Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson loves a two-dot ellipse. He favors the whiskey emoji, although he drinks tequila. To treat himself, he’ll fire up a Netflix documentary on his laptop and order a delivery platter of sushi, which he invariably calls “soosh.” Sometimes he might instead crush a plate of banana chocolate chip pancakes, even though they give him the “sugar sweats.”
I know these important facts because for the last few years I have followed Johnson’s Instagram account with somewhat obsessive fascination. Occasionally, at night, I’ll turn to my husband, who thus forth has been the only audience for my The Rock observations, and say: “The Rock posted another whiskey emoji” or “Guess what, The Rock is having ‘soosh’ again.” And we will laugh and laugh, because we both know that is just so The Rock, isn’t it?
Essentially, I have been studying at Dwayne Johnson Instagram University. There is no diploma for this advanced degree, which is why I have to write this article. It is the only form of acknowledgment that I will ever receive for my extended study of The Rock’s social media presence. At this point, I could take over Johnson’s Instagram account for a week and no one would be able to tell the difference.
I have been a casual fan of Johnson’s since his WWF days. In high school, flipping channels, I would pause whenever I came across one of his matches (because hello, fine sir). In my early 20s, I all-too-giddily posed for a photo, palms to pecs, with a wax figure of Johnson wearing a leather vest. A few years back, I even downloaded his motivational alarm clock app, which featured him shouting things like “bring it” and “beep beep beep” at you. (It was delightful.) Over the last decade, I have managed to see nearly a dozen of his films, but I am not so much of a fan that I have seen The Scorpion King or that Baywatch remake or even a single episode of Ballers (although I did look up a sex scene on YouTube). That said, I have been moved to tears during both Skyscraper and Titan Games.
It is an ironic celebrity crush, both in the sense that it is somewhat unexpected and that it’s imbued with a subtle mockery of myself and of The Rock himself. His fame has always had that dual quality to it. He played the typical WWF part with the oiled-up muscles, booty shorts, and over-the-top chest-rattling, but he rose to stardom with that signature eyebrow raise, which was effectively a playful wink right at the audience, an acknowledgment of his own absurdity. And now, he is both fighting fictional terrorists atop a flaming 240-story building in Skyscraper and genially singing “You’re Welcome.”
But it wasn’t until I started studying his Instagram, that I came to understand just how fundamental that duality, and dissonance, is to his appeal. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he is a very big man—6’5” with biceps so strong they could crush a cantaloupe—and yet he lets his three-year-old daughter paint his fingernails, and sometimes even his face. He reminds us of this multiple times in his feed—both that he is a big man, as if we could forget, and that his daughter has him wrapped around her finger. The schtick, and it’s a compelling one, is adorable emasculation.
Alongside a photo of him teaching his daughter how to swim, he writes, “Took my shirt off and she said, Daddy I like it your brown boobies.. 😂🤔.” In another post, he’s shown dressed up in a canary-yellow full-body Pikachu costume as a treat for his daughter. There he is, cooking for his girlfriend and daughters with his sweatshirt tied around his waist like an apron (#TakinCareOfMyGirls). On International Women’s Day, he posted a video of himself with daughter Jasmine wherein he instructs her, “Alright, my queen, can we say ‘girl power’?” In the accompanying caption, he writes, “To every woman out there ‘round the world - all ages and races - I proudly stand by your side to always honor, protect and respect.”
It is all so self-consciously, performatively, panderingly Woke Dad—with a touch of insidious, benevolent sexism—and yet. He’s The Rock, is what my heart and loins maniacally scream. Critical thinking ceases. Higher systems shut down. Because there he is rescuing a baby bird that has fallen from its nest.
His reverence for women, and the masculine updraft that he sometimes gets from it, can climb to stratospheric levels, as with his post about the birth of his third daughter. “Word to the wise gentlemen, it’s critical to be by your lady’s head when she’s delivering, being as supportive as you can.. holding hands, holding legs, whatever you can do,” he wrote. “But, if you really want to understand the single most powerful and primal moment life will ever offer - watch your child being born.”
Watch the baby come out of the vagina, is what he meant. He watched a human head emerge from the birth canal and not only did he not puke or pass out like other mortal males, but he found it to be a spiritual experience.
Sometime after said birth, he posted a shot of Hashian breastfeeding the baby while he knelt in front of her, feeding her dinner. “My pleasure,” he wrote. “So much respect to her and all mamas out there holding it down and running things.” The accompanying hashtag: #ChivalryIsToughOnTheKnees. Here is a man who on the big screen declares things like “I am the cavalry” and also raises awareness about the importance of taking infant CPR classes. “You hope there’s never an emergency where you never have to deploy the skill,” he writes of the latter.
This is the same gentleman who once posted a video in which he did grunting dips in the gym with a heavy chain around his neck and then barked with utter seriousness at the camera, “BIG DOGS EAT, LITTLE CRYING PUPPIES STAY ON THE PORCH!” (It was, perhaps, a dig at Tyrese, if you’re keeping track of that very important beef.)
