Cody Rhodes and the Myth of the Heroic Executive

The grandson of a plumber made himself too big to fail. So why are we still supposed to cheer for him?

As Anthony Ogogo stood in the ring awaiting the biggest match of his young pro wrestling career at Double or Nothing 2021, Cody Rhodes strode to the ring as if he was defending an ideal, wearing a proud, celebratory expression and a Revolutionary War-inspired ring jacket. In the runup to this fateful night, Rhodes at times launched into screeds of astigmatism-laced patriotism, lightly glossing over America’s many faults in favor of parroting all the things this country (sometimes rather disingenuously) says it is. He insisted that he knew “it isn’t cool to be patriotic” anymore, making himself seem above the fray; too cool to worry about being cool. This suggests, like every other concept we as humans have created, constructive criticism and accountability will eventually go out of style too.

On one hand, Cody’s most unintentionally controversial promo was impassioned, as he got emotional about the impending birth of his baby daughter and the country she will be born into. Which is entirely fair—being a parent is beautiful and scary and, to some, the most important thing a person can do. He made some boilerplate antiracist statements to underscore his point, somewhat underplaying how deep racism really goes in America. What he was saying seemed genuine. Out of everything a person could criticize Cody Rhodes for, taking him to task for lacking sincerity would be dishonest.

More from the Rhodes Family

On the other hand, Rhodes started a heated rivalry with Ogogo because the British-born Olympian boxer had the audacity to talk about the United States with a shitty attitude. At Double or Nothing, Cody defeated Ogogo pretty handily, after an interview campaign focusing on his inexperience in the wrestling ring, missing one of the points he was trying to make about America being the land of opportunity. The Cody Rhodes character often lacks self-awareness—maybe the most frustrating part of someone whose wrestling makes people feel things—so he probably had no clue he was performing in what amounted to a commercial for American imperialism.

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American as apple pie.

Like imperialism, capitalism, and an entire host of other -isms blended into the foundation America was built upon, Cody Rhodes is too big to fail. He used being savvy to his advantage. He was corporate wrestling surrounded by the acceptance of indie subculture and had the foresight to align himself with with a group of meta wrestling nerds as they were becoming the most talked about group on the international scene. They started a company together. Rhodes started appearing at television conventions and later, commercials for WarnerMedia game shows and reality television properties.

Cody famously observed in a promo that his older brother Dustin “got all the Dusty,” but Cody—with the help of acting workshops and coaches—has learned to channel the passion of his voice along with the impact of his words, something his father was peerless at. But while Rhodes the Elder convincingly reflected the triumphs, struggles, determination, and sometimes the ennui of the working class, his youngest child at best provides an aspirational tale of inherited struggles for every upper-middle-class white male who had a good relationship with his parents and a fairly comfortable childhood. One of many, many white dudes taking the step ladder to success. This is not a problem Cody invented nor is he should be responsible for; it is a failure of the system rather than the individual.

Dusty was such a wrestler’s wrestler that it was easy to conveniently forget he frequently occupied positions of authority. But deep down we as fans knew he was an auteur, a maverick, still an outsider in the boardroom. Cody, either by design or obliviously, can’t help but flaunt corporate slickness, whether through his desire to be seen as a media personality or his talent in simultaneously dressing for the job he wants and the job he has. Why do some tolerate the Elite more readily than Rhodes when they have identical professional titles in the AEW business hierarchy? Well, because the atomic self-awareness of Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks is a huge part of what got them there. And to be extra-discerning, they’re all more convincing as cheesy, obnoxious heels than they ever were as noble babyfaces.

The “Cool” Boss

We have been moving headlong into a new archetype heading up the world of pro wrestling: the “hip” executive. Whether it’s the big bearded, Norse biker gang, hanging with Lemmy from Motörhead aesthetic or the bleached blonde, neck tattooed, linen suits with a pink t-shirt in Miami vibe—the idea of the boss as the symbol of cool in an industry built on the literal backs of independent contractors doesn’t seem so glamorous.

Part of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s massive mainstream success could be heavily attributed to making his boss piss his pants on live television, hitting him over the head with a bedpan, and generally antagonizing and bullying him every week for the better part of two years. The idea of actively rooting for the person who you might have heard talking about their au pair in the office kitchen feels a little tone deaf in a society where the pay disparity between executives and workers is as wide a canyon as it has ever been.

