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The Rock is a harbinger of America’s decline He is the perfect hero for a sterile generation

(Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

(Kevin Winter/Getty Images)


March 15, 2024   5 mins

As a steroidal colossus towering over his peers, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson bestrides the barren expanse of modern celebrity like no other. His influence is unrivalled, spanning the realms of professional wrestling, corporate behemoths and, as his brief cameo at this year’s Oscars ceremony testified, even Hollywood.

Yet beneath the superficial sheen of this success, one finds a paradox: Johnson, once celebrated for the originality and raw charisma of his wrestling character, has spent the past two decades navigating a career marked by sterile blandness. Even in a marketplace brimming with astroturfed celebrities, Johnson’s deliberate brand-construction is remarkable. Unlike fellow ubiquitous megastars — see Taylor Swift — he has managed to earn billions without generating even a single news cycle’s worth of controversy, hot takes, and “discourse”.

This is, of course, nothing to be sniffed at. Johnson now showcases a fatless, hairless and thoroughly hyper-masculine physique that far surpasses what he achieved in his youth, during his days as a college football player or as a young wrestling icon. Such hyperbolic musculature normally invites speculation, yet Johnson’s vehement denial of steroid use has largely gone unquestioned. Somehow, he is both the most jacked human to ever front action movies — far larger than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime — and one of the least interrogated. It’s as if his massive size renders him invisible, the perfect cover for selling the self-as-content in this latest stage of capitalism.

In a similar vein, despite being hailed as one of Hollywood’s premier stars, Johnson’s solo drawing power remains startlingly nebulous. His most lucrative cinematic ventures, notably the Fast & Furious series, are ensemble pieces, while his foray into the superhero genre with the DCU’s Black Adam (2022) was a resounding dud. Only in a pair of critically panned roles in Southland Tales (2006) and Pain & Gain (2013) — in which he plays an anxiety-riddled actor and an anxiety-riddled bodybuilder respectively — does his capacity for depth and nuance emerge. Perhaps such feckless characters represent his truest self; it would explain why his attempts at gravitas and bravado have always fallen short.

“Perhaps such feckless characters represent his truest self.”

The prolific nature of Johnson’s career further complicates the narrative. His relentless output — from film projects to business ventures such as the acquisition and merger of two minor spring American football leagues — paints a picture of a man in constant motion. Yet his relentless productivity, while admirable, often feels devoid of the originality and vibrancy that defined his first half-decade as a pro wrestler. Once someone who defined wrestling’s “attitude” for an entire generation, he now struggles to define anything. Even the occasional calls for him to run for president are met with lukewarm bipartisan support solely because so little is known about him; when, for instance, he appeared at the 2000 Republican National Convention, he spoke about the importance of voting.

One might think, then, that Johnson’s wrestling heritage, arising from the storied Anoa’i family that has produced dozens of all-time greats, would add a much-needed layer to his persona. Yet while his career undoubtedly benefits from nepotism — both his grandfather Peter Maivia and his father Rocky Johnson were major stars — his mainstream success outside of wrestling has been carefully curated to transcend specific cultural or racial identities, positioning him as a universal symbol of success and appeal. This strategy, however, while effective in broadening his audience, has only diluted the authenticity of his connection to his roots and the wrestling community.

Perhaps blind to this, the recent build-up to April’s signature WrestleMania premium live event — the largest pro wrestling show of the year — features Johnson confronting fellow second-generation star Cody Rhodes while simultaneously flaunting his heritage as the head of the WWE’s true royal “Bloodline”. This narrative, engaging as it may be, highlights the constructed nature of his public persona, blurring the lines between the authentic and the performative, the personal and the corporate. It raises the question of whether Johnson’s engagement with his cultural identity and the wrestling world is driven by a genuine connection or, now that he serves on the board of directors of TKO (which owns WWE), merely another role to be played in the grand narrative of a career devoted to the ruthless acquisition of money.

