John Cena May No Longer Be the King of Wrestling, But He Rules Instagram

What can John Cena’s weird Instagram, which is filled with in-jokes and cryptic images, tell us about how the superstar wrestler has rebranded himself?

Jan 20 2017, 12:00pm

Cena speaking at at 2014 Susan G. Komen for the Cure event. Image: Elvert Barnes/Flickr

For someone with nearly six million Instagram followers, John Cena runs a strange Instagram. He posts images cribbed from the weirder reaches of social media, curious relics from 1980s and 90s meathead culture, and loads of non sequiturs.

The pictures are posted without comment and rarely explained, even during a recent Tim & Eric-style SNL sketch ostensibly intended to offer some answers. After years as a hated, hardworking good guy who wore jean shorts (also known, derisively, as "jorts"), cut lame rap albums, starred in low-budget action movies, wrestled surprisingly good matches against everyone, and nearly always held the WWE title, Cena has achieved even greater success by playing against type.

A photo posted by John Cena (@johncena) on

"John Cena is a brilliant, funny guy," "Cowboy" Johnny Mantell told Motherboard. Mantell, a long-time former wrestler and current president of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, underscored Cena's keen knowledge of the changing media landscape. "He's a genuine athlete and a lot like Bob Backlund, who was a great college wrestler and long-time WWE champion. Backlund during his prime was amazing in the ring, but he was seen as a boring babyface...then he came back and did a different character, a comedy heel character who was a motivational speaker and a politician, and he won the world title one more time."

"For a long time, the Cena brand was about work ethic, training hard, and so forth," explained Toronto advertising executive Ron Deschenes. "He was the opposite of The Rock, who had been an absolute natural as a performer from the minute he ditched his first WWE-imposed persona and found his character. Cena was built from the ground up, one workout and one interview at a time, and his gimmick was that he was there to be the WWE guy, the long-term hero. He was like Hillary Clinton, or at least portrayed that way: he was the lifer who kept grinding away, trying to stay at the top, and people booed him because of that."

A photo posted by John Cena (@johncena) on

For many years, Cena was marketed both by the WWE and himself as a clean-living comic book hero. His recent rebranding as an off-center comedian, including well-regarded turns in the Amy Schumer film Trainwreck and as a host for SNL, appears to be part of a concerted effort to emphasize the "man" in "superman."

Ron Deschenes approves of the decision, regardless of how it came about. "For marketing purposes, he needed to show he's human, that he has flaws, and that he could work that for comedy. His social media feeds don't need to be filled with video after video of him squatting 600 pounds or flexing his biceps like some formerly scrawny actor trying to tell us he got pumped up for a Spider-Man movie; it needs to show he's a well-rounded person who can laugh at himself. They tried to do that with Hillary too—she did the dab and the naenae and all of that—but it ultimately didn't work as well."

A photo posted by John Cena (@johncena) on

Jim Jividen, a lawyer and long-time wrestling blogger, still thinks Cena is trying too hard. "Cena and the Rock were entertainers rather than workers, but the Rock has a playfulness and charisma Cena still can't match," he said. "Both of these guys can traffic in jock cliches—I'm sure each has a 'You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take' quote somewhere on social media—but the Rock's Q score [a measurement of the familiarity and appeal of a celebrity] is much higher than Cena's. They're talking about him running for president in 2020; his level of public awareness is extraordinary across multiple quadrants. Cena, for the time being, is still transitioning from a career as a pro wrestler."

As fans and followers continue to ponder Cena's cryptic posts, "Cowboy" Johnny Mantell believes that the former All-American football player from tiny Springfield College will have the last laugh. "Wrestling is all about selling a version of yourself with the volume turned up. The more Cena shows everybody else how smart and well-rounded he is, how diverse his interests are, the further he's going to go."

WWE was contacted for comment on this story but did not respond in time for publication.