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]
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.
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 season 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.
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. 
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.
Nancy Drews work to get ahold of the knowledge of Drag Race contestants before they appear legible within the space of a commodified, assimilationist television show; the ultimate spoiler. This rare and difficult to detect “before” (when a queen is cast, filming, and then waiting for the show to air) feeds off of an increasingly mythical, over-valorized queer past. José Esteban Muñoz (2009) describes queer utopianism as “a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present” (1), and he locates it within texts stemming from “before, around, and slightly after the Stonewall rebellion of 1969” (3). This utopian spirit often looks backward, finding optimism in the queerness of the past: a mythical affective zone that is also a powerful community rallying point. The search for the spoiled Drag Race “before” emanates from the same need for queer utopianism Muñoz describes. The present’s “quagmire” often takes the shape of “pragmatic gay politics” stunting queer imaginations with neoliberal and privatizing institutions such as marriage (32). I would argue, this quaqmire is also felt as the momentum and exhaustion of a reality competition series endlessly churning out reproductions of a queer identity increasingly distant from its roots in radical, working class, and queer of color communities. What is the utopian promise of drag queens before Drag Race gets to them?
Gray’s “horizon of meaning” is certainly not the same as Muñoz’s “warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality” (1). Yet both are defined by a lack of fulfillment with the boundaries of a presented text, and an activating current that looks to move beyond it. The online fan publics are an investigatory practice determined to “know” these queens before the series tells us (and the queen themselves) who they are and what they will become. When drag itself is a time machine, spoiler fandom works in an effort to reanimate the challenge of time within Drag Race’s glossily non-confrontational product. For spoiler fans, spoiling is part of a queer practice of reading around reality television edits, contested representation, and media branding to mainstream audiences, in hopeful search of the “drag” queer past maintains on the present.
“Early” is the affective incubation of spoiler fandom, a meld of “live” and “first” that proves inviting in forming online social publics. I describe this spoiler-work as “pre-making,” the use of spoilers to chart out a contra-text invested in a utopian imagining of a fandom’s central text that is markedly distinct from the one producers are ultimately sure to create. Spoilers deny the authority of a production company’s vision, and time-travel through fan relationality to a nebulous space of queer opacity that is able to dream beyond the confines of political foreclosure. This is coincident with an increasing alienation and skepticism with the “reality” being presented within reality television.
Spoilers typically occupy a temporality of “what will happen,” emphasizing a future media text revelation on the horizon. In reality show spoiler fandoms the more precise phrasing would be something like “what will have already happened.” In the particular culture of Drag Race spoiler fandoms—with their skepticism and disassociation from the central text as authority—this specifies further to multiple temporalities: “what could have happened” and “what would have happened,” conditional temporalities premised on the inherent unfaithfulness of Drag Race as a representational platform. These temporalities are intensely combined with pre- and post-Drag Race contexts of political weight, temporalities open to revision, pre-making, and creative elaboration.
Case study: A’Keria Chanel Davenport, season eleven
Some of the richest sites of pre-making on r/SpoiledDragRace are the written elaborations of queens’ identities prior to any confirmation of their casting by Drag Race’s producers. Created in the cycle of decoding a new cast, these “Get to know…” posts add color to unknown queens’ profiles and extensively archive available videos of their performances, as well as other social media ephemera that gives some sense of their glamour, artistry, and personality. For seasons 10 and 11, these compilations were spear-headed by one user, leonoretta, who looms large enough in the community the subsequent season 12 “Get to know…” post claimed to be “Inspired by the posts u/Leonoretta used to make” (u/Grotesquette 2019). While initially written by u/leonoretta, the posts become community documents edited and elaborated upon by other users at their request.
