WWE Character Psychology 101: Case Study: John Cena, the Quelled Beast Inside
Welcome, class, to WWE Character Psychology 101. Please open your text books to page STF and we can begin. By the way, this class will be worth three credits toward your wrestling major, and it is a prerequisite, however that will be explained by the end...
For the past nine years, John Cena has held a special place on WWE programming. His journey from being a rookie, transforming into a rapper and then leveling off as a popular walking sandwich board for colorful merch, who raps only when provoked by strong enough opponents, started out incredibly strong. No question, he's a natural entertainer.
Over time, many have been getting bored with his character, leading many to either change the channel or continue watching in hopes that someone will be given the chance to defeat him. Sadly, not many have, and if they did beat him, it was either dirty, dishonorable or too early in Cena's career to make him a real threat.
Whether they were huge monsters like Brock Lesnar, Wall Street tycoons like JBL, crazy painted Samoans like Umaga, they all met the likes of John Cena. Like I said, at first, his character was perfect as the foil to many of WWE's biggest bad guys:
Brock was a massive demon and John Cena was the everyman who thought he could take him out. While he didn't, he still met Brock bravely, spit in the face of a giant and took him on. JBL was a lucky ex-Texan who got rich off of stocks and investments and Cena was the relatable urban personality that represented the little guy. Umaga was the undefeated, unbeatable, violent tribal Samoan, putting foes down left and right and Cena was once again our hero to save us from the ugly monster.
At least, that's how he was marketed to us at first.
The fact of the matter is that after Wrestlemania 27, his building feud with The Rock and the subsequent fallout on last night's Monday Night Raw, John Cena's character has gone beyond just being the everpresent "good guy." His character has grown into being so inhuman, he's not even believable as a person anymore.
That's usually what Cena fans call up that draw them to him. The fact that he's a good guy. Honestly, at heart, I don't have a problem with him being a good guy, a funny goofball, or even a hero of the people. Sometimes, I'm a tiny bit entertained. The problem I have is that no matter how comical a person is normally, no matter how funny and goofy a person acts on a regular basis and no matter how optimistic a person is about humanity, every single one of us has moments when we completely flip out.
Someone cuts you off on the highway. Someone takes your spot in line at the bank/grocery store. Someone calls you a filthy name. Someone tosses you under the bus, figuratively speaking. Somebody at work gets you in trouble for something you didn't do.
We all have moments in our lives when we just...for lack of a better term...lose it.
John Cena doesn't seem to have that instinct. He doesn't have a human level of self-control that causes him to just unleash anymore. In fact, his biggest superpower, aside from his uncanny ability to never be defeated cleanly, is his inhumanly large amount of self-control. He's gotten to the point where he has too much self-control for a human being, let alone for a WWE competitor.
Look around him. He works in a company where he's surrounded by volatile folks who have absolutely no control when it comes to their feelings. His coworkers go crazy on a regular basis, and yet, John's character is entirely satisfied with being a repressed, passive enabler who insists on laying the responsibility for a fight starting at the feet of everyone else.
He acts a certain way, which makes others upset. Perfectly reasonable. We can't make everyone happy all the time, yet instead of consciously respecting the opinions of others and taking them into account, giving the antagonist a good reason why he does what he does, all he says is, "hey...you want some, come get some. I'm right here, you want to fight, go for it." He hunkers down on his jean shorts and tells the other person to take the first swing.
He never ever ever starts the battle himself anymore.
Unless he has absolutely no choice. He gets surrounded by Corre or Nexus, then the fight's inevitable and he has to start it. If it's going to happen, he may as well get to the beatdown quicker. When he's staring down one person, like CM Punk, a person who challenges everything about him that gives him a unique identity, John just stands there, completely passive and says, "go ahead, fire the first shot."
And that, my students, is John Cena's biggest problem. It's not that his character has gotten boring. It's not that he's largely a PG hero. It's not even that he's a goody-two-shoes. It's that he has absolutely no human initiative. He has nothing that can get under his skin. He has no weaknesses. He has nothing that really irks him.
It kinda makes those Superman references a little incorrect. Superman at least has Kryptonite. What exactly is Cena's weakness? What is the one thing he's afraid of? What is the thing that bothers him, gets his goat, sticks in his craw and really gets him enraged to the point of destruction?
Persistent enemies? That's it? Come on. That's provocation, not initiative.
John Cena is okay as a role model. He is NOT a model human. Model humans address their rage and handle it. Maybe average civilians can't beat down people on the street when they're angry. But as a character in WWE, Cena can. Problem is, unless he's relentlessly provoked, he doesn't.
I mentioned Wrestlemania 27 and the buildup earlier. Simply put, The Rock came back weeks before and put out a call to John Cena. He insulted Cena, said his catchphrases were lame, overdone and childish. He insulted the clothes he wears and the style by which he carries himself. In response, John tried to out-do The Rock by bringing back his rapping ways, to moderate success.
