By Kyle S. Johnson for WrestlingObserver.com
In the premiere of Total Divas’ fourth season, Nikki Bella makes the somewhat audacious claim that she is (or at least has the potential to be) the female version of John Cena. Because she has been the WWE Divas Champion for so long, and because she and her sister are the most merchandised Divas (and, consequently, the biggest female merch-movers in the company), she probably feels as if she has a legitimate claim to that title.
But Cena is more than just WWE’s most protected performer and biggest money-maker. One could argue that his biggest value, at least to WWE’s mind, is in his unyielding dedication to charity. Among the focal points of WWE’s three-day run in Brooklyn was Cena granting his record 500th Make-A-Wish request for 8-year-old Rocco Lanzer, an effort that was played up to the hilt both on WWE programming and in the mainstream media.
As far as the mainstream is largely concerned, John Cena is a man who works tirelessly to bring happiness to terminally ill children who also just so happens to be WWE’s biggest star since The Rock. He is a beacon of hope that brings warmth to cold hospitals and lights the eyes of boys and girls who need someone to spur them on in their darkest hours. This strikes directly at the heart of another audacious statement tweeted by Stephanie McMahon: “philanthropy is the future of marketing, it’s the way brands r going 2 win”.
With Cena, it doesn’t feel like something tawdry and exploitive for the sake of a marketing ideology. It doesn’t seem like a performance forced for the ever-present camera eye. Cena comes across as having a very genuine enthusiasm for empowering children and instilling in them a sense of hope. His actions are such that you can almost sense that he would prefer that the camera weren’t there at all.
This aspect of Cena’s nature informs his in-ring persona. This is why for 10 years, Cena’s promos have extolled the virtues of working hard and being persistent in the face of adversity. This is why for the better part of a decade, he has donned colorful t-shirts branded with inspirational slogans—“Hustle, Loyalty, Respect”; “Rise Above Hate”; “Never Give Up”. This is why, despite the growing disdain voiced in booming chants of “Cena Sucks,” there will always be a chorus of high-pitched voices to retort “Let’s Go Cena.”
Cena is the face of WWE today not because he’s a great performer both in-ring and on the microphone (he is). He is not the face of WWE today because he exudes a natural charisma that befits a superstar (he does). He is not even the face of WWE today because he fits perfectly into Vince McMahon’s archetype of what a superstar should look like (he epitomizes it). He is the face of WWE because he is its one true goodwill ambassador. He connects not only with the mainstream of which WWE so desperately wants to be a part, but with the WWE’s most coveted demographic: children.
This connection is unquestionably the most important to WWE, because it results both in more money in the short-term and, if you can create long-time fans from youth, the long term. People have been begging for a Cena heel turn for 10 years, but because of his role as the company’s top good guy both on-screen and off, that has not (and probably never will) come to pass. If capturing the attention of children and creating life-long fans is WWE’s primary long-term business objective, then there is no better choice for the company’s female face than the new NXT Women’s Champion, Bayley.
Bayley as Brand Ambassador
In order for WWE to create a Cena-adjacent female face for its brand, that woman will likely have to live up to his same standard of connecting with young fans and performing acts of charity (preferably in a visible fashion). Nikki Bella and Eva Marie have an incredibly difficult time coming across as authentic in any respect on television (a fact easily gleaned from spending any length of time watching Total Divas, which is an unenviable task that I cannot recommend against strongly enough), making it hard to conceive of any scenario where they would seem genuine interacting with children in real-world situations.
But that is not the case with Bayley. Bayley has “it.” In this case, “it” is that same thing that John Cena has. It’s an effortless charm that appeals to the everyman and everywoman. It’s a natural human agency to do good, and an aspiration to put smiles on the faces of children. Bayley is the perfect, perpetually-smiling face of WWE because you don’t believe for one second that her smile is a put-on. One need only see the way Bayley interacts with Izzy, her superfan who can seemingly always be found in the crowd at Full Sail.
This characteristic of genuineness is perfectly malleable to WWE’s craving for good brand publicity through altruism. According to an email received by Bryan Alvarez on Thursday night, a long-time WWE employee believes that Bayley is “so ungodly over, especially with little girls,” that if she were to start granting wishes through Make-A-Wish, “she will destroy John Cena.” That would make her an invaluable asset to the company in a manner not terribly dissimilar to that of Cena, but only if WWE has the aptitude to harness it.
For the last year, there has been a concerted effort on the part of WWE to position Roman Reigns as the next face of the company. This is evident in a number of ways, not the least of which being his sudden ascent to the main event of WrestleMania. Given the WWE mantra of philanthropy being tantamount to good marketing, one need only look at the list of “Athletes Gone Good” for 2015 to see just how deep WWE’s desire to make Reigns the next top guy runs. It should come as little surprise that, as the face of WWE, Cena ranks second only to Cristiano Ronaldo on the list of most charitable athletes. WWE’s second-most-charitable star? Reigns. While it’s difficult to speculate that an individual’s charitable acts are the result of anything but benevolence, it’s also hard to imagine that Reigns’ place on this list is not the result of some calculated efforts behind the scenes.