Some might retort that Johnson is simply embracing a narrative of success, but this masks a deeper, more troubling reality: his evolution is emblematic of the rise of the hyper-manufactured star, devoid of any distinguishing features that could tether them to a definable identity or cultural lineage. And while it may prove lucrative, there are obvious pitfalls: his deliberate positioning as a post-racial, cross-genre juggernaut not only obscures his own cultural heritage but also reinforces the problematic notion that true mainstream success requires a dilution of one’s ethnic and cultural specificity. In striving to be all things to all people, Johnson inadvertently perpetuates a homogenised vision of celebrity that prioritises palatability over authenticity, a troubling precedent for a society grappling with issues of representation and identity, from “pronouns in bio” social-media posting to corporate DEI training and the backlash to both.

Moreover, the relentless expansion of Johnson’s brand across various media and industries exemplifies a capitalist ethos run amok, where every facet of one’s life and identity is commodified and leveraged for maximum profit. This commodification of self is not unique to Johnson, but his case does represent a broader trend where public figures are expected to be endlessly consumable and completely anodyne, their value measured by their marketability rather than their lasting contributions to the cultural landscape. The result is a celebrity culture saturated with figures who, despite their omnipresence, offer little in the way of meaningful engagement or artistic innovation.

We can even witness this sacrifice of culture for the sake of spectacle in Johnson’s sporting activities elsewhere. Consider his involvement in the revival of the XFL spring football league: while such efforts to provide an alternative to the NFL for lesser or still-aspiring players are commendable, the endeavour also reflects a focus on value, often at the expense of deeper cultural or social significance. These spring leagues have minimal viewership, with ratings lagging behind reruns of decades-old sitcoms — but they have significant value as “streaming content” for networks such as ESPN to make available to “content consumers”. Johnson, if nothing else, is a content man, producing vast amounts of “entertainment” for his entertainment-studio paymasters.

In this, Johnson’s tortuous path to the top confronts us with a disquieting portrait of modern fame: a landscape dominated by figures who, in their quest for universal appeal, lose sight of the very qualities that made them compelling. In a country overseen by a doddering octogenarian president challenged by a risible septuagenarian foe, Johnson and his ilk are quintessential end-of-empire figures; indeed, the Johnson that shows up in Black Adam or the Fast & Furious films might as well be an AI deepfake.

For this great star, then, what began as a promising blend of charisma, talent, and cultural specificity has been gradually subsumed by a sterile brand of market-driven celebrity. And while this may be a testament to his adaptability and business acumen, it also serves as a cautionary tale about the costs of such adaptability, both for the individual and for a culture increasingly bereft of authentic voices and visions. The Rock, in other words, has made himself into the perfect voice for this generation’s ears, content to say the same things in the same way until his run, and perhaps ours, has reached its logical end.


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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Clare Knight
Clare Knight
3 months ago

He now has a line of skincare products for men all under $10.That’s the only thing that distinguishes them from the rest.

Jason Sanders
Jason Sanders
3 months ago

The white author seems upset that The Rock doesn’t focus more on his Black and Samoan heritage. Seems like an unhelpful and unfair criticism.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
3 months ago
Reply to  Jason Sanders

Nonsense. The critique goes way beyond that superficial observation. It points towards the masking of anything that might disrupt the concept of “mass appeal”, in other words anything that makes us individuals; flawed but therefore human and interesting.

In so doing, the author asks us to infer the tendency of (for instance) DEI to place us all beyond criticism, to achieve a realm of absolute blandness in equality.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago
Reply to  Jason Sanders

And he was there on the ground after the forest fire in Hawaii.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
3 months ago
Reply to  Jason Sanders

Or is he upset that The Rock has been successful dominating traditionally white spaces like professional wrestling by choosing not to engage in the grievance peddling of identity politics and making himself acceptable to a white, or any other color really, audience. The Rock has the right idea. Intentionally or unintentionally, and I suspect the former, he’s showing everyone how success works in a multicultural media environment and what it looks like. Don’t say or do anything remotely controversial so as to avoid offending anyone and have a broad appeal. This is what is required in a diverse multicultural society. It’s bland, undefined, malleable, empty, and devoid of any deeper meaning. We can either have vibrant and unique cultures that are segregated to some extent, each appealing in its own way if not for everyone, each a fine wine in it’s own stoppered bottle, or we can have multicultural societies that dump all of it into a bucket, add water, and save money by only having to produce one label.

