RuPaul’s Drag Race spoiler fandom and queer temporal imagination
by Sean Donovan
2019’s iteration of the annual casting call for new drag queens eager to become “America’s Next Drag Superstar” on RuPaul’s Drag Race was announced on Monday December 2nd (Duffy 2019), with channel VH1 later confirming it will indeed air the competition’s thirteenth season at an unspecified date (Alter 2020). On Wednesday, December 9th 2020, almost a year later, season thirteen’s crop of new queens eager to compete for prestige, money, and viral meme opportunities were officially announced (Vary 2020). The queens numbered at thirteen, perfectly matching the age of RuPaul’s Drag Race on the air, at this point a bonafide reality television institution. Starting on a weekly basis on January 1st, 2021, the thirteenth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race will happen, as an indisputable fact of archived television history. But beyond the space of production, in the nebulous time between the confirmation of a new season casting search and the official cast announcement (which can take as long as a year) a version of RuPaul’s Drag Race season thirteen already happened, and happened in an ephemeral form, gradually and painstakingly taking shape as the result of fragmentary gossip and detective work in the forums of the social media platform Reddit. [open endnotes in new window]
|Brita enters the Werk Room in Drag Race season twelve. Minute variations are made to the Werk Room aesthetics every few seasons, while retaining the core concept of a design space for the queens to work and be remade in Ru’s image.||Since season 7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the ‘behind the scenes’ companion series Untucked, where the queens talk and stir drama with one another during judges’ deliberations, has taken place in a sound stage with little artificial set dressing. Prior to this the queens conversed in elegant lounges, often tied to specific product placement sponsors. Perhaps the producers are attempting to satisfy a growing fan desire to see beyond the flashy exterior of sequins and sparkle to something more ‘real.'|
In RuPaul’s Drag Race tradition, new drag queen competitors announce themselves with a catchphrase and a pose after arriving through a large pink doorway into the Werk Room. But on Reddit, the queens have already “arrived,” their fates minutely analyzed for months, their actual entrance and introduction amounting to nothing more than a symbolic confirmation of something already known. Online, the Werk Room entrance is recognized for what it is: an elaborate television narrative motif, which commands the curiosity of the spoiler fans less than the black industrial sound stage that surrounds an illusion of pink manufacturing. Reddit has emerged as the central meeting place of Drag Race’s passionate and motivated fandom. Here fan discussion, theories, viewing parties, and most intriguingly, spoilers of the television show to come, grow rapidly and define a key extension of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s textuality.
A reality competition show might be a surprising place to find a prodigious culture around spoiling. A show so demonstrably devoted to the joys of frivolity seems like an odd text for its fandom to attempt to outrun, unlock, and guess in advance. After all, Drag Race, like drag culture itself, covets the surprise, style, and panache of a well-timed reveal. But rather than ruining drag’s reveal, the proliferation of spoiler fans within the show’s online fan ecosystem showcases an additional way of relating to artifice and performance. The spoiler fans of Drag Race on Reddit (often called “Nancy Drews” in reference to the young female detective of literary fame) devote themselves to decoding and demystifying the happenings of RuPaul’s Drag Race before they are televised for the world to see. The material trace of drag fans’ obsession is evident here not in sparkle, glitter, and rhinestones, but in a networked consolidation of spreadsheets, social media links, charts, gossip, poor-quality photography from Drag Race sets, and other ephemera that is dissected and debated to create behind-the-scenes production narratives. Spoiler hunting is especially active before a season of Drag Race airs, a desire to be with the show as it unfolds in production time, rather than in its final polished form.
As of this writing in fall 2020, the spoiler hunting for season 13 is totally abuzz with activity. A wide group of Reddit users have almost unlocked an overall cast list made up of suspected queens who have taken prolonged social media breaks, spent lots of money on new outfits, or who seem otherwise prime Drag Race competitors. On the main thread for season 13 detective work, user warriorholmes comments on the supposed cast list:
“Excited for them all. Their lives are going to dramatically change next year once the Meet The Queens are released. Then they’ll start getting verified, thousands of follows/likes/comments, getting bombarded with attention. How cool <3.”
User asby responds to their comment with a slightly foreboding continuation: “And some will get bombarded with hate,” a reference to the notoriously toxic behavior often exhibited by Drag Race fans towards contestants deemed unlikable, often queens of BIPOC identities (u/NotRuPaul 2020).