One might, as I once did, write all of this off as “sensitive tough guy stuff.” But you hang around the ‘gram long enough and then the “sensitive tough guy” narrative gets a little complicated, and a little dark.
He frequently references the gym as “therapy,” joking that it’s cheaper than a shrink. He’s a tough guy, but a wounded and lovable one. His “piss poor” upbringing is often cited as the reason he needs therapy. In an Instagram video of him in the gym, sweat dripping from his every pore, he says into his hand-held camera, “Look, I’ve been slanging iron since I was 13, ever since we got kicked off the island of Hawaii for not being able to afford to pay rent,” he says. “I was crying, [takes on a whiny little-kid voice] ‘I have no place to live.’ I told myself, [takes on a tough-guy voice] ‘Shut up! Stop crying like a little bitch! Get in the gym and make something of yourself.’”
It is a disturbing moment in which he all-too-believably takes on the punishing tone of his 13-year-old self. But then he breaks out his signature smile—one that, if you see it enough on repeat, starts to feel a little forced—and says, “That’s why I need therapy.” Winking smile.
There is a lot to unpack there. But my nonprofessional—and yet highly informed—opinion is that The Rock’s relationship to his own vulnerability (i.e. femininity) is inextricably tied to the insane project of his body. They are two sides of the same coin and are both indispensable to his success. As Caity Weaver wrote in her GQ profile of The Rock, “For all the attention he’s earned as a hulking action star, Johnson’s best performances are in those funny roles where he can display flashes of vulnerability.” Where many men have built up muscles to squash any hint of their vulnerability, Johnson’s success is in maintaining a direct line to it, despite all that bulk.
Some of that vulnerability, no matter how reflective of his authentic personality, feels very savvily engineered in a brand-building way (his daughter ‘grams, for example, scream “family-friendly Disney blockbuster”). At other moments, though, it seems you’re catching an accidental glimpse of the messy, untamed need that drives him to be The Rock.
Consider this thing he does with fans, who routinely wait outside his movie sets until the wee hours of the morning with large cutouts of his face waiting for a selfie or autograph. He’ll take a video of himself slowly driving by, rolling down his window while barely stopping, and saying something like “I’m too tired” or “Nah, I don’t like fans.” Then he’ll stop the car, laugh his signature laugh, and say, “Let’s do it.” He has done this stunt over and over and over again—and those are just the times he posts about it to social media. The joke of it being that these fans might think, for just a moment, that he’s another celebrity jerk instead of an everyman.
If the poorly concealed spirit of The Rock’s Instagram account had a cinematic manifestation, it would be a scene in Central Intelligence—bear with me—in which his character is shown in flashback as an overweight teenage nerd who is pulled naked from the gym shower and thrown into the middle of a high school basketball game. That teenager transforms into a CIA agent whose t-shirts threaten to disintegrate from the strain of his bulging muscles. If you spend enough time with The Rock’s Instagram account, this is what you start to see and can’t forget. He is that teenage nerd looking for acceptance and love.
Just late last year, these were the words he jokingly used to describe himself as a kid: “the little brown, buck toothed boy with an afro who had features so soft people often mistook him for being a little girl.” What a punch to the gut. (One has to especially wonder about his frequent joking references to himself as “a big, brown, bald, tattooed” guy and just what purpose this repetitive “punchline” serves with white audiences.)
If you spend enough time with anyone’s Instagram account, you start to recognize their social media tics and the machinations behind their construction of self. Against their best efforts, the soft underbelly is revealed. But it’s uncanny when that someone is a celebrity of The Rock’s caliber. Consider the Instagram feed of Leonardo DiCaprio (with whom I have my own storied history of obsession). It’s a personality-less collection of National Geographic re-posts no doubt tended by a half-asleep personal assistant. Johnson, however, is the highest paid actor in Hollywood and not only is no one there to catch his two-dot ellipse, but no one is there to stop him from referring to wasabi as “wooosabi.” There is no one there to stop him from writing, “As per yoosh,” either.
When watching the sensitive tough guy shtick play out day-to-day on an unmediated Instagram account, as opposed to over the years via highly managed press junkets and summer blockbusters, it registers somewhat differently. I started to see the balancing act of it all: literally and figuratively building up big, scary muscles, and then neutralizing them with good-guy, family-friendly messaging. There’s something devastatingly Sisyphean about that kind of teetering, compensatory masculinity.
His frequent invocation of the whiskey emoji, and talk of “raising a glass” or making “it a double” or “another round to go please,” on the ‘gram began to feel less like entertainingly over-the-top macho swagger and more like part of the gasoline that helps fuel it. (Just the other week, he predictably announced via Instagram that he’s introducing his own brand of tequila.) The Rock’s relatable vulnerability may be essential to his big-screen appeal, but his social media tics reveal much too much of it. I started to feel complicit. My attraction, obsession, and fascination were troublingly implicated.
And yet, once again, there are my loins. His charisma, and traps, are far too big to ever lose me entirely. My fandom remains intact. But I do want to refer him to a really good therapist—or at least a social media manager. I’m available for hire.