WWE has seen some phenomenal superstars in its life.
It has seen the mainstream appeal of Hulk Hogan and the Rock. It has experienced the impact of Stone Cold. It has been endowed with the magical talent of HBK, and the eternal mystique of the Undertaker.
John Cena, with his polarizing popularity, holds a spot in this pantheon, and deservingly so.
Call it a marketing ploy of the WWE or innate ability of John Cena’s character, but John Cena has become the most polarizing figure in the pro wrestling world. For every child that worships him, there is a detractor that loathes him. However, no matter what people think of him, they certainly can’t stop discussing about him. Because of this severe obsession, almost every aspect of John Cena has been discussed to death for e.g. his character, his ability and his place in the WWE.
Amidst all the debate, one aspect of John Cena remains comparatively less explored. It is his relevance to what happened in U.S. in the last decade, and his resonance with the events that transpired in the WWE. This aspect has both sociological and psychological undertones.
This article attempts to see these dimensions of the brand John Cena and it tries to look at the way Vince McMahon has created John Cena with his opportunistic business brilliance.
Disclaimer: this article does not judge John Cena in any way. It is a plain and boring analysis. Read at your own peril.
Vince McMahon has always had one stupendous knack of understanding times and its intricacies. His understanding of trends in U.S. social life, and his ability to read national psyche have always ensured that WWE remains socially relevant and vibrant.
The United States went through some monstrous upheavals in the last 11 years. These events had profound impact on all aspects of the society.
WWE went through some tragedies that had fundamental effects on the way the company functioned. It desperately needed some social acceptance to redeem itself, and to move on to a different future.
Vince McMahon took these events in his stride to create an impeccable brand that helped the company both financially and socially. Like every other brand in this world, it has both costs and benefits. However, at the end of the day, it still remains one intriguing and multi-faceted saga of epic proportions.
The terrorist attack on New York’s crown jewels shook the pride of United States and the very foundations of its national psyche.
In retaliation, the mighty U.S. government waged the war on terror. First, Taliban was brought down. Come 2003, it was Iraq's turn. By December 2003, Saddam Hussein was arrested and the war was almost over, barring the hunt of Osama Bin Laden.
The whole period of two years marked chaos in the social fabric of US. For the first time, insecurity and fear had injected itself in the lives of citizens.
As they say, life goes on, and it indeed did. But the stigma of 9/11 still lives in the subliminal realms of mind. In the external world, thousands of US soldiers are still living a torrid life in those two troubled countries.
Many cunning individuals smelt money in this situation and few actually made some. One of those people was Vince McMahon. He knew that the stigma and the resultant patriotism can be cashed in.
All he had to do was to get the right guy in the right role.
While the society was uneasily trying to move into the phase of tranquility, WWE went through some tragic and scandalous circumstances in quick succession.
On November 13, 2005, Eddie Guerrero was found dead in his Minneapolis hotel room before a WWE taping.
What followed was an intense scrutiny of the use of drugs in the company. Within the next 12 months, 40 percent of the WWE's wrestlers tested positive for steroids and other banned drugs, according to company documents subpoenaed by the committee. Eleven percent (22 wrestlers) tested positive for steroids alone.
The company had just started building its health and wellness policy to tackle this scandal when the next and even bigger tragedy took place.
On June 24th 2007, Chris Benoit committed suicide after murdering his wife and his son. The details, which later came out, shook the foundations of the industry. The aftermath that followed shed light on the disastrous effect of some aspects of wrestling on the human body and brain.
The whole incident garnered massive media coverage. It put a huge question mark on the safety of this business. It magnified the stigma attached to wrestling, which jeopardized the social standing of the business.
While the company was recuperating from the loss of goodwill following all the scandals, the biggest recession since the great depression set in to cripple the balance-sheet.
Forget the WWE. Let us look at the bigger picture, (which in this case is the picture on left).
The GDP growth (growth of a country’s wealth) was reduced to two percent by 2007. However, it plunged to the hollows of negative numbers come 2008. It was only in 2010, when the growth saw a positive number with one percent.