The work of spoiling a queen’s participation in Drag Race ahead of time comes loaded with the knowledge, for the fans, that being cast in Drag Race constitutes a fundamental televisual transformation, creating a sharp distinction between a drag queen’s past and her future. RuPaul’s Drag Race is often described as a vehicle out to transform its contestants, capturing them in narrative arcs borne out of editing and story construction that emphasize progress, overcoming obstacles, and personal/professional development that they would never have reached had they not participated in the Race (Lovelock 2019, Yudelman 2017). With the dramatic arrival of a drag queen stepping through the threshold of a fake pink doorway, she finally “arrives” as a reality show star. These simple footsteps encode a progress narrative of queens having “made it,” out of drag bar obscurity, into the spotlight of national fame. This movement echoes the transformations RuPaul’s Drag Race has enabled as a whole. The show embodies queer culture and artistry that has successfully left the working-class underground and emerged popular and “for everyone,” on a major channel with corporate sponsorship, online notoriety, memes, and retweets. With these gains comes the threat of intimidating dangers, both in terms of hostility from normative “fans” and an increasing dilution of queer artistic practices.
Drag Race spoiler fandom centers directly on this animating tension of queerness on television by searching for the queen before she has access to a star-making medium. Fans may only know about these performers through their connections to a popular television brand, yet this spoiling endeavors to short-circuit this form of mediation, both embracing drag outside an increasingly proprietary context, and valuing a more modest drag done without the sheen of a television budget or the competitively ever-rising personal financial expense of Drag Race contestants. Spoilers here are a radical disruption of temporal order as it relates to media distribution. Elizabeth Freeman (2010) sees drag itself as already temporally marked—forming a connection between “queer performativity…[and] disavowed political histories” (65) both rooted in the “regression, delay, and the pull of the past on the present.” For this reason, drag may be interpreted literally as its other definition of stalled movement (62). If Drag Race has the powerful impact of creating “pre-Drag Race” and “post-Drag Race” signposts in the lives of its participants (and indeed, the art form of drag overall), spoiler fandom in this form of “meeting the queens” before they can be proprietarily “met” in exchange for VH1 advertising revenue, aims to relish in and extend the world of “pre-Drag Race” in a fleeting zone of ephemeral connection, mediated online.
|This image of Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, A’Keria Chanel Davenport, and Silky Nutmeg Ganache leaked to the spoiler reddit during the filming of season eleven. It is stamped with a watermark by JakeyonceTV, a notable Drag Race social media personality who hosts a YouTube recap series. This proprietary instinct to imprint images with the spoiler fan’s name who helped bring them to light evidences the competitive system of clout in the Drag Race spoiler fandom, with many fans eager to present themselves as the most informed and quickest Nancy Drew.||Laganja Estranja’s entrance through the Werk Room archway in season six, featured in all the trailers, and her introductory exclamation “Come on season six! Let’s get sickening!” was immediately iconic and set a kind of informal template for subsequent Werk Room entrances. Many queens in the following seasons sought to deploy catchphrases and make viral moments of their introductions on Drag Race.|
RuPaul’s Drag Race spoiler fans create a more and more rarefied position of informed spoiler knowledge that has intensified since the show’s beginning. The Nancy Drews’ spoiler investigations attempt to turn back the clock on the Werk Room entrance to find the queen waiting in the wings, fabulous and fascinating in her own right before Drag Race has announced her as “a star.” Implicit in this investigation is the ardent ambivalence of LGBTQ media consumers in the 21st century: enjoying newfound prominence and visibility on U.S. television screens, while questioning what has been lost and what the march of homonormative time has erased. The political implications therein are numerous, and include defending the working-class roots of drag artistry against the elite class of corporate entertainment capitalism that has hijacked and escalated its proprietary dimensions. Fans’ laborious quest for “the authentic queen” before the contamination of reality television, whether or not such a queen exists, displays a desire for socio-temporal reversibility, a “pre-making” of LGBTQ media culture forged with utopian potential. Online spoiler-fan social publics create this time machine, pre-making a television show that provides them communion with what queer culture was, or might have been, in close cohabitation with what queer culture is within a compromised media-scape.
Reddit’s Drag Race archives
In this study I locate the RuPaul’s Drag Race spoiler fandom principally within the culture of Reddit, both r/rupaulsdragrace and its spin-off exclusively devoted to spoiler discussion, r/SpoiledDragRace.
RuPaul’s Drag Race on Reddit occupies a complicated ecosystem of interlocking subreddits. Various communities besides the two under investigation here thrive with constant traffic, including a subreddit devoted to scandal and inter-personal drama within the Drag Race community, as well as various groups devoted to different meta-discourses on Reddit fan activity. In 2018, Drag Race was declared the most popular television show on Reddit, edging out the previous holder of that title, HBO’s mega-hit Game of Thrones (Nolfi 2018). As of this writing, the main Drag Race Reddit has 387,161 subscribers, while r/SpoiledDragRace has 59,871, though users are not required to “subscribe” in order to read and comment, meaning the traffic and readership is realistically much larger. The majority of my research was conducted through a discursive and textual analysis of r/SpoiledDragRace during the lead-up to both the fourth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars (premiering on December 14, 2018) and the eleventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race proper (premiering on February 28, 2019).