Jason Sanders
Jason Sanders
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I disagree, you can be successful in Wrestling/Hollywood/America placing your ethnic identity front and centre or choose not to. The fact that The Rock doesn’t feel he needs to voice his opinion on every single political topic is pretty refreshing.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 months ago

I don’t really understand the complaints about The Rock. He made his money as a wrestler, now tries his hand at other things with varying degrees of success. If he seemingly keeps his opinions to himself and some of his personality remains private why is that a bad thing?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Yet while his career undoubtedly benefits from nepotism — both his grandfather Peter Maivia and his father Rocky Johnson were major stars — his mainstream success outside of wrestling has been carefully curated to transcend specific cultural or racial identities, positioning him as a universal symbol of success and appeal. This strategy, however, while effective in broadening his audience, has only diluted the authenticity of his connection to his roots and the wrestling community.

Don’t right wing types usually argue that you shouldn’t have to suppress your identity? Don’t they feel often complain that the media does not represent them and they feel they have to remain quiet about certain things because of the dominant narrative?
The reason it’s a bad thing is the same reason it’s a bad thing that you might be overlooked for a promotion at work for refusing to wear a rainbow lanyard.
Johnson embodies a lot of what we’re supposed to dislike about “woke”. The erasure of roots, identity and individuality to make the individual more easily deployable as human capital in a services-based marketplace.
Keeping opinions to himself and keeping part of his personality private is fine (although one might question why he would choose to be a celebrity if that was his preference). What’s wrong is that he is forced to do so because it is the only way to remain marketable in a system of mass consumer capitalism.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Isn’t that the exact opposite of woke? The woke (for want of a better word) place somebody’s roots, ethnicity and identity above everything else and see it as the most important thing in which to judge a person rather than their actions or opinions?
Also why does being a celebrity mean they have to have an opinion on anything that isn’t relevant to their craft? Why is it important who he votes for, or what his opinions are on various issues around the culture wars? I like him more for the fact he stays clear of it all

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
3 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Because opinions wrapped in a 60.000 dollar frock matter more. Most intellectuals can be found in Hollywood.

Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
3 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Agree, the man may be innocuous and anodyne in his public statements, but that’s his choice. Many probably wish they were smart enough to emulate him.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
3 months ago

This is a singularly ungenerous and prejudiced critique of Dwayne Johnson for failing to conform to the narrative that Oliver Bateman wishes to thrust on him as a result of Johnson’s interesting family history. The fact that Johnson doesn’t want to be typecast by his racial inheritance seems to me a wholly admirable contrast to many who seek to trade of their black inheritance despite being far more mixed race than Johnson.

Thank heaven for a celebrity who doesn’t want to play the intersectional game and prefers to maintain his privacy. By sneering at this alleged blandness Bateman unfortunately reveals himself as the lesser man despite some occasionally thought provoking writing on Unherd.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago

Hey dude, you forgot to mention the Rock’s short career in the Canadian Football League and his roll in Ballers, which was an excellent series until it imploded with wokeness and died shortly thereafter.

The Rock seems like a genuinely nice guy. That is his brand. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Jules Anjim
Jules Anjim
3 months ago

What on earth are you talking about ? Hollywood has been hyper-manufacturing stars for almost a century, and Johnson is less one-dimensional than you might think. Is UnHerd really this hard up for contributors ?

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
3 months ago

I just about reached the end of this one before giving up.

Of course Johnson is playing roles. He’s a pro-wrestler turned movie star, that’s his shtick. How much depth do you really expect or want from him?

As a cartoonish action hero – like in the fantastic Jumanji reboot – he’s a great fit for the CGI heavy blockbusters modern Hollywood largely relies on for revenue these days. He’s not Gene Hackman by any means, but he can act well enough to carry off comedy, which is harder than it sounds.

