Jo's mock-biography (NBC, The Office)

There’s a new survivor on TV and she means business.

In the latest episode of The Office, Kathy Bates walked into the Scranton branch of Dundler Mifflen and onto my living room TV screen as Jo Bennett, CEO of Sabre, a fictitious Tallahassee-based company. An assistant and two large canines accompany her as she meets the crew. She’s firm, graying and very much-in-charge.

When the camera gets her alone, in focus, here’s what she has to say:

“I’m Jolene Bennett, Jo for short.

I’m a breast cancer survivor, close personal friends with Nancy Pelosi, and Truman Capote and I slept with three of the same guys. When I was a little girl I was terrified to fly, and now I have my own pilot’s license.

I am CEO of Sabre International and I sell the best damn printers and all-in-one machines Korea can make.

Pleased to meet ya.”

(from The Office, Season 6, Episode 16, “A Manager and a Salesman”)

—–

Jo’s words are clear, delivered with eyes straight at you. It’s hard not to wonder what’s the significance of her being a breast cancer survivor, on the show and to her audience, and why she lists this alongside her other achievements in a highly-accomplished, fabricated life.

Kathy Bates is not the first actress to portray a woman who’s had breast cancer, and Jo Bennett is hardly the first TV character who’s had treatment. But this introduction seems like a perfect, even targeted strategy to revisit the topic:

What’s the significance of being a breast cancer survivor in 2010?

Maybe Jo’s a warrior, veteran-like, hardened after battle. Or perhaps wounded, deeply, now guarded by the dogs and a fierce resume.

Does she feel entitled? Bitter? Seek pity? Bates doesn’t play it in any of these ways, at least not in this first airing.

There’s no Misery here. Rather she appears large, strong, smiling broadly.

She has a mock-biography, Take a Good Look, I’d like to read. From the pseudo-Sabre website:

“A trailblazer in the world of electronic office equipment, Jolene Bennett serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Sabre Corporation…Mrs. Bennett has received awards and recognitions, including being named one of Enterprising Women‘s Magazine 25 Most Influential Executives of 2007 and being named as a finalist for Tallahassian of the Year by the editors of Tallahassee Magazine in 2005.

Mrs. Bennett, a former Southern beauty queen, knows the importance of giving back. She has also received numerous awards for her philanthropic efforts with, among others, the Negro College Fund, The Florida Great Dane Rescue Society, and the American Breast Cancer Foundation. As a breast cancer survivor herself, Mrs. Bennett is especially passionate about helping other strong women beat cancer the way she did…

Jo’s company’s name is pointed. A sabre is a sword of sorts, usually curved, thick and sometimes lethal. My mind wanders to saber-toothed tigers, ferocious and extinct. And then, of course, to the Sabra, a native Israeli like a prickly pear – sharp on the outside, sweet beneath the rough skin.

I have no idea where The Office is headed with this theme, nearly ten years since Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Welcome to Cancerland” and roughly five since Elizabeth Edwards started her first chemo sessions.

I’m struck by how little talk there’s been of Jo’s mission since the episode’s debut. I’ve read dozens of blogs, TV reviews, there’s nothing. The Great Danes get mentioned, but not the breast cancer. Are we inured to the subject?

This isn’t about big Pink and ribbons. I’m talking about real patients who get tumors and need treatments. Some get depressed. Some die. Stuff happens.

As an oncologist, I saw women respond distinctly to their surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy and other treatments. Besides, the tumors vary in themselves – responding, sometimes lingering, killing too often. Some people need lots of medical care, others skate through.

There’s no right answer here, no one size fits all.

Regardless, I can’t wait to see the show’s next episode. Pam’s having a baby, life goes on.

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