Throughout this time, I was a quiet user on the site, participating on occasion but primarily spectating as spoiler information was compiled, debated, disseminated, and organized. My familiarity with the structure and rituals of Drag Race spoiler fan cultures came from before this time period, and my awareness of the fervent activity around the show inspired this project. I singled out threads for particularly devoted attention that related to “spoiled” casting information and speculation on the queens ahead of seasons’ airdates. Over this time, active users demonstrated patterns of passionate archiving and creation. I myself am the ambivalent fan characterized in this study, in a push/pull relation with a complicated television program. My own positionality within that framework lends me added insight into the textual dynamics and networks of Drag Race’s ambivalent fandom.
A landing place for Reddit’s renegade outlaw Drag Race spoilers, r/SpoiledDragRace was formed after a lawsuit against episode information leaks in the fandom’s primary Reddit, r/rupaulsdragrace, instituted a harsh crackdown on any content in danger of violating intellectual property laws. The lawsuit came about in February 2018, during the airing of the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, which was the second season of the Drag Race empire to air on mainstream-facing basic-cable VH1 over its original LGBTQ-specific niche-cable network LOGO (Tracer 2018). Though it would be inaccurate to suggest Drag Race “sold out” to normative audiences in its move to VH1—the show was always mainstream-facing, rarely controversial, and ambitious in recruiting new audiences, even before the move—the show’s new home almost certainly came with increased security around Drag Race as a financial asset for VH1’s parent company Viacom. As a result, Reddit’s traffic of fresh-from-set spoiled information became more forbidden. With these affective energies of danger, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s spoiler fans’ migration to their own subreddit intensifies the forbidden compulsion of the labor, now that the act has a clear criminal valence.
The techniques of spoiling have remained consistent from the initial Reddit to r/SpoiledDragRace. Uniquely compelling, Drag Race spoiler fans sort through a huge avalanche of data to determine who the participating queens are on each season before the cast list is officially announced. Drag Race Reddit users frequently speak of an on-season and an off-season to the site’s flows: On-season is when Drag Race is airing, and the community is dominated by thoughts, debates, reactions to each week’s episode. Off-season is when a smaller band of super-fans continue to post religiously and engage in the more dedicated spoiler-work: gossip around town, queens that are rumored to be on the show, multiple nightclub show cancellations that seem to reflect a similar block of time queens needed “off,” etc.. These investigations proceed in real time, often with the thrill of a live event as updates pour in, with heavy social capital allotted to the users that demonstrate the freshest connection to new Drag Race information. The affective charge of this environment has a lot to do with the online meta-cultural value of “firstness,” analyzed by Devon Powers (2017), that becomes more and more of a premium in the age of recursivity and boundless access to information that the Internet provides. Rumors are interrogated with voracious intensity, as users often become suspected as plants by the show’s producers specifically to mislead the spoiler fandom.
Users also post fake spoilers purely for the pleasure of feeling like the most informed Nancy Drew. On July 17, 2018, user byrnesbigsuit posted a supposed eyewitness account of the filming of the first episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season four that laid out a detailed scenario where underdog contestants Jasmine Masters, Farrah Moan, and Gia Gunn emerged the winners of the episode (ultimately, once the program aired, these were revealed as the first three queens eliminated). Quickly, the intelligence was disseminated online and thrilled the spoiler fandom. The following morning, presumably after a bleary-eyed internet hangover, u/byrnesbigsuit returned to r/SpoiledDragRace and fully admitted to constructing the narrative with no basis in reality. Most users expressed frustration, with a sense of humor at u/byrnesbigsuit’s open candor. User banjie_vanjie commented, “Guurl you have to admit that it was very well written” (u/valiismyname 2018). Very rarely are users so open in their deception, forgeries and tall tales—recognized only months later in the airing of the actual episodes. This ephemeral case reveals many kinds of pleasure operating around Drag Race’s spoiler fandom, fans momentarily delighting in a “well written” narrative of drag competition. A user praising a would-be spoiler for its writing exposes tensions within the fandom between a desire for classic television narrative—one that feels familiar—and the hunt for the elusive raw data that would, ideally, defy such expectation. The phenomenon of fake spoilers also showcases the draw of the community as an end unto itself. Here the goal was not to perfectly anticipate the show, but rather to claim a unique insider status within the Drag Race spoiler kingdom.