Deducing a Drag Race season’s cast begins with a massive Google Spreadsheet of all the drag queens in the United States, or as many as users are able to track.
These drag queens are then investigated meticulously by the membership: if they are performing, if they auditioned for Drag Race, etc.. Some drag queens make their casting more apparent than others. Season nine’s Nina Bo’Nina Brown had posted her audition video every year after she had been turned down for a spot; her silence in the summer of 2016 was very telling. Season ten’s Yuhua Hamasaki’s sudden drop in Twitter activity, and her abrupt return in October 2017 with the tweet, “I don't know why everyone keeps saying ‘Congrats’ to me for. I was in a fucking coma. Ya'll really want me dead or something?” equally seemed to sarcastically advertise her casting in big bold letters (Hamasaki 2017). With big hints like this, and an accumulation of little ones, the Nancy Drews are able to whittle the immense Google Spreadsheet down to a list of about 30, and following that a list of about 14, more or less the number Drag Race typically casts.
This final list of 14 is a longer Reddit thread with links to performances, ephemeral video presentations of the queen, tweets or social media moments that seem particularly evocative of a personality, and lovingly written paragraphs hyping the queen as a competitor (these will be explored later as archival documents). Occasionally one queen is missed or one is guessed incorrectly, but overall the Nancy Drews’ methodologies have been proven successful many times over.
Besides the large-scale casting investigation, the Nancy Drews engage in some other spoiler-detection strategies that find occasional use. Often users create what are called “outfit charts” once a season’s promotional material (trailers, TV spots, clips, etc.) are released. In a chart format, screenshots of looks of each of the queens are arranged to see who claims the most variation in outfits presented, the assumption being more looks equals a longer duration in the competition. This doubles as a game of guessing the themes for each Drag Race season’s runways, as spoiler fans work to elucidate which outfits work together as part of a potential shared assignment. Drag Race’s advertising team seems to have gotten wise to this strategy, as the outfit charts have become less effective predictors in recent years, promotional materials using clips only from the first few episodes of an advertised season.
Elsewhere, the first few episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season four were spoiled by a fan with access to closed captioning files. For this spoiler fans poured over computerized sheets of text almost resembling binary code, as if generating sparkling drag out of institutionalized media mechanics.
All this fan labor amounts to a massive and impressive fan archive that institutes practices carried over season-to-season, lending spoiler fandom a concrete mechanics. Abigail De Kosnik (2016) unpacks the creative work of fan archives in her book Rogue Archives: Digital Memory and Media Fandom. De Kosnik describes the role of digital media as loosening the reins on regimes of information and knowledge, allowing the idea of an archive to exist in varied forms serving various populations, including fans, whose attachments are often denigrated as without substance and ephemeral. Cultures of memory and preservation have been forever shifted by the ease of networked archives, in ways that have changed the very temporality of fandom and memory. De Kosnik elaborates:
“Cultural memory has…gone rogue with respect to its own temporality, its own place in the order and timing of things…In the past, the chain of media production appeared to conclude with the culture industries’ distribution of a finished product. At present, each media commodity becomes, at the instant of its release, an archive to be plundered, an original to be memorized, copied, and manipulated- a starting point or springboard for the receivers’ creativity, rather than an end unto itself…Memory has gone rogue in the sense that it has come loose from its fixed place in the production cycle. It now may be found anywhere, or everywhere, in the chain of making.” (4)
Rather than receiving the finished product of RuPaul’s Drag Race and allowing its fan-relationships to spiral from there, r/SpoiledDragRace is a very literal rogue archive in its disruption of the dominant media production cycle, enfolding and memorizing a kind of ephemera usually “too early” for consumption. Not only are Reddit Nancy Drews their own active producers; their production confounds a traditional temporality of textual construction and the authority of its makers therein. Spoiler fandoms continue the work of LGBTQ fan spaces in building community through the queer potential of a text (see Lothian 2018) with this uniquely direct subversion of authority—seeking out the text and arranging it in advance of its debut. The potential of spoiler fandom, therefore, is a richly queer exploration of different kinds of fan/media relationships.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has symbolically sought to control information and retain a presence as an entity ahead of fan prediction, epitomized by the show’s characterization of a contestant of the seventh season, Sasha Belle. A footnote amongst Drag Race’s prodigiously fabulous alumni, Belle is nonetheless an instructive example of how Drag Race the televisual narrative production responds to queens who claim to “know” what Drag Race is more thoroughly than Drag Race itself. Belle had an extremely short run on the program, losing a lip sync to Katya in the second episode, eliminating her from the competition. Lacking even the mystery and tragedy of being the first queen to “sashay away” in elimination, the second-to-last placement has doomed many Drag Race contestants to obscurity. Sasha Belle is narrativized within her minimal season screen-time with a mocking tone, characterized by the show’s production and editing teams as a Drag Race super-fan who had, in her words, “cracked the code” on how to win the competition through intensive study and fandom. Her detailed knowledge didn’t prove helpful at the site of RuPaul’s Drag Race proper;the queen was eliminated in a clumsily oversized blonde wig with a dejected whine of “I think I overthunk my strategy…” as she packed her bags (“Glamazonian Airways”). Sasha Belle was immortalized in RuPaul’s Drag Race spoiler fan communities, where her name and propensity for code-cracking, however ineffectual, adorned a frequent discussion thread on r/SpoiledDragRace used for new theories and speculation: “Dear diary... it's me, Sasha Belle & I cracked the code.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race’s illustration of Sasha Belle’s detailed fan enthusiasm as laughably ineffectual supported its own desire to be seen as an unpredictable, twisting and turning reality television roller coaster, whose fans couldn’t hope to get ahead of its plotting. The folly of Sasha Belle, clumsy code-cracker, sought to prove the outright authority of Drag Race over its fandom, and by extension, over drag, an art form that RuPaul alone can judge (as is her usual script, “The decision is mine to make”).
