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John Cena, Everywhere and Everything All at Once

For 20 years, John Cena has been wrestling with WWE superstars and an internet audience trying to understand him. John Cena’s life as a meme, explored.

WWE/Ringer illustration

Most people don’t spend much time thinking about memes, or John Cena, but given their ubiquity in public life over the past 20 years, it’s a safe assumption that both are always somewhere in the back of our collective consciousness. However, the intersection of John Cena and memes is not something anyone thinks about until someone they know (e.g., their editor) says “Hey, mathboi, do you want to write about memes and John Cena?” and they say “Sure, how hard could it be!”

Then you (OK, me) get down the John Meme-a rabbit hole, somehow end up watching him wearing suit after suit in white room after white room for YouTube interviews on everything from his daily routine to “wrestling support” to meeting an old British woman for tea to literally “I Accidentally Became a Meme.” My brother in Christ, you accidentally became a meme the same way I “accidentally” gained 30 pounds eating empanadas twice a week for a year.

Eventually, for some reason, a Peacemaker costume takes the place of the suit and the white room becomes ... the set of The Tonight Show? At the end of the tunnel, it’s just you and him (still wearing a Peacemaker costume) alone in a black room talking about his feelings. And it’s in that room you learn how he got there is what makes John Cena John Cena, John Cena John Cena and even (unexpectedly) what makes ____ ____ John Cena(!).

“You Can’t See Me” and “HIS NAME IS JOHN CENA” are atomic particles of culture, and while he may not be hydrogen, helium, or oxygen, there’s evidence to suggest Cena’s somewhere between iron and neon in the elemental composition of the internet. Which is pretty remarkable when you consider the ways in which memes can be localized.

According to Cates Holderness, speaking in her capacity as an internet nerd but someone who is an expert on memes no matter how you look at it, the pervasiveness of John Cena is what allows the memes made in his honor(?) so ubiquitous. “He’s been around for so long and has been, in a lot of ways, the very public face of the WWE,” she says. “And I think that some celebrities, when they become pervasive on the television and the internet, they naturally kind of lend themselves to being memeified.”

Cena’s chosen means of media conveyance have also helped lead to his rise as a meme subject. Holderness theorizes that the intense performative nature of wrestling lends itself to the kind of storytelling upon which memes must be based. Like other forms of internet virality, they get passed around in communities, iterated upon, and grown, but unlike, say, the concept of “copypasta,” memes require a narrative.

“Memes require context, some type of knowledge of, if not the original source of the meme, something that contextualizes it within the community,” says Holderness.

Because essentially every image in wrestling is the semiotic means to a narrative end—someone lifting someone else to drop them, for example—nearly anything you can do in the space could be memed. And with John Cena, that’s precisely what happened.

“Unexpected John Cena”—wherein Big Match John and an inappropriately loud mix of his song “My Time is Now” are introduced unexpectedly, most often on a prank call—is a kind of natural (d?)evolution of the Rick Roll and has its charm as one of the relatively rare instances of a viral audio meme. It’s also very explicitly tied to John Cena’s characterization/perceived overexposure on television and the bombasity of his entrance.

The “You Can’t See Me” phenomenon, however, speaks much more directly to the galactic cultural powers of someone like Cena. Initially starting as a reference to his signature taunt of the same name (itself a reference to the Tony Yayo dance of mid-aughts vintage), it soon became a two-pronged meme: one container and one content.

As a “container” (meaning a meme that people can use with relevant existing content to further its spread), the implication was that by virtue of John Cena being able to turn invisible (one would assume because of the titular incantation) any picture ever taken which did not explicitly include Cena must be assumed to feature him somewhere in the background.

The “content” version of the meme (which presupposes a photo of John Cena that will be viewed through the prism of the “You Can’t See Me” concept) focuses on pretending that pictures that have the Good Doctor (while his license has most certainly expired, you never lose the know-how!) don’t feature him and that anything happening in the photo is defying the laws of physics or logic. This version almost always involves John Cena lifting someone or appearing in a chair next to them and references to it are an invasive species on nearly every one of the aforementioned YouTube videos in which he supposedly appears.

Which is to say, like a copypasta, the underlying concept of the source—in this case, Cena’s “You Can’t See Me” taunt—has been turned into something that far outstripped its original attempt and exists almost outside of the context of even Cena himself. If wrestling was once known as “the thing Hulk Hogan does,” Cena’s popularity as a meme has reached such a level that it feels entirely possible to not have a working concept of what professional wrestling is and still know that John Cena is the invisible man.

The thing with learning (and thinking about) all this is that after experiencing the visual and auditory hallucinations—the whole Cena meme (re)education process becomes dissociating, you start to think you’re seeing him in places he’s not and missing him in places where he clearly should be, worrying about unexpectedly bumping into him all over the internet—you may start to notice that nearly all of his suits fit ... weird. I’m sure there’s a possible universe in which these suits are well-tailored, and not as deep in the “lost a bet to Titus O’Neil” vibes as they seem to be on the surface. But John, sitting there in those Dick Tracy meets the Dynamic Dudes–ass suits responding to search queries just never feels right.

