a few months for my cycle to even out. She talked about it as if I were going to be fighting off a mild cold, not as if my hormones were about to wage a full-scale war.
My periods have always been their own kind of disaster. In a summer action movie, they would be akin to Channing Tatum in White House Down: mercurially aggressive, always showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time, full of “raw potential, but seeming determined not to realize it.”
I first commandeered my reproductive cycle in my sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh. The year before, my mom had gotten remarried and quit her teaching job to spend more time quilting and telling people about Jesus—squashing my parent-sponsored health insurance. The clinic was cheap, but I was poorer, and until then I didn’t know that not having health insurance was a “thing.” And even though my mom and I had lived on a single mother’s teacher salary, we had always been lucky to have the basics: a house, a working car, health insurance.
My mom had supposedly bought me an $80 student insurance plan, but the clinic had no record of it. I called her from the student pharmacy’s landline because the cost for the visit and birth control was more than I had in my checking account. The pharmacist listened to me beg her to help me out just this once. Her anti-choice fundamentalism wasn’t quite baked yet, but I knew the conversation was pretty much doomed. Despite my love of parading around topics that galled her, her cool, clipped tone instantly made my cheeks hot, and I wished I could have been asking her for beer money instead.
You know the pill goes against the Bible. The doctors don’t even know all the side effects. I can’t pay for that, I just can’t.
I can’t remember exactly how that conversation ended, but I negotiated $20 for my first pill pack of Ortho Tri-Cyclen. It was the last time we talked about reproductive health.
Over a decade later, as soon as I threw my last pill pack in the garbage, my skin broke out like I was arriving at a second round of puberty, with the emotional breakdowns to equal them. My chest was always taut with an unknown anxiety and I was frequently plagued by afternoon headaches. I lost two bra sizes, and found a long dark hair sprouting off of my right shoulder. My periods—sporadic—would practically incapacitate me with simultaneous nausea, hunger, and tsunami-like cramps. I wept at the sight of children and pregnant friends and strangers. I wept about most things. I once sobbed on the phone to a woman at the deli because the soup of the day was Manhattan clam chowder, not New England.
So I spent the summer with Star Trek: Into Darkness, Man of Steel, World War Z. I saw the White House taken over by terrorists twice—with varying results. And while my husband, who professed to be the populist in our relationship, came away from most of these movies with a shrugging acceptance, I liked them. The lack of charisma and plot didn’t bother me. I giggled, I clapped, I wanted more.
Pacific Rim was the last of the summer disaster porn. It depicted a world beaten down by kaiju: Godzilla-like creatures sent by an alien force through an inter-dimensional fault line, wiping out cities and beating down the human race. The only thing massive enough to stand up to the kaiju are giant robots piloted by pairs of soldiers who have to mind-meld to drive the thing. The robots have ridiculous names likes Crimson Typhoon and Gipsy Danger. It seemed like another dystopian blockbuster, another lone female solider in yet another world dominated by men, who—despite her deftness with robot piloting—doesn’t actually get to save the world. But, its combination of gravitas and the gravity of the lowest common denominator smacked me right where I was vulnerable. I shamelessly loved every robot versus alien punch, no matter how visually incoherent.
I cried no less than four times about Pacific Rim by the end of July. It turns out that everyone else I had expected to love it—ie nerdy dudes; the target audience of that movie—hated it. A friend in San Francisco went to see it solely on my recommendation and was so angry about it he called it anti-feminist. One of the only people to agree with me was noted revered cultural critic Kanye West, who tweeted that it was “easily one of [his] favorite movies of all time.”
Weeks later, after a few airport beers on a Minneapolis layover, on the way to see two amazing ladies get married, my husband and I parsed our thoughts about Pacific Rim for at least the tenth time. As he unspooled his (not unreasonable) criticisms, I started sobbing. I wondered if my taste was eroding, if I had lost touch with feminism, if this would be the moment—in a Midwest airport bar weeping about Kanye West’s favorite movie—when I lost the thread of who I was, just like my mom had. Is a sense of self something that can just be rewired by hormones?
My mom was right that I didn’t know what the side effects of the pill would be. I hate that. Even though it’s safe, effective, relatively cheap, and a life-saving necessity for many women, the side effects of the hormones being pumped into my body for a decade were as unimaginable as a category five kaiju. Had I not been set on proving my mother wrong instead of doing what was best for me, I may have explored more reproductive choices that better suited my body, like a low hormone IUD. I might have realized I had options (plural), instead of the one I knew my mother was clearly against.
A few weeks before Pacific Rim released, my doctor delivered a category six blow: I most likely had Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. I hadn’t had a period all summer, but I had a bin of negative pregnancy tests. When you’re “trying,” the absence of a period is both a tease and a tragedy. Basically, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome means that my body just isn’t that into ovulating because of an undefined hormone imbalance. Without some kind of medical intervention, my doctor guessed, I have three to four chances to conceive a year.
Was I attracted to the glut of summer disaster porn because it echoed the siege inside me? The decimation of skyscraper after skyscraper wasn’t unlike how hormone withdrawal was blowing up my endocrine system. Maybe I saw something in how the battle-worn robots of Pacific Rim felt their wear and tear, and how they persevered, appreciating that they could stand up and fight the unthinkable. Or maybe I just craved wholesale destruction and martyrdom. While the stereotypical man may have more of an appetite for onscreen violence, I think women can have a primal understanding of the nature of violence because we have so much more experience with the hand of it. If nothing else, my reproductive cycle prepped me to realize that sometimes the ruthless forces attacking you always don’t have a coherent motivation. Or maybe I simply needed narratives where human civilization is tenacious enough to survive the most barren of terrains. They affirmed that—to quote Jeff Goldblum in the biggest summer movie of 1993—life always finds a way.
Jen Girdish lives in Washington, DC, with one very tall husband and two average-sized cats. Her work has appeared in the The Morning News, Awl, and McSweeney’s, among others. She is at work on an essay collection all about herself.