In layman terms, the country and her citizens became poorer. Jobs were lost. Houses were being taken away. People had less money to sustain on, and even lesser to indulge.
The adult population decreased their expenditure significantly. In the hierarchy of needs, WWE was not even on the cards. It was simply not plausible that a person worried about his or her shelter would buy the Undertaker action figure.
There was, however, one section of the society that was unfazed, and which retained its consumption power even in the bleakest economic climate. Entertainment was still on their agenda. They enjoyed a share of the expenditure and a sway over their families.
Of course, I am talking about Children.
At WrestleMania 21 WWE created two megastars—Batista and John Cena.
Everybody thought that Batista was the one destined for the glory. We were wrong. We did not know that one of them is from the proverbial Krypton.
John Cena had the look, the passion, the ideal work ethic, charisma and the intent. He was a hungry wrestler, who was ready to do everything Vince required him to do. He had a connection with fans, which lasts till date. He was ready to take a dozen flights every week. He was eager to work 16 hours every single day.
Essentially, he was the ideal poster-boy reeking of good qualities.
Vince had found his right guy for the right role. Over the span of next five years, he milked his discovery in every possible way.
After WrestleMania 21, John Cena was drafted to Raw.
He still had the “thugonomic “edge to his character. His promos, the language used in it was very different from what we see these days. He was a typical baby face, but with a lot of aggressive traits.
One aspect, however, set him apart from the rest of faces. It was his patriotic streak and his love for the army. The American hero John Cena was the first person to pin Muhammad Hassan for a reason. This character lasted for some time, and then gradually began to become mellower and fairer.
Come 2007-08, John Cena was an entirely different character from what he was at WrestleMania 21. He was no more an underdog champion. He was the undisputed Prima Dona. He had completely given up on the use of rap and slanderous humor in his promos. He was as good a man as anyone could be. His finisher was aptly renamed as “Attitude Adjustment,” because that is precisely what he had gone through.
In the similar period, his out-of-ring work became more renowned such as his work with the Make-a-Wish foundation. Despite harsh criticisms, multiple question-marks and intense hatred, this Cena has continued to live on, and his loyal legion of fans has supported him.
Now, let us gauge these developments against the three pivotal events we have discussed earlier, the picture becomes clearer.
Vince used patriotic Cena with some edge until 2007. However, following the steroid scandal and Benoit incident, the company needed a clean face to hide behind. Cena was, and is, that face. Subsequently, in the wake of recession, the children friendly aspect of him became the main focus. What we see today is the amalgamation of company’s needs and social trends.
The greatest dimension of John Cena is his extremely polarizing popularity.
Every arena John Cena goes to has a legion of people, who idolize him, and it also has a mob that hates him to the core. WWE has seen immensely popular superstars. It has seen enormously hated wrestlers. However John Cena has made it to both the lists at the same time, which is unprecedented.
A large section of fans look at this polarization as the ultimate failure of Cena as the poster-boy. Another equally large population deems it to be the greatest strength of the brand Cena.
Maybe, even this is an outcome of the era we live in. Look at some of the pop icons we have. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Twilight series are three of the cultural phenomena of our times. There are a billion people, who hate them. There are a billion people who swoon over them. In my opinion, John Cena is far better than those three, but he is a part of the same trend.
I will take this point to a ridiculous level in the next slide. To those who would be offended, I implore you to pardon me in advance.
It would be plain wrong to compare the US president with a WWE superstar. However, I am not comparing. I am drawing parallels between two people, who live in different dimensions of the same world.
The parallels between Barack Obama and John Cena transcend these photo shopped images. They transcend the fact that both could deliver give a passionate and somewhat hollow promo.
One rules the nation, which is regarded as the fading superpower. Another is face of the company, which is an empire on gradual decline. Both ascended to their positions during the trying period. They both promised a lot, but whether delivered remains a huge debate. Obama was elected by the people, who searched for peace and respite. John Cena was selected by the company in similar needs. They are both the ideal poster-boys for the external world, which is unaware of internal conflicts.
