Queens vs. Trolls

The internet has transformed fandom. There’s no better, or scarier, example than RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Examples of the text message threats along with a photo of Valentina.
Threats like these were made to an unidentified queen on the show. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

Last week, RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Chi Chi DeVayne Instagrammed a screencap of multiple text message threats made against another (unnamed) queen on the current All Stars 3 season. “Kill uself bitch, how could you sent [redacted] home! I’m throwing acid to your face in your next show, H3NEY,” the antagonist in the exchange wrote. (I’ve taken out the name because it’s a possible spoiler.) “This is the kinda disgusting horrible shit we have to deal with on a daily,” noted DeVayne. In support, this year’s front-runner, BenDeLaCreme, uploaded a three-minute video on Facebook about the tragic state of Drag Race, where a platform meant to celebrate an art form practiced mainly by gay men and trans women—historically the target of much violence—has “come around full circle” by attracting fanatical fans who send death threats to the gay men and trans women who participate on the series. That such aggressive statements involved future storylines on the show—which are technically gossip and conjecture until proven otherwise—exemplified the extent to which technology has changed fandom, and to which Drag Race stans are on the bleeding edge of those changes.

Technology has long revised what fandom is and can be. Twenty years ago, I stayed up on Sunday nights after each new installment of The X-Files, waiting to receive the then-still-underground episode reviews disseminated via listserv emails among fans. That’s ancient tech compared with the 46-minute cut of The Last Jedi that eliminated nearly all the scenes with female characters, made by a disgruntled Star Wars fan earlier this year. Fast-moving developments in A.I. are already making fandom more immersive, and gross. Drag Race fandom is comparatively lo-fi but illustrates how tech-savvy obsessives are changing how we view completism, spoiler culture, and fandom itself.

Drag Race stans—many of whom are girls and young women—have a reputation for being fervid, even vicious, online. Unsurprisingly, much of the vitriol directed at contestants takes place on social media, where queens must thrive in order to keep their performing careers going. Unlike, say, the participants of The Bachelor—that other reality competition based on cartoonish femininity—who hope to parlay their 15 minutes of fame into another stint on reality TV or a few extra influencer bucks, Drag Race queens depend on their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram presences to maintain their careers as live performers. And that dependence on social media opens them up to all sorts of abuse from fans, so that contestants telling devotees to maybe not love Drag Race so much is becoming a regular occurrence. You can almost hear BenDeLaCreme inwardly roll his eyes as his pleads, “You guys have to rein it in.” His reasoning is eminently understandable: “It’s just a TV show.”

Just the knowledge that a network of trolls is lying in wait for queens who run afoul of fan favorites shifts the viewing experience into uncomfortable directions. Take this season’s Milk, who received something akin to the villain edit after crying over not being chosen as the top three in the second episode. I couldn’t wait for her to leave after that, but it was impossible not to worry for her, too, with the hate that was bound to come her way after the episode aired. The next week, fashion-forward Milk crossed pageant princess Kennedy in the workroom by decrying the latter’s sparkly aesthetic, and Kennedy sent Milk packing. The feud itself was plenty dramatic, but the story didn’t feel resolved until you logged online, where Milk smartly mocked her newfound “spoiled” image and tried to dilute the verbal acid thrown at Kennedy with an Instagram post discouraging negative comments at her fellow competitor. In this case, the show’s ideals of community and sisterhood—especially important for drag queens, who face much social rejection—carried the day despite fan attempts to the contrary.

In fact, online harassment of love-to-hate-them queens has gotten so bad that it’s made its way into the show as a storyline—an unseen character who’s managed to wreak havoc in queens’ lives. The messiness of real-life participants—in contrast to fictional universes like Westworld or Game of Thrones, which also garner obsessive and competitive scrutiny—further amplifies the sense that queens’ reactions online have become a necessary part of viewing. Last year, two segments of the Season 9 reunion special, during which eliminated contestants confronted one another about their resentments (a standard reality TV practice), focused on what was said, and not said, on social media (a less standard reality TV practice). Season 9 darling Valentina was asked by her fellow competitors why she didn’t tell her fans not to attack other queens on her behalf. Later, the insecure and paranoid Nina Bo’nina Brown was interrogated about her accusations of two-facedness against Shea Couleé on YouTube. It was yet another reminder that the “text” of Drag Race keeps expanding. Viewers dedicated to completism can no longer call themselves superfans unless they also monitor past and present contestants’ social media accounts (or keep up with the drama on Reddit, where spoilers have gotten so bad that Drag Race producers are suing leakers).

That relentlessness—the word culture writer and Drag Race “herstorian” Kevin O’Keefe used to characterize the show’s fan base to me in an email interview—has also led to some impressive sleuthing, especially on social media. Last season, a spoiler post on r/rupaulsdragrace (correctly) announced Sasha Velour as the winner weeks before the finale. It’s hard to imagine any other show being this fastidiously deduced; Drag Race almost gives the phrase Reddit detective a good name. O’Keefe also told me that he’s “consistently surprised” by the accuracy with which fans figure out, for example, upcoming casts. “For three straight seasons,” he said, “they’ve perfectly identified the entire cast based solely on who disappears from social media and planned gigs during filming. (The last season they didn’t get 100 percent right, season eight, they only missed one queen out of 12.)” This hive mind gives stans a completely new way to watch TV that wasn’t available a decade ago, in which a series’ entertainment value lies as much in the confirmation of internet theories as in the magic of makeovers and the spectacle of lip syncs.

And so, these days, the pertinent question isn’t “do you watch Drag Race?” but “which version of Drag Race do you watch?” My husband, a fair-weather fan, takes in the iteration on VH1 (the series’ new home since its move from Logo TV). The Drag Race I obsess over features the same contestants, challenges, dresses, and lip syncs. But each week, the themes I follow and the storylines I anticipate are ones my husband doesn’t even know exist. All Stars 3, in which promising queens from previous years attempt another shot at the crown, is especially mired in fan theories about which competitors will quit abruptly or reveal themselves as not exactly in the running. It’s fair to say that fans frequently get more out of a TV show because of how much they know. Technology has dramatically increased how much we can know weeks or months before going into a new season.

Of course, many Drag Race loyalists still behave like traditional fans: They take to comments sections or chat about the latest episodes with friends, post memes, buy merch, attend DragCon, and/or go to live shows with touring Ru’s Girls. But the internet, where fan communities often get weird and wild and sometimes scary, has undoubtedly given the Drag Race obsessives who want to modify the viewing experience the freedom and material to do so. For better or for worse, the show’s spirit of reinvention lives on in its fandom.