The season 11 “Get to know…” post appeared on r/SpoiledDragRace on Sunday July 22nd 2018, a sizable six months ahead of the official announcement of the season 11 cast on January 24 2019, and its television debut in February (Nolfi 2019). The queens’ descriptions are written with a great deal of affection and anticipation, while retaining a slight neutrality and openness to how she will fare in the competition. For example, u/leonoretta’s description of A’Keria Chanel Davenport reads:
“Texas pageant drag at its finest, A’Keria—or The Ruler, as she frequently calls herself—serves incredibly tight lipsync, polished over-the-top drag looks and a lot of poise. Having Armani Nicole Davenport as her mother, she’s linked to Kennedy and Sahara [drag race contestants from seasons 7 and 2 respectively] as their drag niece and specializes in slow, controlled R&B numbers. Some of her titles include Miss Black Universe and Miss International Vogue. She’s made a drag career for herself in Dallas and has recently moved to Houston.” (u/leonoretta 2019)
This short biography for Davenport begins to pre-make a queenly identity worth celebrating, even suggesting directions that were not ultimately explored in RuPaul’s Drag Race (for instance, Davenport’s specialization in “slow, controlled R&B numbers” was never addressed on Drag Race, despite her making it all the way to the top four finalists). Davenport was the hit of the post, garnering the most comments from Reddit users anticipating her arrival to Drag Race. The most up-voted comment on the post quoted her self-given nickname “The Ruler” with the simple hearty affirmation “Oh, work, bitch.” Davenport’s bold claiming of “The Ruler” was another element left out of her Drag Race tenure, giving this pre-making aggregate a bombastic royalty more provocative and confrontational than the “perfect pageant queen” made manifest in Drag Race’s narrative universe. Hardly “the ruler,” in the text of RuPaul’s Drag Race season eleven itself, Davenport was frequently minimized in screen-time in favor of bigger personalities and queens more central to the season’s competitive and backstage in-fighting storylines.
Though the prose may be relatively direct and unadorned, the excess of these spoiler compilations comes through in their archiving of links to performances and videos online: exhaustive and thorough for performers with little public visibility. Included in Davenport’s entry are links to fourteen lip sync performance videos, including one to “Window Seat” by Erykah Badu from 2011, eight years prior to Davenport’s eventual reality television debut. The “Window Seat” video is difficult to watch, the sound a clumsy haze of feedback under which Erykah Badu is barely audible. Impacting the sound too is the loud screams of adoration from Davenport’s fans, the love breaking barriers of mediated clarity. The setting is a small theatrical club environment, over-lit with an intense spotlight, with piles of balloons on either side of Davenport. The queen struggles with a botched outfit reveal, her dress sticking clumsily to a bikini underneath. The handheld camera wanders haphazardly as Davenport searches for tips from distracted customers first in the front rows and then back around the perimeters of her audience. Both the visuals and audio a blur, A’Keria is barely visible at times: a shape stretching and contorting to the distorted vocals of Erykah Badu (“Akeria Davenport *Window Seat* 4/3/2011”). Yet this performance sits archived with the rest of season eleven’s drag ephemera found scattering the internet prior to the contestants’ legible fame as reality television stars.
Far from the production sheen of a completed Drag Race season, the video suggests a modest drag put on under mundane strain and difficulty, the basic hardships of queer performance victories unto themselves. Unlike Drag Race, which modifies to new technological and entertainment industry standards every year, videos like Davenport’s “Window Seat” performance are almost radically timely, subject to immediate obsolescence. The archiving and love displayed for small-scale drag performances like these, presented as spoilers to a reality television product, promote an affective network of remembering and pre-making, radically raggedy in the face of an intimidating capitalist franchise. For RuPaul’s Drag Race fans, spoiling is both the sneak preview and the return to a more antique and idiosyncratic practice of drag, a queer mobility through time.
For fans eager to support black drag queens amidst the foreboding anticipation of a fandom known to be racist, this early praise of A’Keria Chanel Davenport is equally a chance to assert anti-racist queer of color love and community. The ephemeral evidence of Davenport’s pre-Drag Race fabulousness evokes Tavia Nyong’o (2019)’s concept of afro-fabulation, a “theory and practice of black time and temporality” in queer black visual art that finds within archival evidence of the mundane and everyday “a black feminist and queer repository of counter-conduct, finding in collective memory an ever-renewing series of stratagems for aesthetic oppositionality.” The “Window Seat” video, endowed with contexts of value beyond its original intention, is an example of this process. While Nyong’o is clear not to claim moments of afro-fabulation as “decisive act[s] of agency,” they stand in complication of a textual logic that is “already false” and operating under anti-black systems of power (5-6). One of A’Keria Chanel Davenport’s other popular performances amongst the Reddit commenters was a lipsync to Ella Fitzgerald’s “Air Mail Special,” a jazz track with heavy vocal scatting that would have little value as a Drag Race lipsync song, the Drag Race catalog dominated by contemporary pop hits coordinated with larger industry viability, and frequently by guest stars there to promote their own albums. In this case, the compilation quite literally foregrounds the past, and queer of color affection for icons of black women’s history, and defies the present.