The biggest parallel, however, is that both regarded as good human beings, and yet they are hated by millions. Those detractors call their goodness as phony. They are accused of being arrogant people, who turn a blind eye towards negative voices in order to please their respective audience.
One might think that it is a coincidence. However, trust me it isn’t. Obama is the ultimate outcome of the social trends and psychology that was born out of a tumultuous decade. Vince McMahon created John Cena on those lines.
In the next two slides, we’ll see the psychological backdrop of this brilliant polarization.
John Cena has only one dimension to his character—the good one. It almost has no flaws. He rarely fails, and if at all he does, he accepts it and moves one.
Children love it for a simple reason. Their world is black and white. They are innocent and indiscriminate. In their world, worms and butterflies are equally fascinating. A guy like John Cena is their ultimate hero because of his simplicity. They believe in him, because he represents everything that they read about in fairy tale princes and comic book superheroes.
The second side of this aspect is unbridled loyalty. Children are extremely attached to such things, for example, their parent's love. When such things go wrong, it makes them feel betrayed. When a little boy is scolded by his parents for the first time, in his eyes it’s a betrayal that leaves a lasting impression on his mind. It is the first shade of gray that enters his life, which tells him that it’s not a fairy tale.
It is the exact reason that makes it difficult for Cena to turn heel. Believe it or not, Cena has become an integral part of many such little lives who still believe in the Santa clause.
The same mono-dimensional nature of John Cena has made many adults to dislike or hate him.
Unlike children, the world of adults is gray and conflicted. There are no fairy tales, as everybody knows the reality. Adults know that every person has several dimensions to his or her character, and some of them are flawed.
Thus, when someone like John Cena comes up, adults naturally question it. They simply cannot relate to it, and therefore the whole phony thing starts. A tried routine of “beat up” “come back” “AA” does not appeal to them, because they know why superman doesn’t use his true powers until the last few pages of the comic book.
This insight breeds dislike, and in many cases intense hatred. They make it a point to call Cena’s bluff. What happens in the process is that they continue discussing him and watching him. Essentially, they react.
That is exactly what Vince wants.
What we have seen here is the journey of the brand John Cena in last seven years. One has to concede that John Cena has managed to stay relevant for such a long time. There is only one other person, who held onto the spot for equal amount of time—Hulk Hogan.
Hulkamania started in 1984. If one has to pinpoint the exact end, then it may be Hulk’s defeat to the Undertaker in 1991 that was the end of true Hulkamania. He remained in the main event for next couple of years, but it was never the same again. John Cena has already entered into his eighth year. He has also suffered a defining loss against the Rock. It is interesting to see how the story unfolds now.
One cannot compare Hogan and Cena because they were a product of different society. In Hogan’s time wrestling was main-stream and the U.S. economy was in its heyday. Fads in those days lasted for some years. Cena represents the WWE that carries a stigma, and it operates in a society that has far-reaching economic issues. Fads, today, last as long as the twitter trend does.
However, it is the same social difference that is proving to be a boon for Cena. Hulk Hogan’s aura diminished. His pops became smaller. However, he was never booed. His reaction waned. John Cena, on the other hand, is booed. There will be a day, when kids will grow up. There will be a day, when those “let’s go Cena” chants will die. However, “Cena Sucks” will continue, which is a reaction after all. To put it simply, Cena will live on as long as his haters do.
This aspect, however, does diminish the challenge that lay ahead of the WWE. Society changes, and so do its eras. This current phase is already fading. In a span of couple of years, there will be a new president and a new precedent.
WWE is on threshold of its future, which to a great degree is unknown. WWE will need an answer for it, and for once, it is not Cena.
What will happen in the future is anybody's guess. However, the story of John Cena so far is simply astonishing. Contrary to his persona, it is multidimensional and intricate. It is very difficult to completely capture the essence of it. Despite the cries of John Cena's irrelevancy to the current world, one cannot help but marvel at his resonance to so many social trends.
This article was not about John Cena the wrestler. It was not about John Cena the person. It was about John Cena the social phenomenon.
I hope that you enjoyed reading it.
Thank you for reading, and cheers.