In 1986 Hulk Hogan was the defacto ruler of the wrestling industry. He was every promoter’s dream; a massive physical specimen with magnetic charisma, great mic skills and a marketable gimmick. His appeal was broad. Men liked him because he was patriotic and tough. Women liked him because he was charming. Most of all, children liked him because he was heroic, brave and rarely lost. His bombastic persona worked, because he fulfilled the fans ideas of what a good guy “should” be. When he would burst forth from the curtain, “Real American” blasting over the PA system, the crowd would come unhinged. Though there was probably a small fraction of the audience that disliked “The Hulkster”, his support was so strong it was filibuster-proof. This was no fad. Hulkamania lasted for over a decade.
Now leap forward with me 26 years. It’s 2012. There is a new baby face sitting atop the main event card. He’s not the champion at the moment, but he has carried the belt nearly a dozen times in the last 7 years. He is also a hulking beast of a man, with an easy smile, a quick wit and lots of merchandise. Like Hogan, he is patriotic, handsome and brave. He sports slogans of positivity, like “never give up” and “rise above hate”. When he sprints down the entrance ramp, his music blasting loud, the crowd goes nuts...kind of.
Unlike Hogan, John Cena’s crowd reactions are violently polarized. Chants of “Let’s go Cena” are met with equally enthusiastic chants of “Cena sucks”. If it were 1986, this type of crowd response would be unthinkable. How could the top face in the company fail to garner even a simple majority of support? What took place in the intervening years, that the very definition of goodness (as defined by the wrestling world) is received with partial and sometimes overwhelming hostility?
The Attitude Era, that’s what.
1985-1995 was the Golden Era of pro wrestling, and it’s narrative was decisively Modernist. The wrestling universe was populated with clearly defined types of stars; good and evil. The story arcs were clear cut, the resolution was moralistic, and the crowd knew exactly what their role was. They cheered for the baby faces, booed the heels, and it was as simple as that.
In many ways, it mirrored the postwar American culture of the 1940s and 50s. Americans perceived Western culture to be the embodiment of sacrosanct goodness. Other religions, philosophies or forms of government, particularly communism was thought of as completely, and utterly evil without any bit of merit. Capitalism was right, beef was healthy, and Jesus was Lord.
The period of wrestling from 1996-2006, conversely, was deeply Postmodern in it’s philosophical approach. The Attitude Era, as it came to be known, was as grey as the Golden Era was black-and-white. Every tradition and value from the Modernist period was turned upside down and dumped into a blender. What came out was a nebulous, hodgepodge of characters and story lines, where good and bad blurred into the fickle whims of the audience. In many ways, the character archetypes were shattered; face and heel were both, at times, prone to cheating, cussing and powerbombing women, while also having moments of great resolve, loyalty, and honor.
This period in wrestling closely resembles the cultural awakenings of the 1960s and 70s in America. Those postwar values, so sacred to the generation before, were dissected, altered and sometimes outright discarded. The revolution of thought created a diverse and ambiguous culture. From the ashes of Modernism arose a new declaration of values, impressionistic in it’s presentation.
Which brings me back to John Cena. Whatever this period of wrestling ends up being defined as, he will be remembered as it’s figurehead. WWE appears to be attempting to returning to the Modernist leanings of the Golden Era. While trying to reconnect with a younger viewer demographic, WWE is creating characters using a more rigid formula of baby face and heel. The narrative is more simplistic and stark in it’s moral implications. But are the WWE’s efforts at returning to it’s Modernist roots working? In some ways, yes. WWE has become a TV PG program, and is still able to maintain it’s fiscal credibility (though this year has been less than inspiring from a ratings perspective). But if the face of your company is the barometer of success, a return to Modernism is impossible because John Cena will never be more than half over.
The reason is, once a culture has experienced Postmodernism, they can never truly return to their former perspective. Modernism is predicated on accepted naivete and embraced conformity. Once you have opened the collective conscious to critical evaluation of established values and diverse opinion, there is simply no going back. The current period is a strange hybrid of both philosophical ideas, and in order for Cena (or anyone) to have sustained, overwhelming support as a baby face, he would have to hold to a set of principles the audience found inspiring, while also having the depth of character to be constantly reinventing himself. This is an incredible task for anyone, which is why Cena is in the position of being the polarizing standard-bearer of a transitional epoch of wrestling culture. He will be remembered as the greatest “good guy” from a generation that, unlike the Golden Era, didn’t worship them, but, unlike the Attitude Era, didn’t hate them either. He will be remembered, as the man who was perpetually half over. But maybe in this generation, that’s all you can hope for.