A’Keria Chanel Davenport would ultimately walk through the pink archway onto the Drag Race set, posed and armed with a quick and catchy introductory line: "Oh yes, it's me: Miss A'keria D-A-V-E-N-P-O-R, and as you can see, I'm the motherfucking T.” On season 11, Davenport would represent a standard of pageant perfection thoroughly intimidating and free of any blemishes. But the past and its remembrances poses a threat, as Elizabeth Freeman reminds us in Time Binds, writing of “the interesting threat that the genuine past-ness of the past- its opacity and illegibility, its stonewalling in the face of our most cherished theoretical paradigms- sometimes makes to the political present” (63). The past A’Keria, cherished and adored in an act of pre-making by spoiler-fan communities, comes with a conceptualization of drag in tow not on a progress narrative trajectory, but rather a challengingly beloved mundanity. A’Keria Chanel Davenport the pre-made aggregate might be a lot freer and more comfortable than her Drag Race production equivalent. Pageantry “spoiled,” yet deified.
Two days after the posting of the “Get to know…” compilation, A’Keria Chanel Davenport posted an image to her Instagram. Three simple lines of text, the post read:
“2016: The Caterpillar
2017: The Cocoon
2018: The Butterfly”
For any Drag Race fans on Reddit having just collected a new queen to obsess over Davenport’s Instagram post reinforced the looming temporal narrative suggesting personal transformation: from club queen to superstar. But for those who met A’Keria early through the queer art of spoiling, the authority of that forward-moving narrative is loosened, and looks back on caterpillar and cocoon before the butterfly (mizakeriachanel 2018).
A sinking pride boat: ambivalence and utopia
As season seven Drag Race contestant Jasmine Masters once famously stated, “RuPaul’s Drag Race has fucked up drag.” Although Masters was referring principally to the aesthetics of drag queens since RuPaul’s Drag Race’s debut, the statement endures as a fandom-wide calling card for the violence, social and political, perpetrated in the wake of the show’s success. For fans both spoiled and not, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race often means sorting through a wealth of problematic and disappointing material. The detective work of the Nancy Drews takes on a more politically weighted valence when confronted with the series’ cruelties and political violence. The political cruelties frequently adjoining a season of Drag Race can function as a production of distance between the fandom and the show’s creators, potentially intensifying spoiler fans’ quest to pre-make the series and view it apart from its post-production gloss and manipulation. Without suggesting that every spoiler fan acts out of political objection to Drag Race, I mean to emphasize the growing distance and skepticism between the fandom and the series itself, a movement roughly simultaneous with the growth of online spoiler communities.
Bringing to light the transphobia and other political violences of RuPaul’s Drag Race becomes a fan activity similarly constituted to the hunt for spoilers; rumor and gossip with ethical heft. Both defang the authority of the program, either as a reality show with secrets or a homonormative poster child for new forms of LGBTQ acceptance. Being “informed” as a Drag Race fan doesn’t only mean a knowledge of spoilers—it refers to an awareness of in-community knowledge threads about the show and its participants’ limitations, as a contextualization of what it means to be a “fan” with some qualifications. These following revelations, which circulate on fan Reddits the same way spoiled information does, define the ambivalence of parts of the Drag Race fandom, an ambivalence opened and supported by online channels of fan communication.
The transphobic views of RuPaul, the supposedly warm and welcoming mother of the franchise itself, are a frequent cause of concern and distrust amongst the fandom. A series of transphobic events notably rocked RuPaul’s Drag Race during the show’s sixth season in 2014. A mini-challenge titled “Female or Shemale?,” where drag queens judged hairlines, breasts, and clothed genitalia, among other body parts, up-close to decide if they belonged to a cis woman or a drag queen, immediately offended many trans viewers. This controversy spilled over into a debate on Twitter about RuPaul’s use of words such as “shemale” or “tranny,” both obscenities frequently aimed at the trans community, an identity RuPaul does not share. RuPaul insisted on his right to use the words, identifying those offended as “fringe people who are looking for story lines to strengthen their identity as victims,” adding “don’t you dare tell me what I can do or say.” Season six runner-up Courtney Act, finished with filming and obligations to the show at that point, entered the conversation with a more measured response, urging RuPaul to actually listen to trans voices rather than condescend to them. Equally, she joined the dissenters protesting the “Female or Shemale” mini-challenge, acts that together got her blocked across all of RuPaul’s social media platforms, with rumors ever-generating about fights between the two (Harbour 2014). This controversy later resulted in the series' dismissal of the catchphrase “You’ve Got She-Mail!,” used by RuPaul to first address the queens in each episode (Duffy 2015). The entire “Female or Shemale” segment has been scrubbed from digital and streaming files of the original episode on legal sites, although rogue archives continue to possess it, in defiance of Drag Race’s authority of information.
