About those Star Wars fans…
In point of fact, just about everyone is a Star Wars fan in some capacity or another. It's like The Wizard of Oz on that front, and—disappointing prequels notwithstanding—if you find someone who doesn't like Star Wars, you may just start to wonder what's wrong with them.
It's hard to overestimate the kind of excitement the original Star Wars generated: it was the blockbuster to end all blockbusters and an instant icon that's kept us all whooshing with our make-believe lightsabers for over 40 years.
The fans have responded with gatherings, dress-up, fiction, and art enough to choke the whole internet.
Conventions are the centerpiece of a lot of it: Star Wars is big enough to support a few of its own, such as Celebration. But fans also show up in (ahem) force for more general conventions, like the famous San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con. Any kind of science fiction convention is apt to have a few people in Star Wars outfits...or, you know, a whole lot of them.
That dedication has radiated outward. Not only can you not cough on the internet without finding Star Wars fansites, but fan fic covering favorite characters is an ongoing process, as is art depicting any character you can imagine.
Then there are clubs like the 501st Legion, whose members dress as stormtroopers and march in parades as well as support various charities with their work. Lucasfilm has responded to these fans' enthusiasm with charities of their own, ensuring that the light side prevails whenever anyone says the name Star Wars.
The Force Awakens in Particular
It's safe to say that The Force Awakens has plenty of fans of its own as well. When a film makes more money than any movie in history, it tends to do that.
And, in fact, The Force Awakens may have benefited from the cool reception given to the prequels. And while there have been animated series like The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, people tended to feel like they'd never see Star Wars the way they remembered it again.
And then, suddenly, with previews here and advance images there, The Force Awakens let everyone know that they were wrong, that Star Wars could tell new adventures that were just as awesome as the old ones.
Since the movie opened in late 2015, Leia cosplayers have had to share the stage with Rey lookalikes, while the fan community has devoted even more time to analyzing the film frame by frame and mining every little tidbit they can. One of the genius things about Star Wars is that every figure on the screen has a story, and fans delight in delving into the backstories of the most minor characters.
The Force Awakens isn't any different…as anyone who has talked to a Phasma fan can tell you.
Why Not Rey?
Ironically, all of those goodies on the shelf got Disney into a lot of trouble with the fans. In marketing all the toys and games and whatnot, someone forgot to include the main character. Rey got short-changed when it came to action figures, lunch boxes, and even board games. She got dropped in favor of Kylo Ren, whom the bean counters thought would be a bigger hit. (Source)
It's weird because Rey is the hero of the whole movie, and while they scrambled to correct the massive boo-boo, the damage had been done. Cries of sexism went up—not unfounded, in our opinion—and the resulting kerfuffle helped shine a light on the way Hollywood can marginalize and dismiss strong female characters.
Hopefully they've learned their lesson, especially considering that the next movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, features another strong female heroine.