Michael Shetina (2018) studied this phenomenon in the cultural content of Drag Race’s challenges, and how they function to place the show in a position of ownership over queer culture, deciding what pop culture references and elements are sufficiently part of a queer canon. Staples of the program, such as “the Snatch Game,” a parody of the game show The Match Game, look to operationalize the contents of the queer cultural canon, elevate Drag Race as a community historian, and reinforce “citations [that] do not produce a democratic archive but rather a hierarchical terrain that elevates forms of knowledge while excluding others,” most often valuing a cis white gay male perspective over a larger LGBTQ worldview (147). Citations gesture towards archives of knowledge which in turn contour publics and their resulting social membership, instituting hierarchies that position the citer at the very top. r/SpoiledDragRace in this way bears a sense of radical potential as a counter-archive, interrupting WOW’s favored flow of citation, from queens to production to the fans, and cutting out the middle man’s industrial gatekeeping.
Pre-making: the queer art of spoiling
To be part of a fandom doesn’t necessarily mean enjoying a media text on the exact terms as its producers have crafted it. Spoilers, advance knowledge of key story information, suggest in their basic etymological construction a betrayal or ruining of the mechanics of storytelling, a mechanics that fans would, supposedly, seek to maintain. While traditional principles of narrative imply a heft of viewer pleasure resides in surprise, mystery, and questioning, the clash of spoiler hunting and media fandom necessitates a more refined approach to understanding the role of spoilers within media.  [open endnotes in new window]
Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell, in their 2007 article on spoilers, centered their work on the television program Lost and let its spoiler fandom speak as a creative extension of the show’s allure. Because Lost is an intricate mystery with layers of story to unlock, its fandom is seen as detectives, plumbing
“a complex apparatus of conspiracy and mystery…to demonstrate their collective intelligence in action, charting relationships, creating maps, and decoding minute clues on discussion boards, wikis, and blogs.”
Spoilers become the holy grail of detective work, intimately wed to the processes of investigation that Lost is already encouraging as a mystery. Gray and Mittell specify four hypotheses of viewer pleasure in spoilers: spoilers as game (a race to get to knowledge the fastest), spoilers as anti-fandom (an act of destroying the intended surprises of the show), spoilers as community, and spoilers as entertainment (these latter two emphasizing the lure of fan spaces over the show itself). These read as four hypothetical breeds of “spoiler fans,” a term Gray and Mittell specifically coin that I continue to use in this study.
Gray and Mittell emphasize the practice of spoiling as a way fans “take control of their pleasures and customize their narrative experience to fulfill their fan desires.” The tone is slightly condescending. In their audience survey, Gray and Mittell note the negative perceptions of spoiler fans, chief among them the image of a childish viewer who cannot stand to wait for amusement. The authors cannot help falling into that cliché themselves when they conclude, “Spoiler fans attempt to eliminate their undesirable anticipation…,” framing impatience as a primary motivator.
The spoiler fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race leave this paradigm altogether and operate on another. Implicit in their spoiler-labor is a skepticism of the veracity of the final image a text offers. Rather than impatience, spoiler-labor in RuPaul’s Drag Race fan communities functions as the means of enjoying the barest skeleton of a Drag Race text, relishing queer opacity before it is blown off the map by the authority of a visual image. The genre distinction between Lost’s fictional sci-fi mystery and reality competition television no doubt enables this nuance.
Jonathan Gray (2010) refines this work in his later book Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. Delving more deeply into the world of “paratext”—fan culture, promotional materials, and other texts alongside a primary media object bolstering and transforming its culture life–Gray re-contextualizes the way spoilers are written about. Gray writes:
"…some fans recount the experience of falling more heavily for a text’s fan discussion site than for the text itself. If today’s television and film paratextuality extends the horizons of the narrative universe well beyond what ‘the text itself’ offers, surely some audience members will find that the universe is more interesting at its horizons. In such cases, these audience members may still consider themselves fans or at least viewers of the text, but here rather than simply modify or inflect the text, the paratexts may in time become the text, as the audience members take their cues regarding what a text means from the paratext’s images, signs, symbols, and words, rather than from the film or program’s." (46)
Such a process occurs with RuPaul’s Drag Race’s fandom. Whereas Gray and Mittell’s original article on spoilers connected everything back to the text itself as the ultimate arbiter and point of focus, here Gray extrapolates from the suggestions of “spoilers as community” to indicate a new power shift entirely away from the text. Although still participating in a network of meaning with the text itself, spoiler fandoms as paratexts “extend the horizon” and so doing, transform the text at the center of fan labor. The fierce loyalty the RuPaul’s Drag Race Reddit commands at all times of the year, regardless if the show is on or not, proves the vitality of a paratextual community.