Transphobia from RuPaul and RuPaul’s Drag Race re-ignited in 2018 when, in an interview with The Guardian, RuPaul stated he would not allow trans queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race if they had pursued any kind of medical transition. These statements were particularly hurtful and confusing in light of the success of Peppermint, an out trans woman and drag queen who had been the runner-up on what was then the most recent season of Drag Race, with her exact medical transition status not a matter of clear public information (as it often is not, pointing to the irrational transphobia motivating RuPaul’s remarks). The story quickly going viral and inciting anger throughout the fandom and beyond, RuPaul re-affirmed his remarks tweeting “You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics.” This time more people involved with the show took deliberate steps to distance themselves from RuPaul, including judge Michelle Visage, then-current-reigning winner Sasha Velour, and the numerous contestants who had come out as trans since appearing on the show, including season four’s Jiggly Caliente (Mulkerin 2018). Drag artistry has its roots in the cultures of both trans women and cis gay men. RuPaul’s transphobia epitomizes the effort by cis gay men to take proprietary ownership over drag, away from trans women, in the late twentieth century. RuPaul’s Drag Race perpetuates the false historicism of drag as a cis gay male art form, often by incorporating drag queens coming out as trans (Sonique in season two, Monica Beverly Hillz in season five) as if drag is a gift to be extended to them through cis gay charity.
If the form of drag that became a successful public commodity through Drag Race is openly hostile to the participation of trans people, it also emphasizes a system of escalating costs and socio-economic inequality that further removes drag from the working-class associations of the Harlem Ball scene and the other iconographies influencing the show. Drag Race is an expensive venture, growing more and more expensive every season. In an episode of Drag Race Untucked accompanying the show’s tenth season, contestants Miz Cracker and Kameron Michaels, while lounging in lavish mermaid costumes, briefly discussed the specter of financing a Drag Race run. Cracker remarks, “My life and my funds and my financial future, I put it on the line because this is so important.” Michaels responds, “I spent more coming into this competition than I did as a downpayment on my house.” Not to be outdone, Cracker counters, “I spent more on this competition than I did on college.” In the same episode, Monique Heart is eliminated from the competition, mentioning her difficulties relying on a home-made wardrobe (that she was often finishing the day of different runway themes) rather than the pre-purchased clothes of her competitors. As she departs the Werk Room with her belongings, Heart states “I may not have the finest things in the room—but, Bitch, you can’t tell me that I ain’t sickening and you can’t tell me that I am not talented” (RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked!). The optics of two white queens discussing enormous financial transactions, as a black queen is eliminated from the competition for her lack thereof, paints a brutal picture of the unspoken requirements and power differentials present in the drag favored by Drag Race.
Fans on Reddit took note of the finances of Drag Race contestants following the elimination of Honey Davenport in season eleven, just three episodes in at effectively thirteenth place. User Kingkabs posted an excerpt from an episode of Yuhua Hamasaki’s YouTube series that showed Davenport describing her financial expense related to Drag Race, which she claimed to be around $20,000 from various sources, and that a fellow New York City queen Dusty Ray Bottoms had spent a similar amount. Davenport had mentioned elsewhere to the press that she was homeless prior to being cast on Drag Race (Rudolph 2019). Given that Davenport was eliminated just three episodes into the season, the majority of her debt was spent on outfits that would never grace television screens, and her minimal screen-time jeopardized her ability to receive the love and attention of fans, and thus, the hearty club appearance fees that typically buoy Drag Race contestants after their season’s premiere. User Catsooti responded to Davenport’s situation with a call to transform Drag Race, writing,
“This is why I think there either needs to be income assistance or a price cap for the queens. Maybe even more design challenges can help out because it really is an unfair stack against the poorer queens…That’s right. I’m proposing a socialist drag race” (u/Kingkabs 2019).