This, obviously, at least has something to do with Cena being the sitcom dad of sports entertainment: He’ll almost always win the day (or at least the rematch at the pay-per-view) and he might learn a valuable lesson during a very special episode. For the most part, though, he’s going to just keep saying catchphrases wearing roughly the same outfit and barrelling into the nothingness ahead, forever.

Which brings us back to the Peacemaker costume, and the dark room. While the interview (done with GQ) has interesting moments (like Cena making it clear that it “wasn’t his decision” to not turn heel, and what that meant for his character’s development) it’s its subject’s relative comfort that pops. Unlike nearly every other interview he’s done—he has filmed a seemingly inhuman amount, one can only imagine how many conversations with wacky morning DJs he’s had to suffer through—hearing Cena earnestly explain (in somewhat exhaustive detail) what he loved most about being able to make Mark Wahlberg jokes in Trainwreck is relaxing.

Or as relaxed as you can be watching a guy who learned Mandarin to help the WWE break into the Chinese market telling you how much he likes hard work. In pro wrestling, John Cena as an ever-loyal and virtuous battering ram for truth, justice, and the American way hustle, loyalty, and respect no matter what the odds, circumstances, or context is a fantastic money-making proposition. But in real life (and to a certain extent, Hollywood), it’s a dead end.

Knowing this, John Cena (the person) made John Cena (the actor)—I swear, this would be so much less like a Charlie Kaufman screenplay if he just wrestled as Lance Catamaran—invert the wrestler’s awareness and completely disassociates the grappling version of John Cena from the person playing both. It’s very professional wrestling, but it’s also very “online” behavior. And while he may work with Make-A-Wish for extremely altruistic reasons (i.e., he’s a genuinely good person who wants to make the world a better place), so are his charity fulfillments.

But these kinds of charitable excursions also allow Cena to maintain his standing in the broader culture without ever seeming overexposed or on the precipice of a great downfall. “So many memes oftentimes are rooted in negative or bad things, especially in the 2010s. But these days, it feels much more comfortable to memeify someone who is an objectively decent person,” explains Holderness.

All of this is, in addition to being very online, a branding exercise. But it’s an effective one. And it allows Cena to maintain a distance between the real person John Cena and the celebrity John Cena we see on our TV screens. While we don’t always know where he’ll show up next or what he’ll be wearing, with Cena, we know what his character will be referencing: our understanding of the character of John Cena we see on WWE TV with the shirts and the shorts and the fanfare.

We are able to extrapolate out a fuller construction of Cena as a person (if weirdly, not the wrestler) through this presentation of him, but it’s still incomplete.

This leaves us with the last part of the Cena triptych: WWE’s patron saint of memes. Not, mind you, memes about himself. Oh no, Cena is the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be when it comes to posting memes. Most famous—and maybe most important to understanding the man as a human being—is the “Stone Cold” series of posts. Since February 3, 2018, and what appears to be every Friday after that, Cena’s Instagram (we’re assuming run by the 16-time world champion himself) posts a Photoshopped version of a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin promo shot with a corresponding caption.

This sounds impossibly silly and, friends, in practice it is positively whimsical. Also, super fucking weird! A recent one of particular weirdness was “Stone Cold Sell Off”—we should mention now that almost all of these employ the “Stone Cold ‘S-sound’” construction, except for very specific days like when Friday falls on a 13th—with the Meta logo and what appears to be a stock photo of stock markets plummeting as the background.

Sometimes they function as promotional exercises, as they did during nearly every week of the Peacemaker run, but they can be the closest that Cena gets to outright political statements (like “Stone Cold Zelensky” following the invasion of Ukraine) and shout-outs to friends (like Stone Cold Steve Austin on his birthday, with “Stone Cold Celebrate Ya Birthday” as the caption on a slightly different picture of a smiling Stone Cold on the same background as the original because Cena is nothing if not a rabble rouser).

And perhaps equally important to the persona of John Cena—and his memeability (inasmuch as that is an actual word adults use)—is what there isn’t: almost any explicit references to or instances of his work, his life, or the two most famous memes that spawned from his forehead (in a Zeus-Athena kind of way, not an Aliens kind of way). He obliquely references being invisible in some of the screenshots from The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker, but there exist almost no shots of live performances, personal photos, or even real life events—other than those surrounding Trump and the insurrection in early 2021, which are couched mostly in more Stone Cold memes—yet it still manages to feel human, in its discombobulation and imperfection.

But even it doesn’t help explain all that much about John Felix Anthony Cena, the guy from West Newbury, Massachusetts. Like, say, why that guy (presumably a real person!) thought asking his former longtime girlfriend to marry him after their tag team wrestling match at WrestleMania was a good idea. Sure, they are both sports entertainers working for the same company, in the same match ... but my wife and I met at work ... and we got engaged in the gorilla house of the Bronx Zoo. Among the weirdest “good” things to ever happen in a wrestling ring, it’s also the kind of thing that you just want so badly to know the thinking behind. But he doesn’t seem to have spoken about it publicly, and maybe he never will.