None of this has anything to do with whether or not Cody Rhodes is a good wrestler. He is. Cody’s matches have more emotional range than those of many of his peers. A few of them have had the ability to make us as admirers of pro wrestling openly weep. They are crafted for maximum impact structurally; old-school, fundamentally sound crescendos of strategic finesse and occasionally the pathos of combat. And he loses when it really counts: To Chris Jericho with the stipulation that he’d never challenge for the AEW World Championship again (which adds an air of altruism when you realize all the other Executive Vice Presidents currently hold major titles); decisively to Mr. Brodie Lee in one of AEW’s true shockers; to MJF and Darby Allin when the young stars needed that extra boost to become top stars; and most recently to Malakai Black before lightly teasing his retirement.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough… Ghosts His Crew?

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Cody’s current scenario with Black provides an interesting angle on Cody’s heroism. When the Amsterdam-born master striker and former NXT Champion appeared from a shroud of darkness and nearly kicked the heads off of both Cody and the 60-something-year-old Arn Anderson, there was possibility the youngest Rhodes would finally take the right side of a noble cause. That soon changed when Black handily defeated Cody in a Dynamite main event and struck him in the back with a crutch as he seemed to announce he was done as an in-ring competitor. Rhodes disappeared for weeks as members of the Nightmare Family—a group with very little identity outside of potentially getting the Friends and Family Discount if Cody opened a store or a restaurant—sent themselves one by one to the receiving end of Black’s spinning heel kick.

With no canonical explanation, Cody has been missing for weeks while Arn’s rookie son Brock, Lee Johnson, and his own big brother Dustin were all fairly easily dispatched by Black. Cody being missing while his sibling and loyal soldiers fall to his dangerous rivals mirrors the period about a year ago, where Mr. Brodie Lee served Cody the quickest loss of his AEW career and beat down the Nightmare Family while Cody was a ghost on AEW television. This aspect of Cody’s character is a bizarre inverse of the final boss structure in video games; an advertisement that screams, “Join the Nightmare Family, where your leader is nowhere to be found while you get beaten to a pulp!”

The first sign of the Nightmare Family being hardly anything more than Cody’s vanity group is drawn all over his the right side of his neck.

Cody’s disappearances provide an interesting counterpoint to those of his former Elite compatriot “Hangman” Adam Page. While there is a thick air of self-doubt in everything Page does that manifests itself deeply when he comes up short of the big win, Rhodes more often than not comes across as overconfident. We never see the process where he’s unsure if he has what it takes—he loses big, goes ghost, and comes back stronger. Cody Rhodes is obviously supposed to be a noble character, but we hardly see him struggle to the point where he feels truly sympathetic.

What would you do if the people who were loyal to you—including your own brother—showed up to fight for your honor only to get their asses beat? Would you remain nowhere to be found? Would you have the only person at your job with more authority than you announce your return two weeks in advance after your older brother gets his head kicked off?

With Cody’s return being advertised for tonight’s Dynamite since earlier this month, he is poised to swoop in triumphantly and put an end to Malakai Black’s torment of those closest to him. Maybe he’ll return as Mecha Cody with the black hair and reveal the dark place he had to go to in order to defeat Lee in that awesomely brutal Dog Collar Match. Or maybe it will be the same old Cody who sets things right after being gone for weeks, business as usual.

Sometimes in spite of himself (a few of his in-character interviews, while being portrayed as “real talk,” come across as smug), quite a few AEW fans practically idolize Cody Rhodes. And while he should be praised for his aptitude, the “cool boss to the rescue” thing seems kinda played out in 2021. In a time in our world’s history where social consciousness is prized even when it’s entirely performative and information is more easily accessible than ever, there’s something worryingly archaic about rooting for a character who upholds society’s most outdated structures.

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Martin Douglas

A proud adopted son of the Pacific Northwest, Martin Douglas is an essayist, critic, and journalist specializing in the fields of music (KEXP.org, Bandcamp Daily, Pitchfork) and pro wrestling (Seattle Weekly, quite a few online zines). He's also a hip-hop beatmaker, fiction writer, disposable camera photographer, and all-around renaissance man.

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