This fan comment came the closest to resembling a genuine call for revolution, but the “socialist drag race” it proposes, one out to equal the socio-economic scales, might be found in the spoiler fan archives themselves, where, inherently opposed to the financial swell of Drag Race’s competition, humble drag excellence is venerated and worshipped without an ever-inflating, unofficial pay required to play.
The many contexts of socio-political violence waged by RuPaul’s Drag Race are both stabilized by the show’s textuality itself. The two specifically profiled here—transphobia and the rising cost of competing—are encoded in an episode from Drag Race’s fourth season. In “Float Your Boat,” contestants decorated individual boats with ornamentation for LGBTQ pride (each assigned a different color of the rainbow flag). In the introduction to the challenge, RuPaul invokes Marsha P. Johnson, the trans woman often credited with throwing the first brick at the Stonewall Riot, as an ancestor to himself and the RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants (“Float Your Boat”). While Johnson did identify as a drag queen as well as a trans woman, the terms in the late sixties had far more blur and interconnection than they would for Drag Race’s audience, often labeled quite enthusiastically by the production as young LGBTQ people eager to use the show as a vehicle to learn about queer culture. The uninformed viewer accepts drag, through Drag Race’s definition, as cis gay men performing as women.
This act therefore negates Johnson’s trans identity retroactively, occupying her space and using her lineage to create a transphobic gay drag of homonormativity and assimilation. In so doing, Drag Race’s transphobia often works to gentrify aspects of trans history, painting over nuance with homonormative strategies. Equally distant from the show’s representation of Stonewall is the working-class nature of its uprising, complicit with what Richard Blum (2019) describes as a failure of mainstream LGBTQ groups to commemorate Stonewall as “a riot by angry working-class and gender non-conforming community members who were fed up with police abuse,” opting instead for a hollow image of pride parades without a classed context. Cáel M. Keegan (2016), on Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall, describes this phenomenon in media as privilege and power working to “colonise the aesthetic space of the LGBTQ cinematic archive as its representational subjects” (52). This episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race does exactly that: creating a configuration of drag for the masses that rears back to disempower the communities it claims to support.
RuPaul’s Drag Race’s claiming of Stonewall emphasizes the difficult politics of citation at work between queer cultures and entertainment capitalism. Drag is about citation, frequently the citation of a gendered or sexualized past, and Drag Race’s citation of Stonewall is an inherently oppressive one, taking an event of immense community importance, denying its trans and working-class basis, and fraudulently perpetrating a takeover of Stonewall in the name of a sanitized neoliberal proprietary drag. Unlike Drag Race’s historical archive which seeks to gentrify and to claim, the rogue archive assembled by fans on Reddit lusts abstractly for a queer past, before Drag Race, that explicitly exceeds its grasp. This kind of archive can only be rendered in ephemera, the pre-fame, the pre-stardom, and the mundane. This makes it a work of fan labor that is abstractly backwards-looking for the utopian potential in performative arts like drag that would seemingly be found in a product like RuPaul’s Drag Race, if not for the interference of transphobia, capitalism, and profit-minded sanitization. The queer art of spoiling unearths an archive to continue the supposed mission of the show, rendered impossible in a homonormative framework.
RuPaul’s Drag Race rushes to Stonewall, the same site of Muñoz’s queer utopianism, to gentrify it, fulfilling a capitalistic logic and denying drag’s roots in trans and queer of color survival. In response, queer utopian feeling escapes to what could have happened and what would have happened, the imagined temporalities of spoiler fandom. The mutation of fandom into spoiler fandom suggests a yearning outside of the hateful pragmatism built into a cis gay media empire. To pre-make RuPaul’s Drag Race is to honor a utopian dream of unvarnished drag quickly receding into the past.
On March 24 2017, in Chicago for an academic conference and hiding from my professional obligations, I went to a viewing party at a local gay club for the premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s ninth season. Gay club viewing parties are yet another para-textual extension to Drag Race’s media circulation. Roscoe’s Tavern has become something of a standard-bearer for the art of the Drag Race club viewing, with televisions mounted around the club and a small platform in the center, occupied by a host and a few special guests to discuss the episode in real-time. Roscoe’s even records these viewing parties and posts them on YouTube, as more grist for the mill of Drag Race’s ephemeral digital knowledge sources. Despite this being the first episode of the new season, the club was already in factions—Nina Bo’Nina Brown and Sasha Velour already had sizable fan groups without either queen having said a single word prancing through the iconic pink entrance hallway. Spoilers travel fast, from Reddit to the off-line club.