Basically, his response to The Rock completely ripping to shreds his entire identity was two-fold: 1) Only God can judge me. And 2) Don't make fun of me because kids like me. I'm sorry, but that's not a convincing comeback. Had this been 10-15 years ago, Cena would've gotten right in Rock's face and they would've had it out. But what happened?
They traded verbal blows for another couple weeks, until finally they met in the ring, Cena delivering an AA to Rock after Rock delivered the Peoples' Elbow to Miz. Rock, in order to get his revenge, used what authority he had as Host of Wrestlemania to restart the WWE Championship match at the event that had ended in a double-countout. He Rock Bottomed Cena and let Miz score the pin.
Logically, Cena should be 100% pissed at this point!
Granted, Cena has won world titles at Wrestlemania before, it's nothing new. He's been there, done that, at least a handful of times. But there is no way Cena's that much of a Buddhist that he can come out to Raw smiling and joking after getting blatantly screwed out of a title.
The two of them are nowhere close to being even! Rock targeted Cena specifically, then cost him his latest WWE Championship on the grandest stage WWE has to offer!
And all Cena has to say on Raw is..."the people want us to have a match!"
Well, sure. I guess WRESTLING fans, who go to a WRESTILNG event to see WRESTLING, want to see two huge names in the WRESTLING business put on a WRESTLING match. Sorry, I used the word wrestling a lot there. Don't tell WWE.
Of course fans want to see a match! The problem is, WWE is potentially missing a prime opportunity. The Monday Night Raw following Wrestlemania is known for being the night when we get resolution to what happened at the event. It's a night when we get answers to our big "whys," we get addresses from new champions and we get reactions from people who feel like their feuds are far from settled.
The Rock costs John Cena WWE's biggest prize, and all he does is call for them to have a match? And people wonder why this guy gets booed?
If their roles had been reversed, The Rock was taking on The Miz for the WWE Title at Wrestlemania and Cena cost Rock the belt? Monday Night Raw wouldn't have been on for more than a minute before Rock would have demanded that Cena get his candyass to the ring so he could put Cena down like a rabid dog.
In this case, Cena once again puts out an open passive challenge to his primary opponent. As fans, we anticipate The Rock to meet that challenge, and does he?
He basically said, "you want a match with The Rock? You got with a match with The Rock...one year from now." In a way, he met it. In another way, he has all the time in the world to prolong it.
So there you have it. John Cena, a man once renowned for being the relatable, yet unstoppable, everyman, famous for slaying the savage dragons and monstrous beasts that tormented WWE programming in years past, is now nothing more than a passive, complacent weakling, sitting back and watching others take action and make decisions.
Cena gets provoked, and instead of handing out a beatdown, he says in response, "if you want a match, just say so." Forget about the fact this his closet has a rainbow of past shirts. John Cena is lame because he's weak. I'm tired of him just challenging people, and I'm equally as tired of people backing away.
His position as "the face of the company" obviously draws comparisons to others who have held that position, and despite the two of them being wildly different, Stone Cold Steve Austin in his hayday would never have put up with getting screwed out of a WWE Title. Why is it Cena can't drive into the arena in some You Can't See Me monster truck?
WWE doesn't have to go back to being like the Attitude Era. It just has to ensure that its top guy is a man that gets things done. He stands up for good values, but quite honestly, this is the inherent problem with WWE being PG and directed at kids. It's not the lack of blood, it's not the lack of profanity and it's not the lack of Divas pulling their shirts off and having painted handprints cover their puppies.
It's endorsing a hero that doesn't start fights, in an artificial environment where you get PAID to start fights. It's endorsing a man that was once known for standing up for what he believes in, and taking the fight to those antagonists who are loud enough to put him on blast. It's endorsing a man who might stand up for the goodness in humanity, but refuses to get angry and beat down someone who insults him.
John Cena is a role model, but he's a FANTASY role model. True, it's not good form to run up on people in a mall who call you names and beat their faces in until they're taken to the hospital. But as I will be pointing out soon, John Felix Anthony Cena "the man" and John Cena "the character" are TWO different people.
Bleachers, please stay tuned. In coming weeks, I will be taking this crusade further in a series I will be calling WWE Role Reversal, in which I will be deconstructing various names in WWE, past and present, applying a very human perspective to their journeys and showing how current stars could pull a major swerve by simply making completely human decisions that make their characters entirely believable.
I'm putting WWE Creative on notice. They have something good going with their on-screen characters, but if they don't make some distinct changes soon, their product is going to be so watered down, no one will be able to believe in their characters anymore.
I love WWE. I hate what its characters are becoming...
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