So he works hard and resists being thrust into some sort of spokesman for virtue position? What’s the problem. I think a few more celebrities on both sides of the progressive/Conservative divide would be better off not talking about stuff so much.

Satyam Nagwekar
Satyam Nagwekar
3 months ago

I do agree with the writer on this one. I have found Johnson singularly boring post his WWE days.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
3 months ago

I find it funny that the author bemoans the loss of authenticity on the part of a former wrestler when wwe is probably the most unauthentic ‘sport’ in existence.
I think the mistake Bateman makes is that he takes the Rock seriously. He’s made a ton of money making schlock movies – good for him.
The real measure of any cultural decline is the expectation that there needs to be more to him than that.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
3 months ago

My God, what a lot of blather! This whole “don’t-think-piece” boils down to: I need to write something about The Rock, there isn’t really much to say about him so I’m going to pull every point I can to come up with a thousand plus words.
1) The Rock is bland – You don’t say. So are most megastars, and always have been.
2) The Rock’s latest foray into professional wrestling ‘blends reality and storytelling – Um…what do you think professional wrestling is?
3) The Rock bought a sports league, which is somehow proof that he is feeding a culture for streaming or being a ‘content man’ or whatever garbage point Bateman is trying to make – No, he bought a sports team cause that what rich guys like him like to do. The fact that no one watches it is why he could afford to buy it and inject his brand into it.
4) “I will insinuate without risking liable that he takes steriods” – Really? This is unworthy of UnHerd or any serious journalist.
Note to UnHerd Editors: Do better.
And Mr Batemen, if you read this comment, see Note to UnHerd Editors above.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
3 months ago

He and Vin Diesel are both post-racial. But if interrogated they would have to identify themselves as Black to survive Hollywood and wider Democrat politics.
The post-racial aspect is actually the unifying element of the discourse here because it’s both a signifier of corporate blandness and a by-product of advanced multiculturalism. Michael Jackson arguably pioneered this trend in making himself ‘white’ while perfecting a pop-friendly corporate product diluted of soul yet devoid of the signifiers of white rock music.
Ergo, post-racial corporatism is worth studying. It may be the only future of the American Empire which, after all, has only ever survived because it’s been able to retain its global commercial appeal.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
3 months ago

This article reminds me of the elevator scene in Mad Men, when Don Draper turns to the little weasel trying to tell him off and says, “I don’t think about you at all.”

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
3 months ago

I join the many other commenters calling out this terrible article. The Rock’s popularity is owed, I think obviously, to the most mysterious and time-honored reason of all: charisma. True ‘star power’ is something the biggest stars have, and no one can quite figure out why the also-ran’s and B-movie guys don’t have it.
It’s not just looks, not just ‘personality’ – it comes out in the genuineness of a smile, the comic timing of a raised eyebrow, the balance between sincerity and silliness. Of course some of it is luck and career timing, but it also depends on being a big guy who knows when to win a fight and when to lose one, who can put on tights and a tutu or punch a monster in the face with equal aplomb.
And the best thing about charisma is that it resists further analysis. It just is. It’s a celebration of the authentically *human,* the things about us that are simultaneously universal and personal, timeless and mortal. The Rock is an authentic human.
The fact that the author thinks he’s inauthentic just demonstrates how terrible and unobservant this essay is (and perhaps just how debased and absurd our society’s current identarian conception of authenticity is).

Arthur King
Arthur King
3 months ago

This story is sterile pettiness.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 months ago

Huh? Too many words to address a lame thesis. This essay feels ‘manufactured’ itself.