Shea Couleé was the Roscoe’s special guest, a local Chicago queen and season nine Drag Race cast member (and eventual Drag Race All Stars 5 Champion) thrilled to finally have her moment of celebrity. In her Werk Room entrance, Couleé bursts through the pink archway in shiny turquoise stockings and a shaggy orange coat with a catchphrase ready-to-brand: “My name is Shea Couleé, and I didn’t come to play, I came to slay.” As she stepped across the threshold and fulfilled the iconicity and semiotic codification of many, many queens before, the club audience roared in applause and Couleé was quickly overcome by tears. The signature melodrama of the Drag Race time machine was made manifest: a career began, again, for the world, with unknown cost. And pre-making as a notable, and now obsolete, divergence.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a global phenomenon bringing drag to new levels of visibility. It occurs in multiple temporalities (live at Roscoe’s, online on Reddit), across a variety of para-textual satellites that mold complicated affective relationships. With this visibility brings a resulting undercurrent of resistance, which we can read into the lively spoiling cultures around Drag Race. In a very real way, spoiler fans are reactive to a queer media culture that has already been spoiled—deterioration of queerness in the form of pragmatist concessions to an industrial machine. When faced with such spoilage, spoiler fans re-shuffle the rules of media knowledge, access, and timing to point to something else, the elusive queer on the horizon. The intensity of pre-Drag Race, post-Drag Race temporal division has created an affective hype that translates into creative pre-making, and an act of political potential. The spoiler fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race illuminate the complexity of LGBTQ media publics, and the divergent viewing strategies that flow from queer ambivalence.
1. Reddit is a social media website and online community made up of various sub-communities themed around different topics in pop culture and media called “subreddits” (as noted later, several subreddits are devoted to RuPaul’s Drag Race). Member posts are organized through community vote, all content able to be voted “up” or “down” based on user interest and approval, with the highest up-voted content appearing at the top of webpages. With no email required for registering an account, Reddit is notably accessible to casual usership (see Ovadia 2015). This quality has both enhanced Reddit’s popularity, and led to hostile cyber-bullying environments often dubbed “toxic technocultures” (Massanari 2015). According to redditinc.com at the time of this writing, Reddit has over 430 million active users each month and over 130,000 subreddit communities. [return to text]
2. Ironically, an early piece of scholarship on spoilers and television was on reality competition television, Henry Jenkins’ chapter on Survivor in his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006) pre-dating Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell’s work on Lost.
3. “Meet the Queens” refers to the introductory videos WOW releases at the start of each season.
4. Racism in the Drag Race fandom is a violence perpetrated by the fandom itself that the fans struggle both to stop and to atone for. More research is needed on this subject in conjunction with research broadly addressing racism in online social media spaces. For more information on racism within the Drag Race fandom, see GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)’s article featured on their blog amp devoted to young activist voices, in the works cited (Menchavez 2020).
5. This false information was disseminated in a YouTube video that has been deleted in-between the writing of this piece and its final publication, a sign of the ephemerality of these forms of communication.
6. The drag character “Sasha Belle’ is no longer performed by Jared Breakenridge, who instead goes by the new name Frisbee Jenkins. Given Sasha Belle’s role in Drag Race’s narrative, and the name’s use in r/SpoiledDragRace, I will continue to use it here.
7. This description of spoiling as a “queer art” pays homage to Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure (2011), conceptualizing “failure’ as a form of resistance. Spoiling is its own form of failure, confounding the traditional dynamics of media literacy and spectatorship.
8. Opacity as a discursive opportunity in queer art is a phenomenon explored by Nicholas de Villiers in his book Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol (2012), framing opacity as “an alternative queer strategy or tactic that is not linked to an interpretation of hidden depths, concealed meanings, or a neat opposition between silence and speech” noting heteronormativity’s frequent command of “open’ and “transparent’ communication (6).
9. A pun on “I carry a Chanel” referencing the luxury elite handbag.
10. This is a quote from a YouTube video of Masters’ uploaded to her own account that quickly went viral and has since become a notable text among the fandom (Piedra 2016).
11. Untucked takes place “behind the scenes” of the judges’ deliberation during a normal episode of Drag Race, as the queens discuss how they performed in the challenges. It often airs immediately following Drag Race proper, although for multiple seasons it has been an online-only program.
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