Welcome to the ‘bubbles’ issue of M/C Journal.
When we first pitched the idea of ‘bubbles’ for an issue of M/C Journal it was 2019, several months before COVID-19 was identified in Wuhan, China, and the resulting pandemic that brought the term ‘bubble’ to prominence in ways we had not even imagined. Our pre-pandemic line of enquiry focussed on how bubbles manifested themselves within popular culture and society and how the media reported on these concepts. Thinking about bubbles from bubbly champagne to the ‘political bubble’ we asked researchers to think about the ephemeral nature of bubbles. And indeed some of the articles in this edition reflect this original line of enquiry.
COVID-19 however brought to us a whole new meaning of bubbles. Suddenly governments were urging people to ‘stay in their bubbles’ and, in Australia, the idea of ‘travel bubbles’ between countries with similarly low rates of COVID-19 emerged. Mary-Louise McLaws described the ‘germ bubble’ as those we don’t physically distance from, our close contacts. A year ago – in March 2020 – the global community began to exist within a restricted bubble that limited our contact with the wider world. For the most part, that bubble remains 12 months later. Some of the articles for this issue focus on the ways COVID-19 has brought new bubbles to our social and political landscape.
Despite the recent prominence of COVID-19, the feature article tackles another bubble that has continued to dominate headlines in Australia. Angelika Heurich and Jo Coghlan examine the ‘Canberra Bubble’ – a toxic culture of sexualised, bullying, hyper-masculinity, that seeks to silence and discredit those who speak out, operating in ways out of line with modern Australia and workplace laws. From claims of rape against the Attorney-General to a Prime Minister who failed to even read the complaint against the highest law officer in Australia, to Brittany Higgins being called a “lying cow” and Grace Tame’s forensic analysis of Morrison’s lack of conscience, Australia’s #MeToo moment threatens to bring down a government.
The ‘Canberra Bubble’ may have been the Australian word of the year in 2018, argue Fincina Hopgood and Jodi Brooks, but 2020 belonged to the COVID-19 bubble. Their article takes stock on how the words ‘iso’ and ‘bubble’ came to prominence as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It follows up with an examination on how the COVID-19 bubble is conceived across different cohorts, and in particular for those of the fourth age – the older generation. The COVID-19 pandemic brought into relief another long-term political and social problem in Australia, how Australians of are taken care of in their twilight years. Hopgood and Brooks interrogate how, despite a Royal Commission into the running of aged care homes that recommended change, the pandemic exacerbated the vulnerability of people in aged care homes.
For governments to effectively manage COVID-19 bubbles, they need to rely on pre-existing relationships with the publics they represent. Xiang Gao’s article investigates the role social capital has played in the ability for different governments to manage the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It critically examines how pre-existing social capital has enabled governments to effectively establish social distancing measures and household ‘bubbles’. Examining these concepts in the Chinese and American contexts, Gao finds that the governmental responses to the pandemic were not only reliant on established social capital, but have also changed the relationship between governments and publics.
With the USA, Brazil shared the dubious honour of being widely criticised for the governmental response to the pandemic. Filipe Soares and Raquel Recuero tackle the political media landscape of reporting on COVID-19 in Brazil. They interrogate the role of the Brazilian media in the promotion of disinformation around the pandemic through three media case studies, finding that the intersection between traditional mass media and social media can exacerbate erroneous reporting.
Managing the pandemic did not solely focus on the need to protect certain populations. Many governments highlighted the need for economic activities to continue. For commercial sports which already existed within a ‘sporting bubble’, the COVID-19 pandemic brought another bubble to the rarefied world of professional sports. The creation of a ‘sporting bubble’ enjoyed wide support from both political and media commentators. Adele Pavlidis and David Rowe consider the social effects of the creation of the ‘sporting bubble’ had both on those who found themselves inside, and on those who were left out. While at times the bubble could feel more like a cage, transgressions by sporting personalities often went unpunished. Further, the ‘sporting bubble’ was highly gendered, with those inside the bubble being predominantly men, which served to intensified pre-existing gender inequalities within professional sports.
For those on the outside of the political mainstream, the Canberra bubble can appear to be an impervious boundary to cross. Bronwyn Fredericks and Abraham Bradfield argue that The Uluru Statement of the Heart was treated by politicians as little more than a ‘thought bubble’, destined to disintegrate into nothing, despite it being a culmination of numerous voices within Australian society. Recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution is a measure that enjoys wide support across the Australian community, yet this has not led to meaningful action. Fredericks and Bradfield examine the various contemporary and historical factors that have led to the slow progress on this fundamental and important issue.
History has a strong bearing on how we understand social and political matters today. Within popular culture, history provides a rich seam of stories for entertainment, both factual and fictional. Fictional versions of history necessarily blur the lines between reality and fantasy. How history is mediated through fiction is the focus of Lisa J. Hackett and Jo Coghlan’s article. Based upon an international survey carried out amongst historical romance authors and readers, it asked if historical accuracy in fiction matters. It finds that there exists a ‘dance of history and fiction’ that posit that our past can be animated by fiction writers and our historians can bring to life our pasts. It is in the intersections of the ‘historical bubble’ and the ‘fiction bubble’ that we can reflect on the past in meaningful ways that inform our social understanding of the past, its people and practices.
Disney heroines are some of the most recognisable romantic fiction characters, often inhabiting a world of magic and true love with charming princes and wicked stepmothers. Yet the heroines' and villains' true natures are often revealed through a physical transformation that Amanda Rutherford and Sarah Baker argue is problematic for the often young audiences who watch these films. Despite story lines that promise more progressive iterations of worthiness, a homogenous physical beauty dominates the ‘princess bubble’. For readers, much like those of historical romance novels, such representations can be hegemonic and hide the patriarchal nature of modern society.
While bubbles can often represent closed-in worlds, other bubbles are synonymous with exuberance and fun. The next two articles take their inspiration from frothy champagne bubbles. The first by Anna-Mari Almila examines the history of champagne and how its iconic bubbles were both created and came to be an integral symbol of celebration. It notes how champagne makers are often in dialogue with wider popular culture elements in creating and maintaining meanings associated with the drink.
Jenny Wise and Lesley McLean turn their attention to the a specific Australian bubbly brand, Treasury Wines, and how it has positioned its 19 Crimes label, which uses the images of Australian convicts on its bottles to create a unique identity. Whilst ostensibly a celebration of Australia’s convict past, the way this brand ‘celebrates’ the sometimes dark crimes of real criminals suggest a socially acceptable romanticisation of Australia’s past.
We close this special edition with Greg Melleuish’s thoughtful essay on the fragility of modern society. Just as in the past when we sought permanence in the face of disease and war again we seek stability in the face of pandemics and climate change, even though we know the ‘bubble’ will burst. Humans have a history of attempting to control change. Our ‘plastic nature’ allows us to adapt to the impermanence of life while we yearn for that which is constant and unchanging. We turn to words to find permanence, claiming their meaning as universal, but even meanings are contested and hence transient. Our pragmatic search for stability, even in a period of prosperity and infinite peace, is worthy, but hanging over us is the Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ bubble in which zombies and pandemics threaten our social being. While in part a dire warning for the future, we are reminded that the bubble of modern life is to be cherished.