Since 2005, John Cena has been the central character of WWE. His name transcends the wrestling business; even casual fans and otherwise disinterested channel surfers recognize his face and catchphrases.
He is the face of a company, a marketing tool presenting the overall flavor of a product to those both familiar and unfamiliar with it.
If the purpose of John Cena's character is to represent the WWE product in the mainstream media, why is he such a polarizing figure?
The answer lies in the question.
Eras in the WWE Universe are separated by changes in creative direction. From the late 1990s into the early 2000s, the Attitude Era (as fans and industry people alike have affectionately dubbed it) defined American professional wrestling.
There are several distinct opinions as to when this era began, as well as which promotion actually conceived it, but one fact stands perfectly clear: wrestling reached its apex of popularity during this period on the back of shocking story arcs, larger-than-life characters, vulgarity, violence and sex appeal.
The rise of John Cena was a direct result of WWE's need for star power during a time of creative uncertainty. Many top-drawing acts from the Attitude Era of professional wrestling (notably The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Goldberg, and Brock Lesnar) had either retired from active roles or changed vocations.
WWE's purchase of its major competition in 2001 granted the company a reprieve from generating new stars for a time, as an influx of previously established stars from other promotions saturated the talent roster to the point where television time was scarce for new talent projects. There were two major problems with this talent migration.
First, the new talents (Booker T, Goldberg, Rob Van Dam being the most renowned) were not young men; they had already either reached or passed their prime.
Second, these talents were all coming from failed promotions that many WWE fans disliked. At the time, deep-seated biases still existed amongst wrestling fans (particularly the younger crowd) and a sudden addition of characters from a show they had previously reviled may have alienated some of these fans.
When the drawing power of these migrant talents began to wane, WWE was forced to play catch-up with creating new stars for the future, as there simply was no longer any viable competition from which to pluck talent.
In hindsight, it is quite clear that WWE brass saw a wealth of potential in John Cena when they offered him his first talent contract. The former Universal Pro Wrestling standout was awarded the lead role on UPN's short lived, WWE-produced reality television series Manhunt in the summer of 2001, roughly a year before his debut on WWE programming.
He worked his first televised match on the June 27, 2002 episode of WWE Smackdown! His opponent was none other than Kurt Angle, one of the company's all-time most credible and respected talents and a top contender for the Undisputed WWE Championship at the time.
There was no buildup for Cena's debut; the audience, both live and at home, really had no knowledge of him, save those who followed his brief stint in UPW and subsequent tenure in WWE's former main developmental territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling, where he excelled.
Such a debut was unprecedented. These days, new talents from Florida Championship Wrestling begin working televised matches near the bottom the card against WWE Superstars mainstays and local enhancement talent.
While it is highly likely that FCW standouts Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose will debut in the near future and transition into successful careers, they most certainly will not debut against CM Punk and Chris Jericho (though I would love to see Ambrose tangle with The Best in the World on television, but I digress).
Cena would go on to compete without much of a gimmick for a while until he was turned heel, likely to gauge crowd reaction. WWE put his charisma to work first as a heel, as he soon adopted his "Doctor of Thuganomics" persona. This gimmick easily won over the crowd at the tail end of the Attitude Era, but one huge problem was quickly becoming apparent.
The Attitude Era was in its twilight at this point. Fans who had started watching professional wrestling at the era's inception in the mid 1990s were now going off to college and entering the real world, and WWE could no loner rely on their contribution to its television ratings each week.
To generate a new fan base, WWE was forced to shift its creative focus towards a younger demographic, necessitating a change in its television rating from TV14 to TVPG.
This change effectively removed from WWE programming the elements that drove the company to its peak during the Attitude Era: intensely suggestive dialogue, strong coarse language, intense sexual situations and intense violence.
WWE aims to hook an audience at the age of seven with mostly wholesome, parent-friendly characters and story lines. When this audience reaches the age of 14, the characters and story lines become more mature until the television rating is raised altogether.
Essentially, WWE is rehashing the very same canonical arc it had begun using at the onset of Hulkamania in the mid-1980s. The sequence, as far as television ratings are concerned, is TVG, TVPG, and finally TV14. It is unlikely that WWE will ever brand itself as a G-rated product again, but it will certainly return to TV14 in the future.
Right now, it appears the company is on he cusp of doing just that. It has been roughly seven years since John Cena first won the WWE title and welcomed a generation of seven-year-old fans. These fans are due for some more mature programming.
John Cena's "Doctor of Thuganomics" persona is indeed a product of the Attitude Era, which is why it has not been seen regularly in quite some time. It is clearly a gimmick that can and will work in the WWE Universe, but it simply arrived too late in its own era.
Cena, however, is WWE's most reliable, devoted talent and will accept whatever role the company needs him to play. I am quite certain that the "Doctor of Thuganomics," or something similar, will reemerge in the WWE Universe at some point.
It is widely believed that professional wrestling is creatively cyclical. This is absolutely true. In the 1980's, WWE employed a Superman-esque character as its main character in Hulk Hogan, who literally urged children to eat their vitamins and say their prayers and was generally never shown to be weak.
He was followed by similar main characters such as Bret Hart and Diesel, who treaded much of the same territory in regard to their presentation towards children.
The switch to a TV14 format brought with it a change in WWE's narrative form. No longer was the central protagonist a righteous Superman, but rather a brash, abrasive, yet ultimately likable antihero. Stone Cold Steve Austin played this role perfectly, and CM Punk is comfortably settling into it now.
So where does this leave John Cena? He was likely given the Superman role due to his undeniable charisma, a trait that any central character, either protagonist or antagonist, must possess. In 2004-2005, amid all the talent losses WWE had endured, Cena was the safest bet to lead the company through its impending TVPG period.
The brass knew for sure that he could draw as a top heel, meaning he could absolutely draw as a top face.
All of the most popular faces in wrestling history were over as heels before having their biggest face runs: Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ric Flair, The Undertaker, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, Triple H, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Kurt Angle, and of course, John Cena.
All the criticism aimed at the character of John Cena makes me respect John Cena the man that much more. He is a consummate professional and has always sacrificed his own ego in favor of WWE's continued success. I know that he will once again be given the opportunity to win over an older audience before his career is finished.
For the past seven years, diehard wrestling fans have lamented childish storylines and characters. I am among them. The fact is, without childish storylines, children simply will not care to watch the product.
Without new, young audiences periodically joining the realm of professional wrestling, the art form will surely die along with the older generations who had supported it in their youth.
I think John Cena deserves a little credit.