At least not in the real world. The WWE universe, though? That’s now entirely different. Freed from, as he puts it, playing “your hit song every night for two decades,” Cena’s run away from self-awareness finally ended; he found himself confronted by the reality of his life he had worked so hard to avoid.

Reality-warping is, of course, a superpower usually reserved for the most supernatural of wrestling characters: your Papas Shango, Undertaker/Kanes, Triple Hs. And in this way, the Fiend having his hands in many of the sinister soups of sports entertainment occultery makes a kind of rote sense. But what allowed Bray Wyatt to serve as a Rosetta stone for Cena’s career and, in many ways, end his career as anything resembling a full-time competitor is the way in which his particular version of the dark wrestling arts butts up against Cena’s greatest strength.

Their initial feud was important (if less so to Cena’s late-career flurry of accomplishments than Wyatt’s downward spiral) to this dynamic; but it’s their second run at one another, which culminated in a Firefly Fun House “match” at WrestleMania 36, that tells the story of Cena best. Wyatt’s Firefly Fun House—which existed either in the metaphysical representation of Wyatt’s mind, or a spare room backstage, depending on the week—was the best way to put Cena’s career and his character’s “interior life” on display, and in a way in which no other sports entertainer has ever truly exposed themselves.

The unique setting worked as, essentially, a mirror with which John Cena is forced to reckon. After entering the playroom/antechamber of Wyatt’s torture chamber, Cena is sent hurtling back through time and space, forced to confront his worst failures, his saddest memories, and missing out on his creative dreams for success. It’s unlike any match before or since and pushes up against the very boundaries of what the medium can (and maybe should) be. Essentially no moves were completed, almost no punches were thrown, and all of his normal strengths were converted into weaknesses.

At the 13:48 mark, the match hits a speed run through Cena’s WWE career: Returning first to his now extremely cringe-worthy Ruthless Aggression debut, he’s then thrown back into his time as the (now more problematic and less charming) Doctor of Thuganomics, followed by an appearance as “Johnny Largemeat”—wherein he is taken to task for being a “body guy” who never developed in the ring—to finally (after a Nikki Bella–inspired needle drop) “turning heel” to fulfill the wishes and fantasies of the fans who love to hate him.

If every Superman has their Mister Mxyzptlk, for Cena, it’s the Eater of Worlds and this was Cena stuck in the fifth dimension. Called out (in character) for the first time as a hypocritical, shameful, and lonely bully who isolated himself from the people he trampled and friends/significant others he pushed away on his path to success, Cena is defeated because he doesn’t like himself or what he’s become. It’s maybe the saddest professional wrestling match ever, forcing fans to confront existential crises with hand puppets, pulling at the strings of Cena, trying to find a way to make him unravel.

Eventually Wyatt does, by reminding him of his broken relationships and giving Cena what he thinks he wants: a chance to unleash the rage, fear, and self-loathing on what he perceived to be his opponent, then a proxy for the innocent “victims” of his ambitions before finally, nothingness, which is immediately followed by destruction and eradication. It’s ... a lot, and it’s all very professional wrestling, but it’s much more than that.

It’s why Cena feels so odd—and seems so uncomfortable—in a suit while appearing so confident while wearing a spandex superhero outfit or cargo shorts. Cena understands that this is all a uniform, that we exist, practically, aesthetically, and symbolically as representations of ourselves in public. Unlike his Peacemaker or WWE costumes, suits exist ultimately as an unmediated representation of the person John Cena, which is something even John Cena the actor avoids when possible. Cena feels at home in uniform, possibly because it reminds him of the communities and fandoms that helped foster his success.

John Cena wants to be remembered not for the work he did, per se, or even for being a character in our cultural consciousness, but for the effect he’s had on the world and people around him. And because we don’t yet know the long-term effects of meme-ification on the legacy of public figures, it’s difficult to figure out whether a hundred years from now, John Cena will be best known for being invisible or the most accomplished professional wrestler sports entertainer in the modern era.

What is for certain is that, as a performer and as a person, John Cena’s willingness to confront these kinds of questions about himself—and by extension those who follow the tenets by which the John Cena character we watch on WWE leads his life—positions him as someone worth following, whether it’s on Instagram, in his approach to his crafts, or even his willingness to become an iteration of himself, broken down into his core components and spread through the ambient atmosphere of our culture.

Because, as he once said when once again explaining the way memes have changed his life, “When pop culture is kind enough to let you in, exploit you, and in a lot of cases make fun of you, and you’re just gonna be the vehicle to push this new gag, embrace it. Whether it’s in praise or total humor, don’t care. Just to be accepted at this point in my career, is pretty special.”

As humble, insightful, and interesting as ever, it’s the kind of awareness that Cena displays in these moments that makes you hope his legacy is ultimately what he wants it to be. Regardless of what happens, of course, I will still be hoping for him to finally turn heel.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.