Jenny Caneen
Jenny Caneen
3 months ago

So due to his ( according to the author’s take) anodyne if very successful career, we are in the presence of the beginning of the end? He’s avoided scandal, is generally well-liked, and has pursued numerous professional ventures. This is a bad thing?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 months ago

a landscape dominated by figures who, in their quest for universal appeal, lose sight of the very qualities that made them compelling.
His ‘qualities’ were based on playing a character. Wrestling is a soap opera with intervals of manufactured violence. It is impressive to watch men that large be that athletic but most have sports backgrounds in the first place. The rest comes down to your character – does it connect with fans, can it be used to advance a storyline, etc?
Rock took that and parlayed it into film and other things. If he produces things that people want to watch while NOT lecturing the rest of us about the issues of the day, what’s the problem? Also, he’s on gear. The denials ring hollow. But otherwise, this reads like a criticism looking for validity.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
3 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

The problem is that Mr. Johnson does not play the game to the satisfaction of the writer.

Arthur King
Arthur King
3 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Bang on. These petty little commentators are little unaccomplished people.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee
3 months ago

What a waste of my time, the author’s time and every commenter’s time; pure drivel.

Brian Matthews
Brian Matthews
3 months ago

Johnson’s appeal has always been a complete mystery to me. Even in the comments here at Unherd, amongst the smart and the independent thinkers his supporters are everywhere.

Thank you Oliver for articulating well what I could never quite pin down about this absurd celebrity creation.

John Riordan
John Riordan
3 months ago
Reply to  Brian Matthews

You’ve just bought into the same fallacy the author has fallen for. Describing people who might enjoy a film with Dwayne Johnson in it as his “supporters”, as if some sort of ideological agenda is involved. There is nothing wrong with finding Dwayne Johnson completely uninteresting of course, it’s the daft assumptions you’re making about people with different preferences that’s the problerm.

M Gomes
M Gomes
3 months ago

What a bizarre article. Why should Johnson have to express opinions, political or otherwise? Does anyone really expect or want deep commentary by a tough guy movie star? He’s there for your entertainment, or not. I think this writer has only exposed his serious Johnson envy.

John Riordan
John Riordan
3 months ago

“Moreover, the relentless expansion of Johnson’s brand across various media and industries exemplifies a capitalist ethos run amok, where every facet of one’s life and identity is commodified and leveraged for maximum profit.”

So what? If Johnson wants to do this with himself and there’s a willing pool of millions of consumers for his movies, merchandise and the rest, why’s that a problem? Why is it somehow required that he be “authentic” or “mean” anything?

The problem here is with this ongoing bitchfest coming from the Progressive Left that can’t actually find anything wrong with the modern world so it has to invent problems to justify its own relevance. Progressive politics has been an irrelevance for decades, the only problems we have nowadays are substantially because of Progressive politics, not in spite of it.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
3 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Absolutely, spot on. The politics of transcendence from people who produce nothing but thought. Which can be a good thing, obviously, but not when it’s malicious envy under the guise of philosophy.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
3 months ago

A good starting point for this article would have been to explain why The Rock is so wealthy. The author of the article seems to be totally bemused by the The Rock’s popularity and success. A feeling shared by many but not a good take for a journalist. Maybe the Daily Express is already full of ‘Why? Oh why?’ writers.

Richard Russell
Richard Russell
3 months ago

I’m no great fan of the utterly manufactured Dwayne Johnson, but how is he any more culpable than so many of his contemporaries in showbiz? The pure “celebrity” movie star has been a thing for a very long time. None of these stars even pretend to an acting heritage. They’re usually pretty humble and upfront about it. The industry dangles the money, your manager keeps you working, etc. and everybody gets rich. What a business, eh?

Edward Gordon
Edward Gordon
3 months ago

And this story is important because?

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
3 months ago

His success is as uncomplicated as it should be, but for this author’s confected controversy, incontestable. He’s a thoroughly likeable, decent, strong male. What’s not to like about that? In truth, nothing.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago

How bad is this writing? Read it aloud and weep.

‘In striving to be all things to all people, Johnson inadvertently perpetuates a homogenised vision of celebrity that prioritises palatability over authenticity, a troubling precedent for a society grappling with issues of representation and identity, from “pronouns in bio” social-media posting to corporate DEI training and the backlash to both.‘