In order for WWE to create a top female face who is on the level of John Cena, they will need to appear on these lists. They will need to be a visible role model to children, that same warming light in the darkness. For better or worse, this is how the WWE will market its top babyfaces from here on in, and it is for this reason that Bayley is their most logical next big thing.
Targeting the Right Audience
One of the biggest complaints about women’s wrestling in WWE for, oh, the last decade or two has been its overreliance on sexuality. Since the days of Sunny and Sable, the role of women in the WWE has largely been to serve as eye candy for the male audience. From the late ’90s and into the early-2000s, WWE made no bones about its intentions with its female talent—they were there to participate in bawdy storylines and be ogled by men.
Once the company opted to move toward more family-friendly programming, it made a withering attempt to mask the state of things. Gone were Playboy photospreads, replaced with considerably more tasteful Maxim photospreads. The women became “Divas,” and despite the fact that the denotation of the word is not particularly flattering, it was intended to provide the connotation of the women being powerful and, more importantly, sexy. Still, despite tidying up appearances, this left little in the way of true role models for young girls to get behind.
Even as great wrestlers have come and gone—Trish Stratus, Victoria, Gail Kim, Natalya, and AJ Lee are among their number—the singular focus has always been sex appeal. That focus on sex remains to this day, which is the only explanation why amidst a (hashtag) “revolution,” WWE’s current choice for the top female talent in the company is Eva Marie.
Eva Marie cannot, under any circumstances, be considered a good professional wrestler, which used to be a pretty sizeable chunk of what made someone a star in professional wrestling (or so I’ve been told). She has no discernable charisma to speak of, and she has absolutely no connection with the audience—especially not young girls. She can, however, be considered “hot.” In this, Vince McMahon presumably sees an untapped goldmine, which explains why her face has probably appeared on production trucks and in promo material more times than she’s actually wrestled in the past two years.
The last perceived “new face” of WWE was Lana, which would have been at least an improvement over Eva. But her push suddenly sputtered and halted, and in the span of a few short months, she went from jousting with the likes of Cena and The Rock on the microphone (and handling herself quite skillfully in the process) to being the denim-wearing girlfriend/valet of Dolph Ziggler. While Lana was substantially more entertaining as a heel manager than Eva Marie has ever proven to be at anything, they have no fewer than two things in common: Lana was almost certainly pushed entirely because she was “hot,” and she’s not what you could reasonably call a wrestler.
In the world of sports entertainment, being even a competent wrestler is ancillary to being a character. Certainly, if history reveals anything, WWE’s style of promoting suggests that it is only comfortable offering female characters in one of few stock archetypes. That spectrum runs something like: evil, catty, crazy, conniving, jealous, ditzy, self-effacing, and hot. There may be a few wrinkles in the formula here and there, but the song largely remains the same. Whether Charlotte, Sasha, and Becky are given the opportunity to break from this interminable mold and strike out on their own in some meaningful way remains to be seen.
It’s increasingly difficult to have any level of confidence with the way women are booked on WWE’s main roster, but it’s easy to see where they could theoretically get it right with Bayley. As a character and a personality, she’s got everything necessary to become a transcendent star and a vital component in WWE’s quest to claim newer and younger fans. As a wrestler, she’s shown that she can be compelling and, when matched up with someone of commensurate talents like one of the other three Horsewomen, outstanding.
According to Scott Keith, Bayley’s “I’m a Hugger” shirt was, at least for a time this month, the top-selling Divas item in WWE Shop despite Bayley having less than .05 percent the merchandise options that the Bellas have. Keith’s salient analysis of this fact: “The girl is going to rival Cena in merch sales one day, especially in the youth area.”
WWE has shown that it cannot properly execute a “revolution,” but perhaps it’s not too late to change the way it views and treats women. A major (and necessary) alteration would be to reevaluate just to whom they are trying to appeal. If the answer is young girls, then having Bayley at the forefront of the division is as good a place to start as any. With the right approach, she can and will sell t-shirts and wristbands by the truckload.
Bayley, with her goofy mannerisms and her vibrant outfits and her grandiose entrance accompanied by giant waving tube men, stands in such stark contrast to the typical WWE character template for women. She connects with kids and, thanks to her considerable in-ring talent, with hardcore wrestling fans as well, all without having to be objectified. She is, in so many ways, the polar opposite of an Eva Marie or a Nikki Bella.
She’s a classic white-meat babyface, a plucky underdog who never gives up and who the fans want to overcome the odds stacked against her. She may be the closest thing they’ve got to a female John Cena, and in some ways, she might even have the potential to be more important over time.